Design for inclusivity (and its challenges)
The good news is that over 50% of sight loss can be prevented through early diagnosis and treatment. Organisations such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) are carrying out excellent work to make this happen, and also providing support for those who are affected by sight loss. It is, however, inevitable that the number of blind or partially sighted people will continue to increase regardless.
As a team of designers who create environments across the transport and public realm, we strive to deliver truly inclusive design and accessible spaces for all. We’ve spent many years working with industry standards on how to best use lighting, colours, contrasts and tactile materials for example, but just how effective are these guidelines and can anything be done to further improve the situation?
SWAP WITH ME EVENT
To put this into practice, Maynard recently teamed up with RNIB to carry out a ‘Swap with Me’ event. This exercise provided our designers with a unique opportunity to experience first-hand what it’s like to navigate the public realm under a variety of sight conditions including cataracts, tunnel vision and macular degeneration.
Wearing specially designed goggles and under the supervision of RNIB volunteers, many of whom were either blind or partially sighted, our designers were escorted across typical environments in Central London. This included local high streets and a busy transport interchange in St Pancras International station.
Throughout the exercise the team came across some of the typical day to day challenges experienced by blind and partially sighted people. It also enabled our designers to learn directly from the volunteers, giving us an insight into not only what and where the difficulties typically lie, but just as importantly, why they occur in today’s designs and what approaches need to be taken to mitigate these in the future.
The wealth of information taken away from the exercise is simply too much to summarise in one blog post, but we wanted to share some of the key lessons we took away from this highly informative inclusivity design event with RNIB. We would highly recommend it if you get the chance!
Lesson 1: Context is king
A plethora of accessible design standards exist across the industry however these can often be misinterpreted, inappropriately applied in practice, or simply treated as ‘tick-box’ exercises without full appreciation of the implications. As guidance documents, these should be carefully considered within the context of each individual design. Just because a certain specification is given doesn’t mean that it provides the most appropriate solution for your environment. It is crucial to understand why particular advice is given, how they improve the situation, and how these are relevant to your design.
The successful application of interventions is in the detail; sometimes poor application can lead to a worse off environment than if nothing was done at all. For example, the misalignment or careless placement of corduroy tactile tiles at the top or bottom of stairs may result in the user mistiming their step and lead to dangerous slips or falls. The use of chrome or reflective materials can provide much needed visual contrasts in external environments but may have limited use in the evenings or within internal spaces.
Lesson 2: Change isn’t easy
Only 8% of people are born with sight conditions; the rest develop them over their lifetime. Mobility training is made available to those affected via local authorities and the NHS, for example, although this can vary based on an individual’s locality. However once people are trained there is typically little to no updated training available if new designs specifications or regulations come into force.
As an example, the recent evolution of the ‘shared spaces’ concept in transport and public realm design has led to a much needed decluttering of the streetscape environment. The drawback is that the lack of kerbs, designated road crossing points and reliance on ‘eye contact’ between drivers and pedestrians, makes for an unfamiliar environment for blind and partially sighted people. Many will not know how to react to such configurations and may never do so by avoiding them altogether. The growing need for cycling infrastructure provides similar challenges.
Lesson 3: Engagement is enlightening
Following best practice design guidance is essential, but nothing can replace the knowledge and experience provided by end users who come across the benefits and challenges of accessible designs on a daily basis.
User engagement, for example through blind and partially sighted focus groups, is an extremely powerful tool to help inform, shape and optimise designs. Qualified user groups exist at a local and national level, and their input from an early stage in the design process can help to mitigate any incorrect implementation or interpretation of standards. In many cases they provide a cost-effective means to test ideas and concepts (including any deviations from standards), or to assist with trials and prototypes to help refine solutions.
Lesson 4: Think about the whole
Consideration should be given towards a full ‘end-to-end’ user experience. Creating an accessible design for one arm of a journey is great, but is pointless if the subsequent experience is poor.
For example, personalised travel assistance is rarely provided at the receiving end of a train journey, leaving blind or partially sighted people to navigate out of a station by themselves. The link from leaving the train to the next part of the journey, including interchanging between different modes, is often the most challenging part and overlooked by designers.
Lesson 5: Perfection is impossible
Eye conditions are incredibly specific to each individual person; with even the same medical condition varying significantly from person to person. The spectrum of vision is generally very large, and only about 3% of people see nothing.
As such, all blind or partially sighted individuals have differing needs which may not be possible to fully cater for within the confines of a project. For example, the use of orange as a highlight colour provides sufficient contrast for some, but may be completely invisible to others; tactile paving is great for those with sight conditions but can become a challenge for wheelchair users. It is unrealistic to assume that a ‘perfect’ design can be created which works equally well for all users, but this shouldn’t stop you from seeking the best solution possible.