What is the only thing better than volunteering for a good cause? That would be an incredible learning opportunity while volunteering for a good cause!
Last Saturday, a group of us from HOK San Francisco helped on a path breaking initiative with the Lighthouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired (a support group and resource for those who are partially or fully sightless). The goal was to create a tactile map of every station in the BART network (BART being the commuter metro for the Bay Area), which would allow the blind to plan ahead and figure out their path of travel – from the street, to the concourse, and finally to the platform to get on the right train. The map would also include support for a smart pen – an electronic pen that plays back a prerecorded message when touched to certain points on an e-paper map. HOK San Francisco (and other firms + individuals) helped by surveying these stations to document the most current layouts.
(This was not the first time that HOK had met with the Lighthouse. In July 2010, we had participated in a ‘test’ mapping of one BART station – to establish the system and iron out the kinks. )
After the vice-president of Lighthouse Josh Miele gave us an introduction to the process and some insight into how the blind navigate, we set forth in groups of two or three, and mapped 2 or 3 BART stations per group. The exercise was a simplified version of what we architects do as part of a building survey – essentially, we had to document stairs, escalators and elevators (and their direction of travel), fare gates, ticket machines, station agent booths and entrances and exits into the station. This was done for all levels of the station – street level, concourse level and platform level.
The real lesson here was the number of challenges that a blind person faces that seem innocuous to sighted people – signage boards, columns, phone banks and benches all can cause injury and were to be categorized as ‘obstacles’ on the tactile map.
Another important point to remember was how much information can be put on a tactile map – too much information ends up being ‘clutter’ for the person using it and defeats the purpose of the map itself. So we had to remind ourselves not to document everything we saw, and instead ask ourselves ‘Is this vital information useful to a blind person?’ This helps keep the final maps clean and succinct.
At the end of the day, this exercise gave us designers and architects pause, and compelled us to think deeper about the spaces we design. Are we really designing for maximum ease of use and accessibility?
Will that cool design feature prove to be appealing to a few but a hindrance to some others? And lastly, how do we integrate new technology and ideas into architecture, signage and graphics (especially in public spaces like train stations), such that visually and physically challenged individuals can navigate these spaces more confidently, and live life with a new sense of independence?
(For more information on tactile maps http://www.ski.org/Rehab/TMAP/ )