Print large text version Print this page

Guidelines for Accessibility of the Built External Environment

Summary: Those who are responsible for designing buildings or planning the external environment should consider the needs of people with vision impairments. An environment which is user friendly for people who have impaired vision is an environment which is better for everyone.


For many people who are blind or who have low levels of vision, the negotiation of unfamiliar buildings, streets or thoroughfares is an extremely stressful experience. Problems encountered include:

  • inappropriately placed street furniture;
  • obstacles on circulation routes;
  • inadequate directional guidance;
  • lack of tactile information.

These issues combine to force people with vision impairments to be dependent on others, limiting their capacity to participate freely in day to day life.

Many of the guidelines and suggestions listed here could be considered as safety issues.

The Mobility Advisory Team of NCBI would like to thank Niamh O’Doherty and Gerry Kinsella (formerly of the National Rehabilitation Board) for their considerable contribution to the compilation of these Guidelines.

Vision impairment

Vision impairment may range from total blindness to limited vision in particular situations. For many, the use of good lighting, texture and tonal (colour) contrast in the environment can make all the difference.

Common difficulties encountered by people with vision impairments include:

1. Night vision reduced or non-existent.
2. Difficulties in bright light.
3. Difficulties when moving from bright to darker areas.
4. Difficulties moving from dark to brighter areas.
5. Central vision loss – no detailed vision for reading.
6. Peripheral vision loss – reduced vision to one side, both sides, above or below, sometimes described as ‘looking through straws’.
7. Can only see movement.
8. Can only see blurred outlines.
9. Can only detect light.


1. The line of travel should be distinct and its edges clearly defined in order to make it easy to follow.

2. Large featureless open space areas should be avoided, as the lack of auditory or tactile reference points causes difficulty in orientation for people who have little or no vision.

3. Routes must be kept clear of obstacles to avoid unnecessary hazards.

4. Clear headroom of 2,200mm must be maintained.

5. Outward-opening doors and windows should not project into circulation paths.

6. Obstacles with sharp edges and corners should not project into the line of travel.

7. Hazards such as gratings and grilles should not be used on walkways.

8. Hedges and trees should not encroach on circulation routes.

9. Good use can be made of features such as fountains and running water to give directional guidance. Other ideas such as scented plants could also be explored. Changes in texture on walkways can be helpful, that is, using a combination of paving and grass, or paving and tarmac. Such examples provide textural change and good colour contrast.

10. Changes of level (ramps or stairs) must have advance tactile warning (Ref: Guidance on the Use of Tactile Paving Surfaces).

Clear headroom of 2200mm
Clear headroom of 2,200mm must be maintained for any projecting sign.

Outward-opening window prevented from projecting into circulation path by planter
Outward-opening window prevented from projecting into circulation path by planter.

Hedges and trees should be cut back to leave circulation route free and to allow for clear headroom of 2200mm
Hedges and trees should be cut back to leave circulation route free and to allow for clear headroom of 2200mm.

An example of a tree that is encroaching onto the footpath. Obstacles at head height may not always be detected by a person’s guide dog, and cannot be detected by a white cane
An example of a tree that is encroaching onto the footpath. Obstacles at head height may not always be detected

Street furniture

Street furniture includes lamp-posts, telegraph poles, public seating, bus stops, shelters, traffic light poles, telephone kiosks, bollards, barriers, etc. These can be used as landmarks by people with vision impairments, or can be hazards for them. Thought needs to be given to their design and positioning, otherwise they can make independent mobility difficult or dangerous.

<strong>Street furniture should be carefully and consistently located so as not to impede walking routes</strong>

1. Street furniture should be carefully and consistently located so as not to impede walking routes, but to provide directional guidance.

2. Street furniture should always be located either close to or recessed into the inner shoreline (that is, a wall, fence, building), or alternatively on the kerb edge, leaving the middle of the pavement clear.

3. Street furniture should be kept to a minimum on narrow pavements. One pole could be used to support more than one item, for example a street light pole could also support a road sign. Mounting signs or lights on a wall rather than on poles also helps to reduce clutter on narrow pavements.

4. Street furniture should be detectable at low level to assist long-cane users.

5. Street furniture should have rounded edges.

6. All temporary obstacles, for example skips, road repair equipment, etc., must be guarded. (Note: ‘Addgards’ are an example of a protection guard for road works and other such hazards.)

7. Street furniture should not blend into the background. Safety of citizens must take priority over fashion trends among architects. Strong yellow and black stripes on poles are both cheerful and highly visible. Artwork on hoardings and phone booths can also be visually appealing for all citizens, as well as enabling people with low vision to find and/or avoid bumping into them.

8. Displays of goods in front of shops should not encroach on circulation paths.

9. Tables and chairs outside pubs and restaurants should not encroach on circulation paths, and should preferably be ‘fenced off’, to make it easier for people with vision impairments to go past without getting entangled or confused.

10. Vehicles should not park either wholly or partly on pavements. This is illegal. When parking on shop forecourts or in loading bays, care should be taken not to leave any part of the vehicle (including tow-bars and open doors) protruding across the public footpath.

11. When washing windows, painting or renovating, workers should ensure that their ladders and equipment do not become obstacles or hazards for pedestrians with vision impairment.


1. Wherever possible, a wall, fence or solid barrier should be used instead of bollards.

2. Bollards should never be linked by ropes or chains. This is dangerous for people with impaired vision.

3. Bollards should be painted in bright contrasting colours, e.g. black with yellow stripes. They must be colour contrasted with their background, e.g. black bollard against light paving or concrete. They must also have a colour-contrasted band around the neck of the bollard as a further aid to visibility.

4. Bollards should be of minimum height 800mm (best practice 1 metre).

5. Bollards should be of minimum width 250mm.

6. Bollards should be located no closer together than 900mm.

should be painted in bright contrasting colours and located no closer together than 900mm.

Road works

When road works are undertaken the following conditions must apply:

1. Road works should be completely surrounded by sturdy, brightly coloured barriers. These barriers should extend to ground level and should be securely connected to each other.

2. Provision should always be made for safety of pedestrians. Where one footpath is completely blocked, temporary pedestrian lights should be erected to allow pedestrians to cross the road safely and use the opposite footpath. Both footpaths should not be blocked simultaneously. Where both footpaths must be blocked simultaneously, part of the road must be securely and safely fenced off for the use of pedestrians only.

3. When road works are completed and barriers removed, surfaces should be left in a condition that is safe for pedestrians.


Due to the angle of the facing edge of the skip, a vision impaired person’s cane might not touch the base of the skip before his or her face and head have already collided with the upper edge. A vertical barrier in front of the skip is essential. This barrier must be sturdy, brightly coloured, securely attached to the skip and extend to ground level. Articles should never be allowed to protrude over the edges of the skip.

Public telephones

Public telephones that present a head height obstacle should not be used. Where a telephone booth consists only of a ‘hood’ and does not extend all the way down to the ground, it should be either recessed into the building line or set in to a grass verge, if there is one. If not, then it should be positioned off the line of pedestrian travel, and there should be an easily discernible change of colour and texture in paving beneath the booth, extending at least 800mm from the outer edges of the hood, on all approaches. The hood itself should also be made as visible as possible, by the use of highly visible colour, especially on the outer edges, which should be rounded.

For pedestal type phones, the entry point to the phone should be perpendicular to the pedestrian traffic flow. It should not have sharp edges.

Public telephones should not create a head height obstacle.


1. Street lighting should be designed and positioned so as to avoid glare from surfaces.

2. A good level of lighting should be provided at locations where changes of level and direction occur.

3. Lamp-posts should be located in a consistent manner and should not impede circulation paths. They must be in a contrasting colour to their background.


1. Pavements should have a solid, consistent, non-slip good quality surface. Paving should be in simple colours or muted patterns.

2. Footpaths should have a minimum width of 1500mm to allow for a person with vision impairment being guided by a sighted companion, or by a guide dog.

3. Kerb edges should be clearly defined, if necessary guardrails should be provided.

4. A kerb height of minimum 40mm should be maintained between footpath and road (exception see point 5 below). This is especially important where driveways and entrances meet the road.

5. Where pavements are dished to facilitate wheelchair users, tactile warning of the dishing should be provided. In this case, ‘blistered’ tactile paving should be used, which may be buff coloured or any other colour which contrasts with the colour of the pavement. The only colour which should not be used is red. Red coloured tactile paving is reserved for use only at pedestrian-controlled crossings.

6. Tactile paving of the ‘guiding strip’ type should be provided where the inner shoreline is not continuous. Any colour except red may be used. Tactile paving should be in a contrasting colour to the pavement, but not red (see point 5, above).

7. Manholes, grilles, etc. should not be positioned at busy crossings.

8. Where possible, there should be good colour contrast between footpath and road, for example black tarmac road and grey or white footpath.

Pedestrian crossings

1. Crossings should always be at right angles to the street.

2. NCBI policy states: ‘Where a green man crossing signal is provided for pedestrians, it should be accompanied by an audible signal for the benefit of blind and vision impaired people’. Modern push button units (PBUs) all come equipped with tactile as well as audible signals. People with hearing loss as well as sight loss can use the tactile signal to verify that it is safe to cross. Push buttons should be consistently located at a level of 900mm–1100mm above ground level.

3. At traffic light controlled crossroads, and all major junctions, provision should be made for a safe time period and safe crossing points for pedestrians. If this is not possible, pedestrian crossings should be provided at safe but convenient distances from the junction.

4. Textured surfaces should be provided on the footpath to indicate where crossing points are. If possible, a textured surface should be laid across the road to help the person with vision impairment to maintain a straight line of travel while crossing. (Ref. Guidance on the use of Tactile Paving Surfaces).

5. Where road crossing entails negotiating a central island, this should be clearly identifiable by means of a raised section of pavement with barriers. Separate, readily distinguishable signals for both crossings must be provided.


1. Street name signs should be inset into walls and fences at a suggested height of 1300mm. Lettering should be clear and in a colour and tone which contrasts with the sign. The sign should contrast with the background. Find out more about accessible signage.

2. Sandwich-board type signage should not be placed on the footpath. These signs can be used where there is a recessed shop forecourt. Where overhead signs and shop awnings are used, minimum clear headroom of 2200mm must be maintained.

Stairs and steps

1. Tactile warning must be provided to indicate changes of level.
(Ref. Guidance on the Use of Tactile Paving Surfaces and Part M of the Building Regulations 2007).

2. The leading edge of each step should be clearly marked in a contrasting colour. (Ref. Part M Building Regulations 2007).

3. The stair markings should run the entire width of the step and be 50 to 75mm wide on both runner and riser. Markings should not be raised, as this could be a trip hazard.

4. In a single flight of stairs each step should be of uniform measurement. (Ref. Technical Guidance Document, Part K Building Regulations 1997)

5. Where headroom on the underside of stairs or escalators is less than 2200mm, this area must be guarded to eliminate hazard. The provision of railings, solid wall or planted area are some means of meeting this requirement.

Headroom on the underside of stairs or escalators is less than 2200mm, the area should be guarded to eliminate hazard.
Headroom on the underside of stairs or escalators is less than 2200mm, the area should be guarded to eliminate hazard

Tactile warning must be provided to indicate changes of level
Tactile warning must be provided to indicate changes of level.

6. Single or isolated steps must be avoided.

7. Spiral and curved staircases should be avoided.

8. Where ramps are provided to facilitate wheelchair users, there should be an associated stepped approach with handrails. (Ref. Part M of the Building Regulations, Section 1.3 and 1.5 (k)).

9. Handrails:

  • Handrails should be provided on both sides of the stairs.
  • They should extend beyond the first and last step to a minimum of 300mm and should follow the exact contour of the stairs in order to provide directional guidance.
  • Handrail endings should turn inwards to the wall or downwards all the way to the ground, to avoid hazardous projections.
  • Handrails should contrast with walls, to make them easy to find for people with vision impairments.
  • They should not be made of shiny materials, as this can cause dazzling and glare when combined with bright light.
  • Dull silver metal does not contrast with a grey or other light-coloured wall, when viewed by a person with vision impairment.
  • Handrails should be provided at two levels, higher and lower, to facilitate people of different heights, including children.

Please refer to the most up-to-date Technical Guidance Document M of the Building Regulations for handrail design specifications.

Car parks

1. Car parks that adjoin the public footpath should be separated from the footpath by a wall or fence.

2. Car park entrances and exits should be clearly marked by the use of colour contrast and textural change.

Public parks

1. Paths should be finished in a slip-resistant surface.

2. Path surfaces should be kept in good condition.

3. Paths should not lead directly to serious danger points, e.g. ponds, rivers or steep drops, unless protected by a wall or fence of minimum height 900mm.

4. Stairs and steps – see recommendations in previous sections.

5. Paths should not lead users into overhanging branches or other head-height hazards.


Building Regulations – Technical Guidance Document M (latest edition) and Technical Guidance Document K (latest edition) available from the Government Publications Office.

Building for Everyone is available from the National Disability Authority.

Building Sight is available from the RNIB’s Joint Mobility Unit.

Sign Design Guide is available from the RNIB’s Joint Mobility Unit.

Guidance on the Use of Tactile Paving Surfaces produced by the Scottish DETR.

Lighting and Low Vision is available from the Partially Sighted Society, Midlands Office, Breaston, Derby, DE7 3UE, UK.

Effective Color Contrast: Designing for People With Partial Sight and Color Deficiencies is available from Lighthouse International.

Steps & Stairs available from NCBI on LoCall 1850 33 43 53.