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- What We’re Calling for on International White Cane Day
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Summary: On International White Cane Day, 13th October 2009, NCBI will be taking the opportunity to raise some of the ongoing issues for people who are blind or vision impaired in our villages, towns and cities amongst local authority county managers and city and town councils. Find out what NCBI is calling for.
Many people with vision impairments use white canes, including the long cane, as a mobility aid. The long cane acts as an obstacle detector; with users sweeping it from side-to-side, one stride in front of them, to get clues about their environment so they can react quickly. The use of different surfaces underfoot conveys important information to people who are blind or vision impaired, who navigate the streets in a very different way to sighted people. The feel and sound of a cane swept across the pavement is very different to the feel and sound of a cane touching tactile paving and immediately alerts the person that they are approaching a crossing.
The introduction of tactile paving and audible signals at certain pedestrian crossings has therefore had a very positive impact on the lives of people with vision impairments and enables people to travel independently and safely. We hope to see these initiatives rolled out nationwide and that even in difficult economic times, the needs of people with vision impairments are at the forefront of planning in Ireland, as retro-fitting is considerably more expensive than disability-proofing at an early stage.
We are now facing new challenges in our local environments, such as “silent” hybrid cars and a new design philosophy called shared space.
NCBI recognises the environmental benefits of electric vehicles and we, in general, encourage the increased use of greener vehicles such as hybrid and electric vehicles, as they play an important role in improving fuel economy and reducing emissions. However, we have concerns that the introduction of “silent” vehicles onto Irish roads may have safety implications for pedestrians who are blind and vision impaired. Most people with impaired vision rely heavily on their sense of hearing when crossing roads and will use the noise of oncoming traffic as a cue for when it is safe to cross. Therefore there may be a greater risk for blind and vision impaired people from hybrid vehicles due the lower noise levels.
The Government has set an electric vehicles target of 10% by 2020 so this is an ideal time to ensure that these vehicles are developed with the safety of all road users in mind, including pedestrians who are blind or vision impaired.
In the UK and elsewhere in Europe the concept of shared space is emerging. NCBI supports the principles behind this concept, which is to remove an emphasis on moving quickly through a town or city, by car, and instead focuses on quality of life within a city, and making it easier and more pleasant to get around on foot. However, safety must be the primary concern in this kind of design. In many instances shared space has led to pavements and pedestrian crossings being removed completely, with a wall-to-wall surface left for pedestrians and traffic to mix together. The idea is that the driver and the pedestrian are supposed to make eye contact with each other but this is impossible for blind or vision impaired people.
NCBI urges planners and architects to retain footpaths where there is vehicular or cycling traffic. If the principles of universal design were integrated into the concept of shared space, it may be possible to make cities and towns safer and more user-friendly for everyone. However, if traffic is allowed to share space with pedestrians, kerbs must be used.
In Ireland, no true shared space design has been fully implemented but instead, bits and pieces of the original concept have been adopted, for instance in O’Connell Street in Dublin and Patrick Street in Cork. However, in both of these locations the shared space design had to be retrofitted to make it more accessible to pedestrians who are blind or vision impaired.
Footpath kerbs act as clear boundary markers. Without kerbs, people who use a long cane find it impossible to travel safely and independently as it is very hard to locate where the footpath ends and the road begins. The absence of kerbs makes independent mobility stressful and very dangerous for people who are blind or have low vision.
NCBI urges all those involved in planning our streetscapes to consider all of the issues raised above from the beginning of the process. Think about the proposed design and then imagine for a moment walking down that street with no, or very little, sight, relying instead on sound and touch to guide you. Does the design still work?
Early consultation with organisations like NCBI can shed light on these issues and help plan a better environment for all pedestrians.