Public Works: Maps for the Blind
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Public Works: Maps for the Blind

A San Francisco group is creating tactile and audio maps of transit stations. What measures has the TTC taken to accommodate the visually impaired?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

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Image courtesy of LightHouse.

Visually impaired commuters are now able to navigate public transit in San Francisco like never before.

A pair of non-profits, LightHouse (think of it like a local Canadian National Institute for the Blind) and the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, have created maps that use touch and sound to show the layout of municipal transit and inter-city rapid-transit stations.

The maps are referred to as audio/tactile. Users can feel the maps’ features or, if they are partially sighted, can read the large print. When a user touches certain points on a map with a special smart-pen, it sets off an audio recording that explains in detail which station exits lead where, or how much fares cost.

“For the first time, a person who is blind can sit in their living room and orient themselves to the Muni station they plan on visiting,” reads LightHouse’s website, adding that they can “plan a path of travel from the entrance to the turnstiles, to the platform, and then off the train and to the bus stop.”

LightHouse has also worked with an Austrian company to install hundreds of Bluetooth beacons in San Francisco’s airport that, along with a corresponding mobile phone app, help visually impaired people navigate the terminal.

Closer to home, the CNIB says there are about 81,000 blind or partially sighted people living in the Greater Toronto Area. The organization issues 4,000 TTC passes to legally blind people each year, but a CNIB spokesperson is confident that there are many Torontonians with varying degrees of vision loss who use public transit.

Eligibility for Wheel-Trans, TTC’s door-to-door service for the disabled, is determined by a person’s level of physical mobility. Vision loss alone does not qualify a rider for the service (as a well-publicized case from 2013 demonstrated), meaning that people with vision loss ride the rocket with everyone else.

Great strides have been made in TTC accessibility over the past decade. David Lepofsky, a disability rights advocate and chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, spent 13 years lobbying for the TTC to announce all stops on subways, buses and streetcars for the benefit of the blind; the rules went into force following pair of Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decisions in 2005 and 2007.

More recently, Lepofsky, who is visually impaired, called for Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit stations to include side-loading platforms, instead of the planned centre platforms, which are dangerous for the visually impaired. “With centre platforms, you don’t know where you are on the platform and it’s a drop off either side,” he told the Toronto Star in 2014.

Adopting LightHouse’s audio/tactile maps would be a decisive step in making the city more accessible to people with vision loss.