People with physical and mental disabilities face a host of barriers that reduce their quality of life by limiting their participation in social, political, cultural and economic life. It can be difficult to move around familiar neighbourhoods let alone strange places. For example, those with mobility impairments often can’t fully enjoy public spaces due to uneven surfaces, visually-impaired people can’t access everyday wayfinding information, and people with less visible disabilities often find crowded places to be a sensory minefield. This is the situation, and it is unacceptable.
These are but a few of the lived experiences of about a billion people around the world who have some form of disability. According to the UN, “persons with disabilities often end up disconnected, living in isolation and facing discrimination” because “disability-based discrimination has severe effects on transport, cultural life, and access to public places and services.” The mismatch between public environments and the diverse access needs of citizens means that the environments are disabling.
In response to this situation, digital technologies are providing a raft of new ways to help people with physical and mental disabilities to experience public spaces, both indoors and outdoors.
Calvium is currently in the process of developing its own wayfinding solution called NavSta— a digital wayfinding app to help those with invisible impairments navigate railway stations, confidently and independently. Before I talk about NavSta though, let’s look at some other types of accessibility tools and initiatives out there.
Several policies around the world are pushing for better accessibility for people with disabilities, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Britain’s Equality Act, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There is still, however, a long way to go for urban areas to be fully accessible to everyone, including those with visible and hidden impairments. To remove this roadblock, several tools have been designed to make wayfinding a much easier task for those with disabilities. It’s interesting and inspiring to see digital tech used in so many different ways to help people’s experience of travelling around:
Launched in 2018, BlindSquare is a wayfinding technology installed in Oshawa’s City Hall in Canada—the first city in North America to do so.
It allows visually-impaired individuals to navigate the building and its surrounding property through the use of a series of beacons and GPS capabilities. The app, in turn, will provide key information to the user, including points of interest and street intersections. BlindSquare is available in 26 languages and can be downloaded for free from the App store.
Sydney Airport—the busiest airport in Australia with three terminals and more than 40 million annual passengers—can prove to be a labyrinth for people with disabilities.
With the help of the Aira app, however, blind or low visibility travellers can now navigate international and domestic terminals more easily. This app connects users with real, highly-trained agents to help them get from point A to point B for free.
3. Wayfindr and Waymap
Wayfindr is the non-profit organisation behind Waymap—an app that uses Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons and 5G to help vision-impaired people navigate indoor areas.
This technology is based on the first internationally-approved standard for accessible audio navigation that Wayfindr developed. It is now currently going through tests with partners in the UK and the US for commercial use.
Access Social developed a platform that provides interactive virtual video tours through the use of iRoam. This tool was created to help those with hidden disabilities (e.g. autism, dementia), as well as their families, reduce their anxiety by giving them guided navigations prior to visiting venues within the community.
The app is currently in development, but once it’s launched, it should allow users to pick less-crowded services (e.g. public transport with available seats), know exactly when their stop is coming up, and access evidence-based anxiety and stress management tips. They can also share their location and/or call a carer when needed.
There are also several proposed and ongoing projects started by private groups, governments, and individuals to help public transportation become a more inclusive activity in urban areas:
- Wales — Transport for Wales has invested £15 million to make their railway stations more accessible by providing step-free access. They will also launch a turn-up-and-go app for disabled passengers by April 2020.
- Network Rail — As part of their Inclusive Transport Strategy, Network Rail’s Access for All programme received £300 million to create obstacle-free and accessible routes to and between platforms. One of their recent projects is allowing people to access real-time information on the availability of escalators and lifts in train stations around the country.
- Barcelona — NaviLens is a wayfinding tool created by Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona to make the city easier to navigate for its visually-impaired citizens. This technology uses bidimensional code stickers placed on strategic locations. People can then use their smartphone cameras to scan the codes, and with the help of a free app, hear the information stored in them.
- Ohio State University — Students from OSU’s College of Engineering created ‘Louie’, a wayfinding solution for people with autism. As a customisable AR navigation system, this technology can integrate with maps, public transport, and floor plans to inform users of any known triggers so they can avoid or prepare for them before making the trip (e.g. when to expect flashing lights, warning for loud sounds, etc).
- Anat Caspi — Anat Caspi, Director of the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, focused on creating tech for people with motor disabilities, often with the help of AI. This led her to help create AccessMap, an online app that also tracks pathways changes (e.g. raised curbs, downhill and uphill steepness, surfaces that are unique to every path) for those who have mobility issues.
In partnership with Transport for London, Open Inclusion, and Connected Places Catapult, we are currently in the process of developing NavSta. Our indoor wayfinding smartphone app is aimed at helping users with invisible impairments to:
- Plan a journey through a station
- Undertake a journey using a route planner, and
- Manage uncertainty during the journey by providing key information at key points.
Importantly, NavSta has been designed with the help and insights of neurodivergent users who have wide-ranging specialist knowledge of travelling on public transport and understand how to make it a better experience. This reflects the underlying philosophy of NavSta, a commitment to inclusive design and rigorous cross-disciplinary research.
There are relatively few successful wayfinding apps that are aimed at reducing the anxiety of travelling indoors; even less that are designed with and for those with conditions such as autism, depression and dementia. By working with people with less visible disabilities, NavSta aims to remove barriers to travel and become an essential part of the travelling public’s toolkit.
Ultimately, we are aiming for all complex rail stations in the country to be mapped, so they can all offer NavSta to their passengers.
Better Accessibility With Digital Technologies
Recently, the UK Government has announced that the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) will become part of the new Equalities Hub in the Cabinet Office. This means that the voices and therefore the lived experiences of disabled people should be at the forefront of government thinking and policies. Good news.
As we have seen in this article, there are already many digital products and initiatives that are driven by the desire to make everyone’s experience of public spaces and public transport more equitable; enabling wheelchair users and people with sensory impairments, learning disabilities or neurodivergence to have a better quality of life.
While it’s still in its relative infancy, inclusive design is enabling the creative and judicious use of digital technologies to support accessibility. The key to greater success is to research and understand the needs of people, the context of space (physical, social and cultural) and the appropriateness of technology.
This project is funded by the Department for Transport through the First of a Kind Round 2 competition, delivered by InnovateUK.