Should the visually-impaired be like Indiana Jones to be autonomous in town? |11 March 2021
There are things we all take for granted as free, independent human beings. Getting a job, earning a living, paying one’s bills and circulating along the public thoroughfares with ease and safety. All this is customary in any modern-day democracy, the fabric of our society is based on a certain number of norms which allow citizens to develop and blossom so as to achieve their fullest potential, contributing to the growth of the nation as a whole.
While this is true to a greater extent in Seychelles today, there remains nonetheless several pockets of the community that have over the course of time been left out and left behind. An exclusion not so much a result of a voluntary act of prevention or exclusion but rather a limitation in view of critical flaws in accessibility. Here we consider the particular case of the blind and visually impaired members of our community and some aspects of physical accessibility only. It would seem that society has forgotten that these citizens need to evolve, to go out into the world and aspire to perform from the most mundane tasks like paying a bill, to the more complex pursuit of a professional career.
“..accessibility means designed spaces that meet the needs of people with a wide range of abilities, including those who are blind or who have limited vision and associated cognitive difficulties. If the goal is universal design, everyone will be accommodated.” (Source: Design for the Blind | denniskowalarchitects (wordpress.com))
To begin with there is the underlying presupposition of navigable and safe roads, pavements and walkways. This should be particularly true of Victoria, our capital and the heart of most of the administrative and business activities in the country. Victoria boasts at least 25 streets, lanes and avenues with 13 of these servicing the majority of the human traffic in the town centre. However, it is safe to say that no single stretch of road or pavement could be considered safe and navigable for a person with visual disabilities for a variety of reasons. The same can be said for those with motor disabilities especially those who are wheelchair bound, or for that matter, the ageing members of our society. While we remain fit and agile, we can continue navigating uneven paving and in some cases gaping holes and otherwise averting other obstacles and hazards, surely though, something can be done to improve this situation for those who are not. All members of society should be able to enjoy the same privileges without risk to life and limb.
Seychelles signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in March 2007 (Ratified in October 2009), an instrument that has as part of its fundamental pillars, the individual autonomy and independence of persons with disabilities. It emphasises the need to strive for ‘Universal design’meaning‘the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible,…. not excluding assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.’
The main mobility aids used by the blind and those suffering from major visual impairment worldwide are, the use of white cane and the use of guide dogs, complemented by appropriately designed and adapted sidewalks. The use of guide dogs is extremely expensive in terms of dog training and adaptation and may not be feasible for Seychelles currently. However, the Seychelles Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired (SABVI) has already begun introductory training sessions with white canes for several of its members in 2020, thanks to a generous donation of canes by the Rotary Club of Seychelles. It is hoped that this action will continue in the coming months and years, perhaps with the help of other generous benefactors.
The use of the white canes can provide a certain level of autonomy and confidence for the users and can be especially useful in the immediate vicinity of the person’s living area, but also in the familiar surroundings of nearby grocery stores and such. In a more urban setting, the use of these would be more effective if they were complemented with appropriate street adaptations. The commonly used adaptations are tactile ground indicators which comprise various types of raised markings on the pavements to guide the visually impaired pedestrian and to alert them of impending dangers and hazards. Blister paving for example is used at pedestrian crossings and warn the user to stop and wait for an indication to proceed.
Other forms of this adaptation are offset blister paving which are often used on platform edges especially in train stations and the underground which does not apply in Seychelles of course.
There are also various types of corduroy tactile paving which comprise long narrow strips which can accommodate the head or lead end of a white cane and can provide guidance along short to longer stretches of pavement and, likewise, indicate upcoming hazards like a road crossing, stairs or ramps for example.
These tactile paving are often used in conjunction to give sufficient information and provide a fair degree of security at crossings for example, even for visually impaired people who are unaccompanied.
There is also the use of traffic lights at crossings, adapted for people with visual impairment and which provide either a beeping or other audible signal to indicate when it is safe to cross the road.
Mobility for the man on the street is largely dependent on the public transport system. The community of people with special needs, in this case the visually challenged, should be able to use the public transport services with ease and help if required where a private vehicle is not available. A number of elements need to be taken into consideration like accessibility to board or disembark given the design of the buses used and vocal announcements for stops. A number of priority seating for the disabled, senior citizens and pregnant ladies are a norm in many countries. This last one is something easily achievable at the local level and in most societies is considered a matter of common courtesy.
Article 9 of the CRPD deals specifically with accessibility and aims to ‘enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life,’ and calls on signatory States to ‘take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, … and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas..’. It specifies that ‘measures, …shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, shall apply to, inter alia…Buildings, roads, transportation and other indoor and outdoor facilities, including schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces; …’
The state therefore has made an engagement to, promote personal mobility of persons with disabilities and to allow them to enjoy access to and participation in all aspects of societal life.
They further engage to implement a minimum of standards ‘for the accessibility of facilities and services open or provided to the public’, as well as ensuring ‘that private entities that offer facilities and services which are open or provided to the public take into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities’. It is evident that this task and the changes it implies have to be undertaken not only by government but equally by the private sector, NGOs and the general public certainly have a role to play and need to be educated and informed on the needs of persons with specific disabilities.
With the enormous developments in communication and IT tools, the visually challenged citizens in Seychelles, as is the case globally, are moving with the times, exploring new horizons and widening their expectations in terms of what they can do and the extent to which they can be involved in the world around them. However, the list of hurdles continues and having navigated the public transport system and the streets in town there remains the issue of access to public buildings to undertake administrative necessities, pay bills, pursue employment, or attend educational, religious and cultural activities. Buildings and such infrastructure in Victoria bring their own challenges to the mix. Whereas quite a number of the newer or recently renovated ones do include a ramp facility, others still are limited to access with steps or stairs. Few buildings have lifts and those that do may not be adapted with braille tactile signalling or audio alerts for the users. As far as we are aware, braille adapted signage is completely absent from any public office and service.
One might speculate that without voluntarily wishing to do so, this situation has created a form of discrimination for citizens with certain disabilities, notably for the blind, visually impaired and those with serious motor disabilities. As outlined in the CRPD, “Discrimination on the basis of disability” means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.
The scenario is far from perfect in most countries but increasingly more effort is being made to improve conditions for the visually impaired in their homes but also in empowering them in society. In Seychelles most of the efforts are at the basic level currently. The size of the country and indeed the town centre gives us the potential of aiming for the ideal, of making a real difference and meeting the country’s obligations to the CRPD at least in terms of accessibility. Adaptation of the public space for the visually challenged or for those with motor limitations is not an easy task, nor is it inexpensive; not something to be undertaken in a rush, however, it has been 12 years since the CRPD was ratified. It is perhaps time to pick up the pace with tangible advances and a medium-term plan to make real and practical changes in the urban environment with the proper planning and strategic thinking.
Efforts have to take stock of existing hazards around the town centre, the flow and uniformity of pavements, their size and height. The placement of street furniture and other obstacles along these walkways, like signs, poles and streetlights, benches, trees, plants or flower pots, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, bins, bollards and barriers among others. One can just imagine what an obstacle courses a cluttered pavement can present to someone with a visual disability or someone with a pushchair or wheelchair bound. Pavements need to be even as a minimum requirement, they should be of a good width and street furniture as such should be set to allow the maximum ease of pedestrian flow. Where the heights of the pavements are a problem, these should be compensated by the addition of dropped kerbs or kerb ramps and these should be a norm anyway at all street crossings. Tactile ground indicators could and indeed should be used to facilitate the movement of visually challenged users and this in particular on and around road crossings and in the approach to any public service building or for that matter other buildings offering services to the public. Parking spaces for the handicapped should be available around the town to facilitate access to main service providers, electricity, telephone, banks, post office for example and other amenities, market for example. In the future one would imagine this utopia spreading to the districts where walking along the roadside with no existing pavements in many instances or in some cases with no street lighting or poor lighting, is a recipe for disaster and certainly daunting for anyone with major physical limitations.
Urban planners and architects have to aim for the concept of ‘Universal design’. An American architect Chris Downey who lost his sight in 2008 following a brain tumour said “Great architecture for the blind and visually impaired is just like any other great architecture, only better, it looks and works the same while offering a richer and better involvement of all senses.” (Sources: Accessibility Basics: Designing for Visual Impairment (tutsplus.com); Architecture and Design for the Blind Client (thoughtco.com)). This buys into the concept of ‘Universal Design’ literally a design that fits all, taking into account the needs of a wider number of users. The design makes use of a maximum of elements, in the case of the blind and visually impaired, the use of colour, light, sound, varying textures are used to set position indicators for the blind and make signage more ‘visible’ for those with visual impairments.
Building design also needs to be looked at. For the existing infrastructure an audit of the existing situation needs to be undertaken and necessary action taken to bring the facilities up to what might be considered universal design standard. To start off with practical access to the building and reception area. If not at street level ramps are indispensable. Alternatively, an elevator, chair lift or other such mechanism may facilitate access; in all cases where stairs exist these should have hand or guide rails and stair strips for better grip and visibility. Whether the user is there for work purposes or for the purpose of a service, easy access in and around the building must be ensured. Again, the choice and placement of furniture for example in a waiting area or corridors must be decided with care. Adequate and appropriate lighting, especially for the visually impaired, and signage in braille, for the blind should be a norm as should door sizes and the height of desks and service counters taking into consideration wheelchair bound users. Easily accessible toilet facilities should be ensured. Building or facility acoustics may also be considered as the blind and visually-impaired often have highly developed hearing.
The process of change will require not just experts in architecture and urban planning but must imperatively involve the target group/s themselves who are the experts on their own needs and limitations. While the government is the principal actor here, it is obvious that the private sector has to play a crucial role in upgrading their facilities and ensuring strict adherence to the notion of universal design in the conceptualisation of new constructions. It appears that the authorities are poised to move ahead and we remain hopeful and optimistic that Sesel is indeed pour tou son zanfan, and that in the not too distant future, change will come and our blind and visually impaired citizens, along with other physically-challenged citizens, will feel the full benefit of better accessibility through improved infrastructure and adapted public spaces.
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Author: L. Hoareau (SABVI member)