This is the second of three linked Expert series articles examining factors impacting on the mobility of people with sight loss. Here, John Welsman, Policy Business Partner (Travel and Transport) at Guide Dogs explores the potential of technology to enhance the independence of blind and partially sighted passengers.
Psychologists suggest that around 80 percent of people’s perception of the world is through their vision, so it is no surprise that getting around independently for people who are blind or partially sighted is challenging, even for those of us with good mobility skills and a fair grasp of technological aids to navigation.
Technology is playing an increasing part in supporting the autonomy and mobility of people who are blind and partially sighted, with Smart phones making independent travel an increasingly viable option for them. However, I think this creates some dilemmas within the travel and transport sector when supporting people who are blind or partially sighted with their mobility and independence, in determining who is responsible for providing technological solutions, what format that solution should take, and how expectations with regard to its use should be managed.
The first challenge relates to a premise advocated by many, that any solution should be independent of the end user. This places the onus on the service provider to produce a solution which is accessible by all, without the customer having to provide a solution to meet their own need, unless they choose to. This certainly could be viewed as one of the corner stones of the principle of service providers making reasonable adjustments to support all users of their service. However, some service providers have begun to argue that the cost of some fixed infrastructure solutions like accessible public information systems are far more costly than applications which can be accessed through personal Smart technology and which in turn can be highly customised by the individual traveller to meet his or her own circumstances. The primary motivation for transport providers may well be financial, but notionally this would provide the end user with a far more dynamic and flexible Smart system which would, in reality, discretely meet their own sight or mobility related need.
Theoretically, a Smart device could actually be more useful to the end user than fixed infrastructure solutions. For example, many mainline rail stations have a visual board displaying the times of trains and the platform they go from. However, the comparable audio announcements are usually made far too close to the departure time of the train, are not always clear (particularly if there is additional background noise) and are often fixed to a single announcement, giving very little time for the individual to get to the right platform without seeking help.
Emerging Smart technology solutions related to the issues mentioned above can mitigate those challenges by pre-populating devices with fairly accurate information as to which platform a train is scheduled to go from, whether it is in the station, or if it is late, what time it is due to arrive, potentially eliminating the need to wait to the last moment to find the platform for the departing train, and giving the passenger a fighting chance of finding a seat.
The development of Smart technology raises some ‘devil’s advocate’ questions.
Service providers have a responsibility to support people who are blind or partially sighted with their ability to interact with and use the transport system and so we should encourage them to provide a range of solutions including Smart technology at the same time as investing in supporting the needs of people who are reliant on fixed infrastructure to aid their mobility.
I am mindful that not all people who are blind or partially sighted own a Smart device or would have the confidence or ability to use one. Similarly, despite the roll out of 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi, there are still areas where connectivity is unreliable. So arguably, for the time being there is still a case for fixed solutions such as audio/visual systems on buses to prompt passengers with current and next stop information, or low-tech assistance, such as drivers telling passengers when to disembark. But it is clear that there is a growing appetite amongst both service providers and travellers for individual Smart technology. For instance, the “Next Stop Announcement” Smartphone app being trialled in Leeds by bus operators First and Arriva, and which provides real-time audio alerts notifying passengers exactly where they are on a journey and when they need to get off. Launched in partnership with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (CPT), it also claims to offer no-hassle route maps and other service information.
Given that local authorities have responsibility for the wellbeing of their citizens, including people who are blind or partially sighted, and that they contract bus services, it has been argued that councils could be involved with supporting both fixed infrastructure costs (such as subsidising audio/visual systems on buses) and also work with the vision impaired communities to support the adoption of Smart technology to aid independence and social inclusion.
Regardless of whether technological solutions provided are based on fixed infrastructure projects or Smart devices (or a mixture of both) such solutions may not reach every corner of the transport infrastructure, and one thing that we do know about technology is it can break down. Therefore, there will still be people who are blind or partially sighted who will sometimes need personal support with getting out and about, and this would still fall to the service provider to make reasonable adjustment in providing staff to assist with elements of a journey, like a bus driver notifying passengers when their stop is due.
I suggest that more financial resources could be used by government, local authorities and commercial entities to encourage the development of smarter ways of providing information for the end user. In the long term, this would be advantageous for people who are blind or partially sighted, would be more dynamic, and integrate an end-to-end mobility solution, would give more equality with sighted users of the same systems, and could reduce the cost of providing fixed infrastructure which is more costly and less adaptable to change over time. Due to space constraints, I have not touched on the growth of Smart ticketing that people can order and upload bus or train tickets on their Smart devices. But this does point to a future in which the humble mobile phone can serve as mobility aid, source of real time information, bus or train ticket and even a method of payment for a sandwich and a drink.
It is clear we are still some way from my Utopian world, but taking a more flexible approach on measures to support the independence of the vision impaired community, I think is potentially advantageous to individuals, service providers and society as a whole.
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