Wayfinding is one of the most important fundamentals of good design for built environments and successful spaces.
If it appears that it has not even been contrived in obvious ways with signage etc it is even better. As a universal design issue it is of the highest importance. I’ve written about it before, from time to time, as it is so intrinsic to accessible environments.
I’ve been involved recently in the legal imperatives relating to access, and the pressures for clients to know “why should I do that?” or “where does it say that has to be?” In fact nowhere does it say that wayfinding is part of the statutory requirements for good environments. It does say that buildings have to be aesthetically pleasing: or at least not ‘unsightly or objectionable” or not “disfigure the neighbourhood”
In a recent document put out by the Department of Transport, dated November 2008, but taken from the 2001 census, the statistics for the population of South Africa are set out including a breakdown of persons with disabilities and life cycle persons (children (5-14) elderly (65+)). The disability sector is broken into sight, hearing, communication, physical, intellectual, emotional and multiple. It works out at 2 million people out of 47,850,000 in total, which is 5%. This is generally the number which has been presumed when discussing prevalence in this country. Of course when we add the life cycle people of 37% then the total is 42%. Of all of these put together, in 2001, vision impaired people composed about 1/3 of the total.
This perspective gives meaning to the system which is used by the transport sector called Tactile Ground Surface Indicators, TGSIs. This is more or less used in all countries, and recently legislated here in a document called SANS784, which is mostly based on an existing Australia/New Zealand document. We already have a mention of facilities for vision impaired people in the National Building Regulations Part S2(1): “(e) any commonly used path of travel shall be free of obstacles which limit, restrict or endanger the travel of persons with disabilities, or which prevent persons with disabilities from accessing the facilities provided in the building and the presence of such obstruction shall be made evident in a suitable manner to persons with impaired vision.” Of course this does not cover the whole subject of Rights, and the SA Constitution, which I won’t go into here.
TGSIs are widely seen in public streets and public places and spaces. Over the years a set arrangement of the pimples/bubbles with set heights, have been worked because, at the same time as providing a guide to vision impaired people, they mustn’t be an obstruction to others especially children, the elderly and wheelchair users. They provide cues which, when combined with other environmental information, assist people who are blind or vision impaired with their orientation. They also provide warning of an obstruction or hazard in any location where insufficient alternative cues exist. They are useful for street crossings and for staircases. If handrails are continuous on a staircase they are not required.
I believe they came about shortly after dropped kerbs were introduced for wheelchair users, trolleys and pushchairs. There was much dissention: the vision impaired people depended on the kerb to tell them where a road surface began and ended. So this system has now become universal. It is often abused, in that Local Authorities will just use them in huge areas, which actually defeats the purpose.
Various upmarket pimples made from stainless steel are used in environments which need to have some glitz.
There are also directional variations called corduroy strips which, as their name implies, show when a directional change is about to occur, like in a sports stadium, or at the top and bottom of an escalator indicating vertical change.
They are invaluable for the general mainstream public too. Corduroy strips even extend to an indication built into the strip edge, say of a platform, to show where the door openings in the vehicle will be. This is going to be used on the Gautrain.
In the preface of the SANS784 it is made clear that this is not an add-on, but should be an intergral part of the design of these spaces “it will not correct bad design, or make an unsafe environment safe”. The information should also be consistent and “it should not be proliferated unnecessarily”. Careful positioning, and restrained use is critical.
Vision impaired people use the full range of their other senses to navigate the environment. TGSIs are only one of the tools which add value to places, and are useful too for ordinary people who move in crowds, and become distracted and unfocused or tired. “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? It is humanity and all the potential within it, that makes us beautiful.”
-Shylock, Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)