Most ac­ces­si­ble neigh­bour­hood

CNIB us­ing tech­nol­ogy to turn stretch of busy Toronto street into eas­ily nav­i­gated area for blind and low-vi­sion peo­ple

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CLASSIFIEDS/CANADA -

Canada’s most high-pro­file or­ga­ni­za­tion sup­port­ing peo­ple with vi­sion loss is turn­ing to tech­nol­ogy in a bid to cre­ate what it calls the coun­try’s most ac­ces­si­ble neigh­bour­hood.

The CNIB — for­merly known as the Cana­dian Na­tional In­sti­tute for the Blind — says it’s hop­ing to trans­form a small stretch of one of Toronto’s busiest streets into an area that blind or low-vi­sion peo­ple can not only nav­i­gate eas­ily, but fully en­gage with in­de­pen­dently.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion has part­nered with the Rick Hansen Foun­da­tion to ac­quire bea­cons that will help blind peo­ple lo­cate lo­cal busi­nesses on the street, then find their way around in­side with con­fi­dence.

The foun­da­tion has funded the pur­chase of 205 of the roughly 14-cen­time­tre bea­cons that stores and restau­rants in the test area can ac­quire for free and pro­gram to con­vey de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about the lay­out of their phys­i­cal space to a blind per­son’s mo­bile phone.

Blind users hail the project as a ma­jor in­no­va­tion, while the CNIB says it’s hop­ing the ini­tia­tive con­vinces busi­nesses that in­creas­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity makes good fis­cal sense.

In­clu­sive de­sign ex­perts also praise the project, but ad­vise that true ac­ces­si­bil­ity in­volves de­sign­ing for a range of abil­i­ties and that more needs to be done if the area is to truly live up to the goal of be­ing the “most ac­ces­si­ble” neigh­bour­hood. The project’s roll­out is grad­ual, with the CNIB per­suad­ing busi­nesses in the quar­ter-kilo­me­tre test­ing range to get on board.

As bea­cons slowly be­gin to pro­lif­er­ate the stretch of Toronto’s Yonge St. be­tween St. Clair Ave. and Heath St., at least one blind user said the dif­fer­ence is al­ready ap­par­ent.

Mark DeMon­tis said the in­for­ma­tion avail­able to him through the bea­cons gives him a sense of in­de­pen­dence he hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced since los­ing his vi­sion 13 years ago.

By open­ing a GPS app called BlindSquare on his iPhone and lis­ten­ing to the in­for­ma­tion re­layed by the bea­cons, DeMon­tis said he’s able to eas­ily iden­tify busi­ness en­trance son the side­walk, then find his way to var­i­ous fea­tures once he gets in­side.

The bea­cons can be cus­tom­ized to the space they’re oc­cu­py­ing, he said.

For in­stance, a restau­rant may choose to com­mu­ni­cate the lo­ca­tion of ta­bles, wash­rooms and stair­cases, while stores may be more in­ter­ested in mak­ing sure vis­ually im­paired cus­tomers can quickly lo­cate cash reg­is­ters, re­tail dis­plays or change rooms.

Walk­ing into a busi­ness mak­ing proper use of the bea­cons, he said, is a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I went so many years with a sense of frus­tra­tion be­cause I tried to do things that I used to do re­ally in­de­pen­dently on my own,” DeMon­tis said in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

“Be­cause now I have the tools, and I have the knowl­edge and the in­for­ma­tion how to do this suc­cess­fully ... it’s a great sense that I’m re­gain­ing in­de­pen­dence.”

The project is meant to not only in­crease ac­ces­si­bil­ity for the vis­ually im­paired, but also to send a broader mes­sage to cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments alike.

An­gela Bon­fanti, the CNIB’s Ex­ec­u­tive Director for the Greater Toronto Area, said many busi­nesses are un­der the er­ro­neous im­pres­sion that mak­ing their premises more ac­ces­si­ble is an ex­pen­sive and ar­du­ous un­der­tak­ing.

She chal­lenged that no­tion, say­ing the re­wards for em­brac­ing an un­der­served mar­ket would more than make up for the rel­a­tively low ex­pense of mak­ing a space more ac­ces­si­ble.

Hav­ing more busi­nesses take the lead, she ar­gued, could hope­fully push gov­ern­ments to fol­low suit.

“If we can show that an en­tire neigh­bour­hood can get to­gether and work to­gether to show what ac­ces­si­bil­ity looks like, then you re­ally have some great re­search,” she said.

“And we’ll go to our lo­cal gov­ern­ments and say, ‘the leg­is­la­tures, the cham­bers, the mu­se­ums, you name it, you need to do this. You need a beacon in ev­ery pub­licly funded build­ing, be­cause we’re taxpay­ers too.”’

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Mark DeMon­tis is pic­tured in the CNIB’s hub in Toronto’s Yonge and St.Clair neigh­bour­hood last week. The CNIB is plan­ning to in­tro­duce ‘Bea­cons’ into stores and restau­rants in the neigh­bour­hood which will pro­vide vis­ually im­paired cus­tomers, via an app, the floor lay­out and other prac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion of the premises they are en­ter­ing.

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