Designing for the Blind

Retro-Fitting Means Poor Design

lower half view of person in black pants and black shoes holding a white cane pointed outward on a masonry plaza
Surface Texture is Detectable by People Using Walking Aids. George Doyle/Getty Images

We are all blind without light. That's just the physiology of us all. It should come as no surprise, then, that architects can be preoccupied with light in the spaces they design. Architecture is a visual art, so what happens when the architect goes blind?

"Great architecture for the blind and visually impaired is just like any other great architecture, only better," says San Francisco architect Chris Downey, AIA. "It looks and works the same while offering a richer and better involvement of all senses." Downey was a practicing architect when a brain tumor took his sight in 2008. With firsthand knowledge, he established Architecture for the Blind and became an expert consultant for other designers.

Likewise, when architect Jaime Silva lost his eyesight to congenital glaucoma, he gained a deeper perspective on how to design for the disabled. Today the Philippine-based architect consults with engineers and other architects to manage projects and promote universal design.

Is Universal Design for the Blind?

Universal design is a "big tent" term, encompassing more familiar methods such as accessibility and "barrier-free" design. If design is universal — meaning a design for everyone — it is, by definition, accessible. In the built environment, 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.

A Continuum of Abilities

Functional vision includes two areas: (1) visual acuity, or the ability to see details such as facial features or alphanumeric symbols; and (2) the extant of a visual field, or the capacity to identify objects peripheral to or around your central vision. In addition, depth perception and contrast sensitivity can be associated vision problems.

Vision abilities vary widely. Vision impairment is a catch-all term that includes people with any visual deficit that cannot be corrected by wearing glasses of contact lenses. Visual impairments have a continuum of identifiers specific to the laws of your country. In the United States low vision and partially sighted are general terms for a continuum of functionality that may vary from week to week or even hour to hour; legally blind in the U.S. is when corrected central vision is less than 20/200 in the better eye and/or the field of vision is limited to 20 degrees or less; and totally blind is generally the inability to use light but may or may not see light.

Colors, Illumination, Textures, Heat, Sound, and Balance

What do blind people see? Many people who are legally blind actually have some vision. Bright colors, wall murals, and changes in illumination can help persons whose vision is limited. Incorporating entryways and vestibules into all architectural design helps eyes adapt to illumination changes. Tactile cues, including different floor and sidewalk textures as well as changes in heat and sound, can provide landmarks for persons who cannot see. A distinctive façade may help distinguish the location of a home without having to count and keep track.

Sound is an important directive for people without visual cues. Technology can be built within the walls of a home just like it's built into smart phones — all you have to do is ask a question, and the built-in intelligent personal assistant can orient the occupant. Aspects of a smart house will be most useful for people with disabilities.

Other physical details should be common to all universal design. Handrails for balance should be incorporated into the design of buildings.

And that's the thing — architects should incorporate details into the design and not try to retro-fit for someone's limitations. Like all good accessible design, universality begins with the design. Designing with the blind in mind embraces the movement toward universal design.

Communicating Ideas

Communication and presentation are important skills of the architect. Visually impaired architects must be even more creative in getting across their ideas. Computers have become the great equalizer for professionals with disabilities of any kind, although tactile graphic toys like Wikki Stix have long been used by people of all ages.

Visually impaired architects will be useful to any organization or individual desiring to focus on inclusivity. With no prejudice to the way things look visually  —  sometimes called aesthetics  — the blind architect will choose the most functional detail or material first. The way it looks? What is called "eye candy" can come later.

Finally, the Low Vision Design Program of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has established guidelines for residential design and recommendations for public accommodation. Their 80-page evidence-based PDF document Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment was issued in May 2015 and is filled with useful information.