Designing for the Blind

Retro-fitting for the visually impaired means poor design

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

Designing for the blind and visually impaired is an example of the concept of accessible design. Architects who embrace universal design understand that the needs of the blind and the sighted are not mutually exclusive. For example, orienting a structure to provide optimal light and ventilation has been advocated by architects from ancient Roman times all the way to more recent designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright.

Key Takeaways

  • Architects can design with texture, sound, heat, and smell to define spaces and functions.
  • Tactile cues, such as differences in floor textures and changes in temperature, provide landmarks for persons who cannot see.
  • Universal design refers to design that meets the needs of all people, thus making spaces accessible to all.

Blending Form with Function

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) went a long way to increase awareness of the importance of function in architecture. "Great architecture for the blind and visually impaired is just like any other great architecture, only better," notes 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 the firm 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.

What is Universal Design?

Universal design is a "big tent" term, encompassing more familiar methods such as accessibility and "barrier-free" design. If a design is truly universal—meaning it's 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.

Physical accommodations for a wide variety of needs is the common denominator in all universal design, which is why universality must begin with the design itself. The goal should be to incorporate accessibility into design rather than try to retrofit design to suit limitations.

The Role of Blind Architects

Communication and presentation are important skills for any architect. Visually impaired architects must be even more creative in getting across their ideas and are extremely useful to any organization or individual desiring to focus on inclusivity. With no prejudice with regard to the way things look visually—sometimes referred to as aesthetics—the blind architect will choose the most functional detail or material first. How it looks will come later.

A blind person before taking a ride in the latest version of Google's self-driving car outside the GoogleX labs in Mountain View, CA.
Accessibility and Self-Driving Cars. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Understanding the Continuum of Visual Abilities

Functional vision includes two areas:

  1. Visual acuity, or the corrected used of central vision to see details such as facial features or alphanumeric symbols.
  2. The field of vision, or the extent and capacity to identify objects peripheral to or around the central vision. In addition, difficulties with depth perception and contrast sensitivity are vision-associated 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 or contact lenses. Visual impairments have a continuum of identifiers specific to the laws of specific countries. 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.

Legal blindness is not necessarily the same as total blindness. Legally blind in the U.S. is defined by corrected central vision being less than 20/200 in the better eye and/or the field of vision being limited to 20 degrees or less. That is, having only one eye does not make a person blind.

Totally blind is generally the inability to use light, although the perception of light and dark may or may not exist. "People are said to have light perception if they can detect light and determine from which direction the light is coming," explains the American Printing House for the Blind (APH).

Another type of blindness is called cortical visual impairment (CVI), which is a neurological disorder, pointing out that vision is a process involving the eye and the brain.

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

What do blind people see? Many people who are legally blind actually have some vision. When designing for the blind or visually impaired there are a number of elements that can be included to enhance accessibility.

  • Bright colors, wall murals, and changes in illumination can help those 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.
  • Smart technology is already being built into homes, allowing intelligent personal assistants to help occupants with numerous tasks.

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