Designing technology for blind and visually impaired people to share outdoor experiences
Research and assistive technology for blind and partially sighted people often focuses on built environment access, or helping people navigate from one place to another. Yet there is little information or assistance in relation to open spaces and free leisure experiences individuals might want to have. PhD student Maryam Bandukda has developed a framework and a digital platform to help solve this problem.
Blind and partially sighted people are taught particular skills for mobility orientation and navigating. This includes using a walking cane in a particular way, following the lines of buildings, or searching for environmental clues. In open spaces, the same clues and guides people look for are less present, and it’s very easy to collide with things or get lost. Many blind and partially sighted people have to rely on sighted companions to visit these spaces.
Without a framework to understand what the experiences are of blind and partially sighted people, open spaces will continue to be daunting and difficult for them to visit. By gathering data and information about the experience of visiting specific open spaces, it’s possible to enable better access to open space leisure activities for more people.
In response to this, Maryam Bandukda has focused her research on understanding the experiences of blind and partially sighted people in open spaces, in order to craft suitable solutions. Bandukda explained;
“My research is about better understanding how blind and partially sighted people experience open spaces – the challenges, the barriers, and how their experiences are currently facilitated. As well as general wayfinding, I also wanted to understand more about their sensory and emotional experiences of being in an open space. Any experience is multi-sensory, so how do people engage with the environment in a multi-sensory way?”
To find out more, Bandukda undertook a range of qualitative research. This included interviews, focus groups, qualitative surveys, design workshops and knowledge sharing sessions, mostly with individuals in east London communities. As a result of this, Bandukda developed the PLACES framework, which stands for PLan, ACcess, Engage and Share.
In terms of planning, Bandukda’s research showed that there is a notable lack of involvement of blind and partially sighted people in planning visits to open spaces. This could be due to a lack of information about accessibility, or a lack of accessible information about places. As a result, they rely on family members or sighted companions, or they will simply try to visit these spaces and see what happens. However, the research showed there was a strong wish among blind and partially sighted people to be involved in the planning process. Many of Bandukda’s interviewees also wanted to share their experiences and learn about other people’s experiences.
These findings led Bandukda to establish the idea of Sense Maps – a platform she is creating to share information about open spaces. By sharing information on accessibility and the experience of open spaces, people with all different kinds of access needs can plan visits to open spaces more easily. “The community concept means that a wheelchair user could share information, and effectively become a pair of eyes for a blind person,” Bandukda said. “Equally, blind and partially sighted people could share information that helps people with other disabilities.”
Bandukda has been working with a small group of blind and partially sighted people since the beginning of her PhD, who have wanted to remain centrally involved in the process. Contributing to the development of the technology, and co-designing it along with Bandukda, is an important part of the process to create meaningful solutions for the people the technology is designed to help. Individuals have also helped Bandukda gather multi-sensory data in open spaces to feed into the project, capturing their reflections on the sounds and smells of a space as well as accessibility information.
To further her work in this field, Bandukda is continuing to develop a prototype for Sense Maps, so the technology can eventually help people with a range of different disabilities. The feedback she has received so far is that the technology should be expanded to include experiences in all spaces, not just open spaces. There is a strong desire among blind and visually impaired people to share their experiences about all the places they visit, including restaurants, museums, galleries and the gym.
In addition to this, Bandukda is continuing her work in enabling blind and visually impaired people to share their experiences through a postdoctoral research position at the GDI Hub. Prior to working on this PhD, Bandukda gained a Master’s degree in Product Management before working in the ICT industry for 10 years. Wishing to make more of a difference to peoples’ lives, she went on to do a Master’s at UCL Computer Science, before joining the GDI Hub.
“The issue we’re trying to tackle here is social inclusion,” Bandukda explained. “It’s about empowering the disabled community to share their experiences with each other, and amplifying their voices. They should be able to be involved in planning their social experiences, and not just being passive participants. Enabling this can also influence policymaking, generating a better understanding of actual experiences in public spaces, and what kind of provisions should be consistently in place.”
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)