Public spaces

How ‘low-vision friendly’ are our public spaces?

Public spaces may be planned and organised or completely informal, but the visually impaired person will need to orientate themselves and learn how to navigate through them safely and with confidence (see tips on helping yourself). There are, however, principles that planners and architects can take into consideration when building a user-friendly environment. These principles will increase safety, not only for the visually impaired, but also the elderly and those wearing multi-focal glasses and for young children.

The basic principles include contrasting colours whenever there is a change in floor height; clear edges on stairs no matter how the light is falling; large and contrasting signage for important information (preferably in picture form rather than words), cobbled or textured paving at road crossings; positioning of flower beds, refuse disposal bins, poles for signs and other such extras in practical places. (I have a funny story about this in ‘Life through Jen’s eyes’.)

Most visually impaired people do not drive (although some do and should not!) and so, by default, become pedestrians. For some this poses new problems that they had not encountered before. The safety of walkways, road crossings and stairwells become an important factor in one’s independence.   I’ll look at some common problems and solutions in the built environment.


Stairs are potentially a very dangerous place in a building – if you fall it could be a serious accident – so it is important to make them as safe as possible. In many of the modern shopping malls there are tiled floors with various colour changes to make it look classy, but this can often create havoc for sight impaired people because changes in colour can often be perceived as changes in height or depth. Below are some photos of well contrasted stairs and some very confusing stairs. You can decide which ones you feel safest on.

Tile colour changes too far from edge of step

Tile colour change in wrong place.

Black edge on tiles is confusing

Patterned tile shows that there is an edge, but is the black strip on the step or on the floor?

       Stairs confusing wooden steps with metal grip in middle of stepVisually confusing stairwell


The natural lighting, which changes according to the time of day and season, also plays a part in the visibility of the stairs. Shadows can be useful for spotting the edge of a step, but in full sunlight this same step can be very difficult to negotiate. For this reason it is helpful to have contrasting tiles, bricks or shiny strips on the edge of the step.


Light catching silver rim on edge of steps

My favourite elegant, safe stairwell

Looking down a staircase, the natural light catches the edge of steps.

High contrast as light catches the edge of the steps.


White or yellow stripes on the edge of the stairs are useful even though not very attractive.

A black stripe or tile is NOT helpful as it looks like a gap and so is confusing in identifying the edge.

I personally like the silver convex strips on the edge as it catches the light both on the way up the stairs and also on the way down, making it look like a white stripe.


Being a non- Braille reading low vision person, I prefer to take the steps because it is easier than trying to see the button numbers.

Many elevators have large numbers, but they are seldom in contrasting colours. Even if there is voice signal for which floor you are on, I don’t want to have to press them all to get the lift going to my destination. If there is no voice description I would not have a clue where to get out. At least with climbing the stairs, one can count the levels …if you are not out of breath!

I would love the buttons in the lift to be graded colours from dark red, through the rainbow and back to violet, depending on the number of floors. Somehow, I think the darkest colour should be the basement and the lightest colour highest in the air.

The other option is to have yellow buttons with black numbering or , if there are fewer than 7 floors, a dice pattern from 1 to 6. (About the closest I have gotten to Braille ;))

Public toilets

Many advertisers would agree that sybols are better in visual depiction than in written word. I find it funny how many people falter at a door that says PUSH or PULL – even though they can see the words. The picture of a flat hand pushing or a gripped hand on a handle would take less brain processing! And this goes for public toilets too. The size and contrast and position of the sign can determine how easy it is to see. I have found myself standing on tippy toes with my face as close to the sign as possible trying to see which loo is for me, or praying for a distinctive male or female to emerge from the bathroom. Luckily, if I am desperate, with my sunglasses and white cane, I can walk into either one and not be embarrassed it can, however be embarrassing for others) A clear picture eye level (not hanging up near the ceiling) is low vision friendly and child friendly.

Our local shopping centre has very tasteful and visible signs on the door.

Life size, simple bold lines depicting half a woman Helpful, clear image
Visual clutter makes entrance confusing Sensory overload causing stress

Glass doors

There are glass doors leading into our local gym. They are very smart and give an open feel to the place, but the fact that the panels next to the doors are also glass, leaves me guessing where to enter. In the beginning they had a large black mat in front of the doors which was as wide as the doors. I automatically aim for the middle of the mat, presuming that the doors opened from the middle outwards. Now I just smile and walk in the direction of the door and rely on my white cane to get me through ….. or I follow another person …… presuming they can see.

A plus for the gym, in my opinion, is that the length of the indoor pool is exactly the length of the nearby windows. The end of the pool can be easily judged by the contrasting light, or dark, of the sky. I think this may be confusing for other members who see me arrive with a white cane and then I ask which lane is free and then I tumble-turn at the end of the pool as if I can see it clearly.

General obstacles

I am not sure if there is a rule about putting signposts in the middle of a walkway. The grey, galvanised poles and the grey tar are a great combination for camouflage and an open invitation to the noses of VIP’s(visually impaired person). Note: to walk into the same pole twice is just the sign of an impaired memory.

 Planning for safety

As mentioned before, it is our responsibility as vision impaired people to make sure that we are safe on the move. It is helpful in older environments and unplanned spaces to familiarise oneself by asking a sighted person to show and describe the area to you. With regards to new and renovated public spaces, I would like to appeal to planners, engineers and decorators to consider low vision sufferers when creating user friendly spaces.

textured pavers mark safe crossing

Some more …

Here’s a useful clip when talking about development of urban spaces. It’s a TED Talk by Chris Downey, “Designing with the Blind in Mind”:

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