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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Improving Transit Access for the Blind and Vision Impaired


Signs, both written and iconic, guide us through unknown environments. We use them to identify street intersections, buildings, transit stops, different transit vehicles, and amenities such as telephones, fare, and information booths. People who can’t read signs – the dyslexic, the illiterate, the developmentally disabled, people with brain trauma – experience difficulty traveling through unknown territory. The 8-9 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States face greater problems. They do not get the information embedded in signs, and receive few other cues to the environment around them. They are denied cues about pathways and traffic flows, both vehicle and pedestrian. They can’t see buses or other transit vehicles, can’t find doors, elevators, and other building amenities. This lack of easy and safe access to urban travel and public transit is certainly one reason why only 26 percent of working-age people who can’t read newsprint are employed.

How can we improve access for these groups? The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 mandated equal access for all to transit and public buildings. Ramps, curb cuts, and lifts have replaced structural barriers, such as stairs and curbs, for those in wheel-chairs. But print-handicapped and vision-impaired people still face functional barriers to equal access. How do blind people find their way, facing these problems of mobility, wayfinding, and exploration? Long canes and guide dogs help a person avoid objects and danger within a few feet, but give no cues to the more distant environment. If a person can’t find a bus stop, identify a transit vehicle, or find a building or its entrance, they are denied equal access to transit and public buildings.

Our research identifies and evaluates a new technology to allow safe and easy access for the blind and vision impaired, Remote Infrared Signage Systems (RISS), or Talking Signs®. Each of these signs consists of an infrared transmitter that continuously beams a signal. A hand-held receiver picks up the beam and converts it into a spoken message that can be heard when the receiver is pointed at the transmitter. This gives the user a directional beam to the sign, as well as the sign’s content or name.

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