One student’s perspective on changing a visually impaired world.
Students on campus are working on projects covering a vast range of topics from trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe to prolonging the shelf life of meat. Elizabeth Phillips, a recent architecture graduate, worked on something closer to home and even closer to her heart.
Her honor’s thesis project was aimed at helping those with visual impairments navigate more easily through spaces, such as sporting arenas and convention centers. It is something that Elizabeth herself has difficulty with.
“I, myself, have a visual impairment that really affects my ability to move through spaces that have inadequate lighting,” Phillips said.
Commonly to increase the excitement of an event and decrease the operating costs, movie theaters, sports arenas and other similar venues will use low lighting in the pedestrian pathways. While the low lighting may not inhibit people without difficulty seeing, it has a big impact on those with impairments. The problems are not limited to one type of impairment, which makes solving the problems difficult.
“The problems caused by visual impairments varies anywhere from the type of visual impairment, what extreme the impairment has progressed to, the individual, etcetera,” she said. “That is exactly what makes this the most challenging. Anything a designer does to the lighting can be a hindrance for one and helpful for another.”
Phillips, along with her advisor, Tahar Messadi, came up with a project to improve conditions. She first took volunteers and had them walk through a common public location and recorded their feedback. Based off of the feedback, she designed and built a model of the original location the participants walked through that incorporated changes. The model used a scale of one half inch equals one foot. Once the model was completed, she invited the volunteers back to view it. Peering through carefully constructed view ports built into the model that blocked out ambient light from outside of the model, they were able to see the area and its changes as though they were standing in it. She recorded their feedback once again.
The changes made included placement and angles of the lights as well as intensity. The materials in the area were also changed. Different materials have different albedos or light reflectance properties. Changing the materials therefore can affect how people are able to see obstacles. White walls appear brighter than dark carpeting because the walls reflect more light than they absorb; the dark carpeting absorbs more than it reflects making the area appear to be darker. Problems arise when there is little or no differentiation between the walls and the carpets. Things that people with normal vision are able to detect with ease, such as an upcoming stair case or slight slope in the floor, people who have difficulty seeing are not able to do so. It is important to incorporate contrast into the areas in the form of lighting or different materials, especially when a change is occurring.
Phillips had to be careful, though, because changes will not necessarily help everyone with a visual impairment. The goal of her project is not to solve all of the problems; instead, she wants to find a “common ground” that will emphasize the commonalities shared by people facing different challenges. Trying to solve every problem, she says, is simply not practical.
“Proposing a set of guidelines/suggestions/standards for lighting will never meet the needs of every person with a visual impairment,” she said.
A few of her recommendations include using indirect lighting, directing light away from reflective surfaces, avoiding dark areas and shadows, using lighting as directional and way finding tools and illuminating unavoidable obstructions. She hopes her project and the recommendations will bring greater awareness and encourage research and collaboration in an area that has not been heavily researched.
“I am not necessarily endorsing new standards be mandated for fear that creativity in design might be stifled. Rather, my initiative at this point is to draw awareness of this need for designing public spaces with this issue considered in the process. It can be addressed in order to encourage more research and inquiry into the subject. It should be a collaborative effort between designers and the community of people with visual impairments,” she said.
Phillips is pleased with the results.
“The participants seemed to respond quite positively to the changes made within the model.”
The recommendations that were made by Phillips will benefit people who do not have visual impairments as well.
“People without visual impairments still have problems with similar lighting conditions, but their eyes adjust much better to the problem areas,” Phillips said. “In many cases the negative conditions are just much more amplified for people with visual impairments.”
Phillips finished her project and graduated in August. She now works and lives in Tulsa where, outside of her job at an architectural firm, she actively continues her research and works to bring awareness to the difficulties of those with visual impairments.
A scaled model of a popular entertainment venue, above left, incorporates changes to help those with visual impairments.