By Mel Poluck.
When the CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) opened its community hub last summer in Yonge St., Toronto, it set its ambitions high.
“We moved in, sat down and thought ‘how can we make this neighbourhood the most accessible in Canada?’” says CNIB’s Kat Clarke, Specialist Lead (Toronto), Advocacy and Government Relations (Ontario).
“The closest intersection to us wasn’t accessible, so we advocated to the [local council] to make it more accessible, which they’ve done,” says Clarke.
Now, a CNIB pilot aims to take local accessibility a step further using simple technology. ‘ShopTalk: BlindSquare Enabled’, allows blind and visually impaired people to find their way around the interiors of shops, cafés and other businesses in the neighbourhood via an app on their phone.
Small Bluetooth devices (‘beacons’) are mounted on the wall of the premises, near the door. When the user is in range, the app picks up on the Bluetooth signal, then speaks directions to the user. These directions use the clock-face method, such as: ‘Upon entrance, washrooms are at nine o’clock’. The directions also orientate users with distances, like ‘forward five metres to counter.’
To activate the GPS-enabled app, users simply shake their phone. Shaking a second time triggers further information, such as shop opening times.
“Businesses don’t have control over what the messaging is,” says Clarke. “We would never want it hijacked so business owners could include a two-for-one offer, for example.”
CNIB can also tweak or add new information based on changing circumstances – if the layout of a store changes or construction work is taking place at the entrance, for example. The range of the Bluetooth signal is normally set between five and ten metres, but can be adjusted to avoid interference, such as when beacons are located in consecutive shops.
The app itself is a free version of the BlindSquare app from MIPSoft, which allows blind and visually impaired users to navigate outside. The app can be downloaded from the iTunes store in a range of languages (read more at the BlindSquare website ).
So far, “under 50” beacons have been deployed in the Yonge and St. Clair neighbourhood, says Clarke, but CNIB aims to install 200 by February 2018.
For now, the focus is on getting more organisations on board. CNIB staff, volunteers and the visually impaired community are informing businesses of the scheme via email and in person. ‘Hello neighbour,’ opens its standard letter, ‘We want to help you make your business more accessible and inclusive,’ it says.
Clarke says this part of the initiative has been challenging, not least because of common misconceptions.
“Some people have declined to take part. It comes from misunderstanding what accessibility means,” she says. “It’s the attitude when people have an invisible disability: ‘I don’t have blind customers!’ How do you know? Maybe you would if you had the beacons,” says Clarke.
She says that reluctance may also stem from fears over security, with banks showing particular concern. But CNIB has won over many sceptical organisations, explaining that they do not capture data on users and the beacons emit low-frequency Bluetooth, meaning there is no cost to businesses, as neither electricity nor wi-fi is being used.
There has been an “overwhelmingly positive” attitude from the majority of local businesses, says Clarke. Once a business agrees to host a beacon, the process is simple. “We go out and look at the space,” Clarke explains. “Once we know where beacons will be placed – someone literally puts it on the wall with tack – we can create messages based on that.”
“It opens up a whole new world,” says Ray Smith, who is blind and uses the app. “Let’s say I want to get a hamburger. Once I open up the door of the restaurant, I lose my independence and I lose my self-esteem.
“And then there’s the safety concern – there may be stairs facing me. The app will tell me if there are stairs in front of me and if I turn to three o’clock there’s a counter. So I can independently find the counter. I’m not asking anyone else. It’s amazing.”
Smith has already used the app in a chemist, several restaurants and the local Baptist church, the largest in the country.
“Some people don’t want to ask ‘where’s this?’ or ‘where’s that?’ I’ve talked to people using it and they are getting about more. I think I’ve got more independence, absolutely.”
Smith says he is particularly looking forward to banks using the beacons, because locating a cash machine (ATM) as a blind customer is traditionally difficult due to the wide variation in their positioning.
Such indoor navigation systems are gathering pace globally. The same BlindSquare technology has been used in Wellington, New Zealand, where 200 shops are participating in the ‘No Dark Doors’ project.
Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere, a notable example is Wayfindr, which is being trialled on the London Underground. Originating from the Royal London Society for Blind People’s (RLSB) Youth Forum, the idea received £1 million funding through the Google Impact Challenge Disabilities programme. Wayfindr has also developed the world’s first standard for accessible audio navigation (Read e-Access Bulletin’s previous coverage of Wayfindr ).
The CNIB’s initiative has enough money to run for a year, thanks to funding of $26,000 from the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Access4All Program. Once the target of 200 beacons has been reached, the priority will be to secure sustainable funding beyond 2017, and then expand the scheme, based on data and feedback.
The future looks promising. A property development company recently requested beacons for all of its buildings, and a bank, the Transit Commission (Toronto’s local government department for transport) and library are also interested. Most recently, a theatre installed four beacons, so that users of the app can independently find their way to the box office to buy tickets, get to their seat and find the bar.
And with some 10,000 people with sight loss expected to visit the new CNIB community hub in its first year, take-up of the system is likely to be significant.
The project is improving the independence of blind and visually impaired people living in or visiting the neighbourhood. But one gets the impression that the real aim is a long-term change in attitude.
“We’re hoping we can use this as an interesting conversation starter and have a much longer discussion with businesses – what about access to customer services or your sandwich board in the street, for example?” Kat Clarke says. “There’s a longer-term educational piece. Already we’ve had a fantastic result. We’ve started conversations.”
Smith echoes the sentiment. “You’ve still got to have customer services and etiquette, but it’s planting a seed.”
Read more about ShopTalk: BlindSquare Enabled at the CNIB website:
Mel Poluck is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Follow her on Twitter at: @melpoluck .