Monday, November 10, 2008

Unequal Access for Visually Impaired Travelers

From baggage check-in to boarding and deplaning, the experience of traveling by air is never an easy task. A traveler encounters exhaustive security procedures, problems with gate location—due to poor signage and overcrowded passageways— and is deluged with mass advertising and airline announcements as he or she makes his or her way through an airport terminal. According to Rudolph Brynn, “It is estimated that about 20% of the population faces barriers in using public transport…blind and visually impaired people face particular barriers in the field of transport that is often connected to access to information as well as access to infrastructure and the various means of transport themselves.” Although legislative bills have been passed concerning discrimination against disabled travelers, there is still a substantial lack of accessible navigational information and inconsistencies in services provided by airlines and airports, to assist the needs of visually impaired passengers when traveling by air.

In the August 19, 2007 issue of The Sunday Times, the headline read, “My mother is 84 and blind and was left for long periods with no information at two airports.” According to the London newspaper, the elderly woman was traveling between Gatwick and Manchester; her departing flights were both delayed on her roundtrip voyage. Assistance was provided to aid her through security and gate location. Her daughter, Angela Clough, states that her mother cannot read signs or screens and has trouble hearing announcements read over the intercom. She continues, “Both times, assistance left her for long periods with no information…when staff did appear, they did not introduce themselves to her; instead, she was pushed around like a piece of luggage, with no explanation. She felt vulnerable, tearful, and panicky. This is unacceptable.”
According to the Air Carrier Access Act, it is illegal for any airline to discriminate against travelers with disabilities. It requires airlines to be at the service of passengers with special needs, including providing “assistance with boarding, deplaning, and making connections,” as long as the traveler notifies his/her airline 48 hours in advance.

Although training is required for all respective airline staff that deal with special needs travelers (ACAA), when a spokesman for The Daily Telegraph anonymously called First Choice, Thomas, Thomas Cook, and Airtours concerning assistance for travelers with disabilities, he found customer service staff to be inadequately informed. “First Choice was the only exception,” states the spokesman, “none of these tour operators guaranteed to meet any disability requirements, meaning that all you can do is book and hope for the best.” The Air Carrier Access Act was passed in 1990, however, the two previous cases both occurred in 2007.

In another instance, Charles Starmer-Smith, a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, references a study done by Which? report on how Heathrow, Glasgow, Manchester, Gatwick, and Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster were the only five airports which allowed guide dogs to travel with special needs passengers on international flights. Although some airlines have their own guidelines on allowing or refusing the travel of pets on flights, The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to accept guide dogs on board any flight to accompany visually impaired passengers. This is because guide dogs are considered service animals, not pets.
These inconsistencies are certainly not specific to airline assistance, they are found in other areas concerning unequal access to information concerning navigation within airports, such as poor placement of Braille signs, dull color schemes—making various areas of airport terminals hard to distinguish—and various kiosks and display screens that are illegible to people with different levels of vision impairment.

An interview with Hope Lenaburg, a stylist at Regis Salon in Barton Creek Square Mall, revealed problems with wayfinding signage at Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania. “My visually impaired friend and I arrived in Philadelphia. As I guided her towards the elevators, I looked up at the sign above our heads and noticed something was wrong. I couldn’t figure it out at first, but then it hit me; there was Braille at the bottom of the sign that was located seven feet off the ground!”

At the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand, there are hardly any Braille signs near elevators. “‘Many signs have sharp edges which are a hazard to the visually impaired, and interior colour schemes are mostly monotone, making it difficult for a person with poor eyesight to navigate…’ said Topong, who is suing the AOT (Airports of Thailand) and former prime minister Thasksin Shinawatra, along with a few others, at the Administrative Court for failing to provide necessary access to the disabled as required by law.” (The Nation)

An interview with Diana Doan, a visually impaired University of Texas student, revealed how she has gotten lost at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Hobby Airport, and Austin Bergstrom International Airport numerous times when she has traveled independently. “It would be easier to navigate if there were different colors at different gates and terminals. I can usually just read the gates numbers; however, each airline name is harder to read. If they could enlarge each individual image, it would be nice.” In Rudolph Brynn’s paper, “Blind and partially sighted people and transport — some important issues,” he mentions how there are many problems at airports with the placement of monitors and the size of text on screens that make retrieving information very difficult. This is reinforced by Diana’s comment oh how it is difficult to know when flights are delayed due to the small size of the television screens. Although she complains about airport infrastructure, Diana mentions, “At every airport I can always find someone to help me when I have questions about directions or flight information. I can always find my way, because there is someone who is nice enough to help. I just have to be brave and ask.”

Visually impaired passengers do not want to struggle to receive information that is easily accessible to every other traveler. In response, there are numerous attempts to provide visually impaired travelers with technology to aid independent navigation in airports. For example, students at Texas A&M University have begun a project using Radio Frequency Identification Systems (RFIDS). The network system will include “reduced function nodes (RFID tags), active nodes (Zigbee transceivers) and user-friendly device (RFID/Zigbee compatible dual-mode transceiver).” This network will provide visually impaired travelers with automated, up-to-date information such as flight delays or sudden gate changes.

In “Holding Patterns,” Peter Hall conducted an interview with Paul Milkensaar about a GPS, wireless wayfinding system to aid with navigation at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. With help from a student attending Delft University, Bueau Mijksenaar design firm decided to use a WiFi technology application to be used on passengers’ cell phones. If a traveler needs to find a restroom that is close by, he or she would simply speak into the phone’s receiver and say, “‘Show me a restroom within three minutes’ walking distance.’” The screen would then show that person a map with their location and an “animated line” leading towards the requested destination would appear. Other application features would include flight departure information, numerous language choices, and audio directions—specifically for visually impaired passengers.

A similar solution is a GPS system called Mobic, which is being developed at the University of Birmingham. The system is in the form of a wristband, which includes a GPS locator, a keypad, and a speech synthesizer. Once a destination is typed in, the GPS system calculates the most suitable path for travel and then verbalizes directions to the passenger through an earphone. Through the use of “landmarks,” the GPS system will make announcements relative to the person’s location.

Another navigational design innovation for visually impaired travelers is a three-dimensional wayfinding system called “haptic maps.” Researchers at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece have created a system that takes video footage of a virtual space and translates it into a map constructed of a sequence of points. Pressure is then applied to the traveler’s fingers by a glove and wand designed to read the “virtual space points.” It is also accompanied by audio cues to allow for a better understanding of the traveler’s surroundings.

Most of these technologies are still under development and would take quite some time before they can actually be incorporated in current airport infrastructures. In the mean time, however, airports can fix a majority of their navigational problems by implementing a few simple guidelines concerning interior color schemes, and the accessibility and legibility of signs to make navigation for visually impaired travelers easier. The Ministry of Community and Social Services has an “Office Accessibility Checklist” that is used as a reference to make sure businesses facilities adequately accommodate visually impaired customers. These five simple guidelines can too be applied to airport environments:

1.) Design spaces so that walls, floors, doors, and furniture are high in colour contrast.

2.) Avoid floor patterns that are visually confusing.

3.) Any television set displaying information for the public should be captioned.

4.) Signs should be clear (easy to see and understand); concise (simple, short and to the point); and consistent (signs meaning
the same thing should always appear the same and be consistently located).

5.) Signs should have a clear typeface and contrasted from the background, such as light coloured, characters/symbols on a dark background, or dark coloured characters/symbols on a light background.

When a visually impaired passenger arrives at an airport, he or she is met with a wheelchair instead of being provided the necessary travel information to make his or her own navigation independently. Navigational and flight information should be equally accessible to visually impaired travelers—whether through verbal assistance, Braille, or other mediums—at all times, in all airports. These inconsistencies must be addressed in order to make air travel for visually impaired passengers easier, more enjoyable, and more independent.


Air Carrier Access Act, 1990.

Brynn, Rudolph. “Blind and partially sighted people and transport—some important issues.” August 08, 2006.

Clough, Angela. “My mother is 84 and blind and was left for long periods with no
information at two airports.” The Sunday Times. London. August 19, 2007. Features. Travel. Pg. 11.

Doan, Diana. Personal Interview. November 09, 2008.

“GPS will guide the blind.” University of Birmingham. Popular Mechanics. August 1997. Vol. 174. Issue 8. Pg. 18.

Hall, Peter. Mijksenaar, Paul. “Holding Patterns.” Else/Where: Mapping. Minneapolis. 2004.

Harris, William. “How Haptic Technology Works.” How Stuff Works.

Lenaburg, Hope. Personal Interview. November 5, 2008.

“Quick Reference Guide to Accessible Constituency, Riding Association, 
Central Party and Campaign Offices. Office Accessibility Checklist” Ministry of Community and Social Services. Accessibilities for Ontarians with Disabilities.

Quilty-Harper, Conrad. “Tactile 3D maps could help blind people navigate.” Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Posted April 7, 2007. 5:15PM. Engadget.

Rojanaphruk, Pravit. “More toilets for disabled sought at new airport.” The Nation. Thailand. November 7, 2006.

Srinivasan, Rangakrishnan, Hussien Faisal A., Turker, Didem Z., Aslanzadeh. Hesam A., Mobarak, Mohamed, Cortes, Ferando P., Sánchez-Sinencio. Edgar. Design of an RFID / Zigbee Network for Blind Navigation. Texas A&M University. Summer 2004/ Fall 2005.

Starmer-Smith, Charles. “Disabled travellers 'still get a raw deal' Which? report shows industry is not doing enough to help passengers with special needs, says Charles Starmer-Smith.” The Daily Telegraph. London. September 8, 2007. Travel. Pg. 4.

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