The University of Guelph has installed BlindSquare, an app-based wayfinding system to help visually impaired students, staff and visitors find their way around campus. Jill Vigers, manager of architectural design, said she suggested the system as U of Guelph was looking to improve its pedestrian wayfinding. The institution had found that digital and web-based maps weren’t enough and brought in new physical signage – but the plan hadn’t gone far enough to include people who are blind or who have partial sight, Ms. Vigers said.
One option was to include braille on new physical signage. However, only 10 percent of the visually impaired community can read braille, Ms. Vigers noted, pointing to a 2009 finding by the National Federation of the Blind, an American organization. Using braille would require U of Guelph to convey a lot of information in only a few lines, she said. Plus, the visually impaired would have to know where the campus maps are and reading them could spread germs fast.
The BlindSquare system helps the visually impaired navigate by providing audible information about their surroundings. The app also allows users to send messages with Google Street photos of their location, and has the potential to be translated into over 20 languages. Users at the university will have access to these functions through the free BlindSq Event app (instead of the original BlindSquare app, which costs $54.99).
Vicki Bonanno, advisor with U of Guelph’s accessibility services, said there are about 25 students with visual impairments registered with campus accessibility. Right now, these students mostly rely on sighted guides to help them get around campus. “If a sighted guide, for example, doesn’t show for their shift, it causes a lot of issues,” Ms. Bonnano said. But BlindSquare is not about replacing sighted guides with technology, “it’s putting the student and the sighted guide on a level playing field,” she said. “It’s giving that person and the sighted guide the same amount of information. Or if they choose to not have a guide with them, they’re getting a lot of detailed information about the layout of the land.” And while students with visual impairments make up a small fraction of the university’s population, the system is important for building an “inclusivity culture,” Ms. Vigers said.
U of Guelph has already installed all three levels of the system, placing beacons near buildings, GPS points outdoors and QR codes just above door handles. The project has cost about $50,000 in one-time funding for U of Guelph’s signage improvement, and the Lions Club has agreed to donate about $10,000 per year for the next four years. Ms. Vigers said she expects to train sighted guides on using the system in full in August, and September. In the meantime, students, staff and visitors can test the system on their own.