Walking into Trouble: How ‘shared space’ shuts blind people out

Some friends drew my attention to the above video, which is about how the ludicrous “shared space” fad (in which ‘street furniture’ is ripped out, pavements and roads levelled, and surfaces smoothed out to give a more open, less ‘cluttered’ appearance) is shutting blind people out of town and city centres across the UK. A scheme like this was recently imposed on a busy road junction near where my sister used to live, which has already started causing accidents, as has been reported in the local media. It also tells how these schemes have been bulldozed through, and the well-grounded fears of blind people, that they are dangerous for them as they do not provide the tactile clues as to where the road begins and the pavement ends, were simply ignored. (More: Rob Imrie on Vimeo.)

The people who made the video are from Leek in Staffordshire, where a scheme was imposed and blind people who said it would make them less safe and make it impossible for them to go into their town centres without being accompanied, as they have been doing for years. They visit a number of schemes across the country, including the notorious Exhibition Road in London, and the blunders and their effects on blind people’s ability to use (and cross) the spaces are obvious. The Dutch originator of the scheme did not even envisage the scheme as being for busy roads like Exhibition Road or the Hackbridge junction, but for low-traffic environments; but even in an area like Cliffe (part of Lewes in East Sussex), it shows its pitfalls and limitations; loading bays there are set into the pavement, not the road, in a way that no blind person can tell where it begins, so they end up walking straight into the back of a truck.

Roads without high kerbs are, of course, easier to access for someone in a wheelchair, and also make it easier to get goods from a truck to their intended destination without spilling them (anyone who’s tried that with an unwrapped pallet will know what I mean). But they are a huge obstacle for blind and partially-sighted pedestrians, something that was known about in advance but simply ignored. Also, the main blind people’s group involved in this video was the National Federation of the Blind, a small grouping compared to the RNIB, which was not involved in this project although they have some material about their ‘concerns’ about shared spaces on their website. Perhaps public bodies expect representations on behalf of blind people to come from the RNIB, and thought “NFB, who are they?”.

Shared space reflects a current trend in design, whereby everything has to be flat — consider how electronic user interfaces used to have sculptured buttons, and now all they have is rectangles in primary colours, or even just text (the change was most dramatic on iOS when version 7 came out; ‘skeuomorphism’, or apps resembling real-world objects, became taboo, or what might have been called oldthink in Orwell’s 1984). There has been much talk about clearing the streets of ‘clutter’, which includes benches, barriers, high kerbs, pretty much anything that makes the street look less flat, but little thought was given to the functions some of these items had. Of course, improving access for wheelchair users is vital, but the major supposed advantage of these changes is visual, which is of no use to totally blind people and the result makes life more dangerous for all visually impaired people — and for other types of non-wheelchair-using disabled people. Surely, the needs of some disabled people can be met without sacrificing those of others, and nobody’s safety or access should be sacrificed on the altar of a design fad. It will pass, like all the others did.

Some reports on the negative consequences of ‘shared space’ (thanks to the Sea of Change team on Twitter):

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