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The Information Requirements of Persons who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Janina Sajka

Capital Accessibility, LLC



Executive Summary


Audio based communications are most universally appropriate for persons who are blind or visually impaired.  Other modalities, such as large-print or braille, leave out significant percentages of this population.  However, care is required to insure that audibly based information is sufficiently comprehensive and usable by this population.  Today, there are significant gaps particularly with respect to signage.  Additional gaps can be expected if technology is allowed to develop without enforced public mandates for inclusion.  On the other hand, well designed emergency information systems can provide superior support to all members of the public, not just to those who are blind or visually impaired.




Upwards of 10 million Americans live with significant vision impairment (  Of these, approximately 1.3 million are legally blind, and approximately 130,000 have no light perception.  This same source notes that 5 million Americans over the age of 65 (not living in nursing homes) report a visual impairment, and 1 million of these report a severe visual impairment.  In other words, most visually impaired individuals are older.  Additionally, while some 1 million have access to a computer, only approximately 102,000 severely visually impaired individuals are estimated to use computers regularly as of 1999 (


Clearly, the continuum from 130,000 individuals with no light perception to 10 million with significant vision impairment will include a variety of abilities, including even the ability to read print under certain circumstances.  Thus, when print is used, it should conform to available knowledge for making it accessible to the greatest number of individuals in the greatest range of circumstances (  Indeed, we do tend to mark critical emergency signage well from a low vision perspective.  After all, a smoke filled room will make finding the "Exit" sign a challenge for those with normal vision.  Unfortunately, we have not yet incorporated available knowledge about audio communication strategies as cleverly as we might, either to point those who will never read print to the exit, or to serve the rest of the population when the lights are out.


The predominately older demographic of this population also indicates why relatively fewer individuals in the population are braille readers.  It is simply less easy for us, as we age, to acquire new language skills, written or oral.  Children may learn to speak a foreign language fluently, even without an accent.  Adults rarely do.


The primary human adaptation to loss of visual ability at any age is, of course, a more discriminating reliance on the ability to hear.  The remainder of this White Paper will discuss how this most common ability among persons who are blind could be leveraged to provide effective emergency information and communication support for persons who are blind or visually impaired, and indeed for any of us who might be able to hear when the lights are out in a smoke filled room.


Broadcast Media


Long the mainstay of emergency information, broadcast radio continues to be the most accessible source of emergency information to this population.  Since radio is exclusively an aural modality, there’s no accessibility issue for visually impaired individuals.  It should also be noted that specialized broadcast services targeted expressly to this population generally called “radio reading services for the blind” are thriving in many localities, operating in “piggyback” fashion on the sub-carrier channels of mainstream broadcasters’ frequencies.


Unfortunately, radio receivers are unlikely to remain accessible to operate as broadcasting moves to digital radio -- with the sole exception of the specialized receivers utilized by radio reading services for the blind.  This problem is already evident in broadcast receivers for satellite based radio programming which utilize display screens and context specific operational controls.  The blind user receives no information from the screen they cannot see, and thus has no basis to know what the result of pressing controls is, or is supposed to be.  Indeed, it is frequently the case that control buttons are so designed as to be next to impossible to find and actuate without sight for any but the most tactually astute power users.  Thus, an intrinsically accessible communication modality is about to become significantly less usable through equipment design that is not accessibility friendly.


This situation is analogous to that of cellular telephone accessibility.  In both cases the underlying modality -- voice telephone and broadcast radio --  are intrinsically accessible to persons who are blind.  In both cases operational control interfaces of the devices used to access those modalities created the usage barrier for this population.  As with cellular telephone devices, early breakthroughs in accessible digital receivers are most likely to come on devices using open platform design which can be repurposed by third parties.  In the case of cellular telephone technology, legal mandates have been used to provide some level of accessibility on closed device platforms, but no such mandates are in place for digital broadcast radio or television devices (even as alternative audio for displayed information is required of emergency announcements).


Of course, the audio component of broadcast television also serves the blind user, and may even provide some support to the visually impaired user.  However, the understandable desire to maximize information throughput by speaking some information while displaying other information on screen introduces significant accessibility barriers to this population as a whole.  By and large, data displayed on screen and not made available through alternative audio channels (such as the television SAP) channel, is simply lost to most visually impaired individuals.  By law and FCC regulation it is intended that this data will be provided through alternative audio, but it appears this requirement is often overlooked or simply ignored.  Furthermore, the current procedure of requiring the blind user to access some secondary source of information upon hearing a tone is woefully inadequate.  What tone?  What other source?  How does one know?


Notwithstanding the very real concern for the accessibility of receiver controls, digital broadcast media holds tremendous promise for emergency information communications.  Time is a significant enemy in broadcasting.  There is simply not enough time to provide all the specificity that might be needed in one neighborhood after the next.  The problem will be familiar to all who travel by automobile in today’s rush hour traffic listening to traffic updates on the radio that seem to describe every congestion but the one you’re stuck in.  Digital receivers equipped with GPS type locational technology could, on the other hand, provide geographically appropriate detail.  Digital broadcast media may be the best suited for transmitting specific information and instructions to receivers in some specific geographic locus without imposing undue burden on the broadcast infrastructure.  Indeed, we have begun to see such location specific approaches in newer, high-end traffic navigational guidance systems.


Such locale specific transmissions may prove of great value to blind and visually impaired individuals because acquiring geographically specific emergency information is one of the more difficult challenges faced by this population today.  For instance, it is this specificity which goes missing when on-screen data in television broadcasts is not made available through alternative audio.


Voice Telephone


As ubiquitous and intrinsically accessible to this population as broadcast media, the traditional, wire-line telephone remains an effective tool for information acquisition.  This is true despite the fact that the telephone device itself is becoming less accessible for the same reasons described for broadcast receivers above.  Fortunately, for most users, especially in the home, today’s telephone still exhibits a dial-tone when the handset’s receiver is lifted, and dialing still works as it did before handsets acquired display screens and additional control keys.


The telephone is generally also used more aggressively by persons who are blind and visually impaired.  For instance, newspapers can be read by telephone nationwide.  And, unlike radio reading services which must read on a schedule, telephone based reading services can operate on the individual user’s schedule, and they can house far more information than could ever be broadcast in a 24-hour day.  For these reasons IVR systems offer a particularly viable modality for emergency preparedness and follow-up information, especially if based in a well designed system that can be updated with locality-specific data in an automated fashion.  The audio to be played via the telephone can then be generated using high-quality synthetic text-to-speech (TTS) voices, just as many of the newspapers available by telephone are.


The cellular telephone is also an important device for visually impaired individuals to carry for obvious personal safety reasons.  Despite the fact that major emergency circumstances can stress cellular telecommunications, the cellular telephone is a bulwark of support in an emergency.  Just in the past two years, cellular telephones which are accessible have become available in the U.S.


A profound shift in the meaning of telephone is, however, upon us.  As with cellular telephones today, the day is coming when a telephone number will cease to mean a particular geographic location.  The implications of this shift are profound.  The accessibility implication for the blind and visually impaired population, however, could be better service.  Because the number will soon be associated with an individual rather than a geographic locus, it can also be associated with specific user data of value to first responders and to automated systems information retrieval.  Clearly there are enormous significant privacy implications that would need to be resolved before such systems could gain acceptance.  However, I am of the opinion that these can, and will eventually be resolved simply because the level of service that can be provided to everyone is so significantly enhanced when your portable telephone device knows who you are and where you are.  Regardless, it is clear that E-911 for cellular users is only the tip of a massive iceberg of change.  At the very least, it will be critical to develop a technological means to identify where an emergency call is coming from, geographically, as portable VoIP devices come to market.




So critical to safe egress in emergency circumstances, signage has to date totally failed persons who are blind, though it is of value to many living with less severe visual impairments.  Thus, practicing emergency evacuation is all the more important for blind individuals.  Because the environment which is familiar in the neighborhood of one’s home or workplace is likely to be impacted negatively in an emergency, both the blind individual and emergency personnel should exercise additional precautions during, and following many emergency situations.  The blind individual cannot expect the familiar environment has not changed in some way which is hazardous.  Similarly, emergency personnel need to be aware that blind individuals may well experience greater difficulty finding food, water, medical supplies, (and other items generally acquired by going somewhere) in the aftermath of a major emergency.


While there may be little we can yet conceive to assist the blind individual in an emergency by way of accessible signage, there is a significant pathfinder opportunity which should be investigated and tested further.  To date, emergency alerting has consisted of loud and annoying mechanisms designed to get an individual’s attention.  What the individual is to do once their attention has been obtained is generally not addressed by audible alarms.


The alarm bell could, however, also be an escape vector indicator.  If, rather than pulsing simultaneously (or at random), groups of alarms pulsed in sequence beginning at the outer edge and terminating at the point of exit, then they would indeed indicate the direction of escape.  I believe such an application of audible technology would prove highly beneficial in general, let alone to the blind individual who today may be awakened in their hotel room by the fire alarm, but have little knowledge of which way to flee.  Far too few of us take note of exits in public spaces.  Fewer, if any of us actually practice evacuating a hotel we’re staying in for just a day or two, let alone the office building we visit for just an hour.


There may be other applications of enhanced signage design which could also prove beneficial to the general public as well as to persons who are blind.  These are speculative, but an organized visioning of possibility is doubtless overdue.


Mixed Media On (And Off) Line


I have left digital (and Internet) based information and communications to last primarily because it has not yet reached the preponderance of individuals who are blind or visually impaired.  Nevertheless, it inevitably will become a daily information and communication modality for most in this population someday.  Clearly, it already is for many, especially for the minority who is younger and employed.


Still, it is not the “when” that will determine how valuable digital modalities will be in emergency communications, but rather “how” those communications and information resources are created and maintained.  The simple truth of the matter is that all technological options are not equally viable when we apply the criterion of accessibility.  Since we cannot expect that human needs, and particularly the alternative functional needs of persons who are blind or visually impaired, will change very soon (if ever), we must rather ask that our technology be so constructed as to serve all, especially when it comes to areas of particular national concern such as emergency preparedness, situation management and response.  It is clear that we know how to make these systems accessible.  Indeed, we are ever becoming more clever in repurposing generically coded information to serve ever more types of user needs.  It is not, however, yet clear that we have the political will to make it so despite mandates such as the Section 508 strictures on government.


The fundamental principles of the “how” are well understood.  Sometimes called “universal design,” they involve the coding and storage of information in such a manner that it can be repurposed by machines automatically, as the information is communicated, so that the blind user who cannot hear might read braille on a refreshable display device, while the one who can would hear spoken language, and the one whose visual impairment is less severe can read large print of a particular font type and of a particular color on screen.  One scheme for such coding is already available in the NISO/DAISY XML specifications, and is being actively proposed for this kind of use particularly in Japan by members of the international DAISY Consortium ( &  In truth, to achieve universal access of information delivery, we will either use the NISO/DAISY standard, or invent another much like it.  There is no other option not because technology will not change -- it will.  There is no other option because the range of human need will not change.


This is good news.  It means we know how to build systems that can provide the same information to users who require different modalities -- and even different languages.  Documents recently published by a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Working Group are unfolding a vision of how such generically coded data can be repurposed in ever more specific, situation and user need aware ways (see  We also understand how to automatically repurpose user interface controls to meet individual human needs more effectively (see


Whether we will achieve such visions is not a question of technology.  It is a matter of political will.  It requires us to build on the beginnings embodied in Section 255 (the accessibility provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) and of Section 508 (the requirements for accessible electronic and information technologies in the U.S. Government).  Should these be extended to cover emergency communications and information systems maintained by individual states?  Municipalities?  Universities and corporations?  One thing is clear; the means of communicating with individuals who are blind or visually impaired will not change.  Only the technology can change to meet the modalities that work for blind and visually impaired persons.  And, only the will to make it so can make it so.




Some Basic Survival Strategies for the Blind or Visually Impaired Individual 


·        Think in Terms of Alternative Options


It will not always be possible, but two choices are always better than one.  Plan for two escape routes, two rendezvous locations, two friends to call for help, etc.


·        Use the Radio


Radio broadcasts, by their very nature, will voice the public information a blind or low vision person will need, whereas television may voice some information while displaying other data in scrolling onscreen messages.  Keep a crank radio, and keep extra batteries for all portable radios you have.


·        Keep a Well-Charged Cell Phone Handy


It could prove vital to take your cell phone with you if you need to evacuate, so get in the habit of keeping your cell phone close at hand.  The time you need to evacuate is not the time to search for your phone, yet it could prove important should you become trapped or lost after evacuating some building.


·        Keep Extra Batteries


Many emergencies also result in long power outages.  Extra batteries for your cell phone, charged and ready to use, can prove important.  Similarly, extra batteries for your radio can prove to be important.


·        Have Spares at Hand


Of your white cane, or dog leash, or glasses at hand ready to use on your way out the door.


·        Label Key Items


It is hard to remember what any particular container contains when you don't use that item daily.  Label your emergency supplies clearly with braille dyno tape, or large print labels.


·        Practice Egress


Emergency egress will often require use of stairways and passages you might not otherwise use.  At home and at work, practice leaving safely.  Refresh the exercise every six months.


·        Do Not Assume


The nature of emergency is that things are not as they should be.  Do not assume you know how to find your way, because your route may be blocked.  Do not assume simple safety techniques, such as basic cane techniques, will be sufficient to keep you safe.  Proper cane technique will not protect your head and shoulders, for instance, on a route that may be partially blocked at head level as the result of emergency conditions.  Take extra care while you move expeditiously and purposefully


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