People Who are Legally Blind Share Their Preferences for Indoor Wayfinding Systems

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

            People who are legally blind may have difficulty navigating large indoor spaces, such as airports or large office buildings. While fully sighted people may use printed maps, overhead signs, or visual landmarks to find desired destinations, people who are legally blind may be unable to access this information. Accessible GPS systems have been developed to aid people who are legally blind with outdoor navigation but, until recently, these systems provided little help with indoor wayfinding. Recent technologies such as Bluetooth beacons and variable wireless strength detection systems can enable indoor wayfinding similar to the functions of outdoor GPS systems. In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers asked assistive technology users who were legally blind to describe their preferences for an accessible indoor wayfinding system. The researchers wanted to know what types of buildings the individuals thought would be most important to map with an indoor wayfinding system, the types of information they considered most important to receive, and their preferred output modalities for receiving the information. The researchers also wanted to find out what personal factors were associated with being a more confident traveler and using GPS among individuals who are legally blind.

            Researchers developing an Accessible Environmental Information Application for Individuals with Visual Impairments looked at surveys from 614 adults aged 18 or older who were legally blind and subscribed to an email listserv of an accessible GPS vendor. All individuals reported traveling using either a white cane or a dog guide; about three-fourths were totally blind, while the remaining one-fourth had low vision; and nearly 90% reported using accessible GPS technology. On the surveys, the individuals were asked to rate their ease or difficulty in navigating 8 types of buildings: Bus and rail transit buildings, airports, large hotels, large office buildings, large retails stores, shopping malls, sports complexes, and museums. The survey also asked them to rate how important it was to be able to navigate each building type independently. The individuals were then asked to consider a scenario in which they needed to find as a doctor’s office in an unfamiliar building. They were asked which types of wayfinding information they would want to receive from a guidance system (such as room numbers or points of interest), and which types of output they wanted to receive: verbal, nonverbal auditory (such as beeps), vibrational, or a combination of outputs. They also rated their top 3 of 7 potential features of a wayfinding application such as ability to customize output information, ability to contact help, and ability to create a route to a specific point, among others. Finally, the individuals reported their age, gender, level of vision, employment status, whether or not they use an accessible GPS system, and whether they liked walking to new places on their own (confident traveler) or preferred not to walk to new places on their own (cautious traveler).

            The researchers found that:

  • Of the 8 building types, the individuals rated airports and sports complexes as most difficult to navigate. They rated bus and rail stations and airports as most important to be able to navigate on their own.
  • Of the types of wayfinding information, over 90% of individuals rated points of interest (POIs) such as elevators or bathrooms as most important. Information about room numbers and the location of an information desk was also rated as important by over 80% of the individuals.
  • Of the app features listed, the individuals rated ability to know their location at any time and automatic announcement of POIs as most desired.
  • Nearly all of the individuals indicated a preference for multiple types of output. A combination of verbal, auditory cues, and vibrational output was the most preferred.
  • While half of the participants rated themselves as confident travelers and the other half of the participants rated themselves as cautious travelers, a greater percentage of the men (56%) rated themselves as confident travelers than the women (41%). A greater percentage of the accessible GPS users, both men and women (52%), rated themselves as confident travelers, compared to the GPS nonusers (41%).
  • Regarding use of accessible GPS systems, the individuals aged 41-60, the individuals who were totally blind, and the individuals who were employed reported the highest rates of accessible GPS usage.

The authors noted that people who are legally blind could benefit from using an indoor wayfinding application to increase independence in their everyday lives. In this study, airports were rated as both most important and most difficult to navigate independently. Airports may thus be a high-priority building type to outfit with indoor wayfinding technology. While there was some variation in the types of information desired by the individuals in this study, most of the individuals agreed that providing access to POIs and current location information, with multiple types of cues, was most desirable. Developers of indoor wayfinding applications may wish to ensure that these applications can provide multiple types of information, with mechanisms in place for the users to customize the application settings so they receive ready access to most-desired information. Accessible GPS applications, if available for both indoor and outdoor wayfinding, may further increase independence and foster more confident travel for individuals who are legally blind.

To Learn More

The Sendero Group, developers of accessible GPS technology, have a collection of You Tube videos featuring individuals using accessible GPS to navigate in their communities.

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center: Develop and Evaluate Rehabilitation Technology and Methods for Individuals with Low Vision, Blindness, and Multiple Disabilities conducts research and development in indoor wayfinding technology and other navigation solutions. Learn more about their projects.

To Learn More About this Study

Ponchillia, P.E., Jo, S-J., Casey, K., and Harding, S. (2020) Developing an indoor navigation application: Identifying the needs and preferences of users who are visually impaired. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 114(5), 344-355. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J84831.

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