Mobility Apps for Blind People or How Technology Can Replace Special Assistance at the Airport?

 

Summer is here and holidays are coming up. Millions of us crowd to airports to fly to more or less distant destinations. And among us, people who are blind or visually impaired too! How do they get to their departure terminal, find their way in these disproportionate spaces, reach their check-in counter and then the boarding gate? In addition to passenger assistance services, technologies offer more and more possibilities to move independently and to enjoy the services of an airport in the same way as any other air passenger. Provided we take into account the specific needs of each and this is what we will discuss in more detail in this article.

Airport Assistance for Travelers with Disabilities or Reduced Mobility

When blind or visually impaired people make the decision to travel alone by plane, they may use airport assistance. They simply indicate their need of guided assistance during their flight reservation or by contacting the service directly at least 48 hours in advance.

With the regulation (EC) No 1107/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air, the European Union transferred responsibility for passenger assistance to airports. In some countries such as the United States, however, it remains the responsibility of the airlines, which results in very disparate service levels.

Special assistance staff can help people with disabilities from the check-in counter on to the aircraft, as well as on arrival. Travelers who are blind or visually impaired are then accompanied to go through security and to the departure gate.

Reaching the Airport Assistance Point: A Major Difficulty for a Blind Person

Although special assistance starts at the check-in desk, how do you get there if you have low or no vision? Traveling to and from the transit point or the drop-off can be long and fraught.

One solution is to install call stations near these stopping points so that travelers with disabilities or reduced mobility can report their presence to the special assistance staff. This is what the European regulation advocates. But again, how do you find these call points when you cannot see? To be easily localizable, the call stations must:

  • Be visually contrasted with their environment,
  • Be identifiable by an remote activated audio beacon and
  • Be marked with a tactile path.

It will also be necessary to ensure the simplicity and usability: call button clearly visible and handy, sound return to confirm the consideration of the call, audio quality for communication.

Indoor Navigation Apps for Blind and Visually Impaired People

Checking in your luggage, passing through the security check, going to the departure gate and then on to the aircraft, the human assistance makes it possible to accomplish all this route easily and without stress. But blind and visually impaired people aspire to enjoy the same services as other travelers: going to restrooms, eating, shopping … This is even more important when the succession of flights requires them a long wait. In addition, the use of airport assistance requires anticipation that is not always possible (last-minute travel offers, unplanned business trips, family emergencies, etc.). That’s why being able to navigate independently in an airport with a visual impairment is a key issue.

Many international airports, such as Paris, Copenhagen or Houston, offer smartphone-based indoor navigation applications to guide travelers through their premises. These applications are generally based on Bluetooth low-energy beacons spread around the building, these same beacons that can transmit contextualized information.

But unlike what exists today, to guide the visually impaired, these applications must take into account their specific needs.

The user interface:

The application must be fully compatible with screen readers (VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android) and the zoom and comfort options on smartphones. All buttons, lists and other navigation items must be carefully labeled with explicit text.

Different input methods must be available: classic input, voice dictation or braille input on the screen.

Directions:

Visually impaired people generally do not have the ability to refer to a map or visual signage. The directions must therefore be indicated according to the position of the user, using either the clock face or provided in degrees.

Specific landmarks:

People who are blind or visually impaired rely on different landmarks from other travelers. These are essentially tactile or sound cues. Thus, the descriptions of routes provided by the application must mention these elements in a precise manner: tactile guide paths, warning indicators, audio beacons… These physical elements also make it possible to confirm one’s position and be reassured about the good course of the itinerary.

Wayfinding accuracy:

Although it is possible for sighted people to rectify the inaccuracy of navigation by glancing at the signage and their environment, this is much more complicated for people with low or no vision. Location accuracy is therefore an important factor in guiding a route and reaching the desired destination. But it is not the only one! Current technologies are not accurate within one meter. In order to fulfill the mobility objectives of end users, to ensure precise guidance and to lead them to their destination, other criteria intervene, in particular the accuracy of the instructions issued. Is the staircase ascending or descending? How many steps? Right or turning? Is there a door? A manual or automatic opening?

The involvement of end users in the project

Finally, the application must be customizable because the needs and user preferences vary from one person to another depending on their remaining visual abilities, their experience and their abilities. Any wayfinding application project should be the subject of a consultation of end users to identify their needs, but also of in situ experiments during development to validate the proper functioning of the system.

Today, the expertise acquired by professionals specialized in mobility of people with disabilities and the maturity of technologies make it possible to consider effective solutions for guiding people with visual impairments. This is the opportunity to offer them equal access to all services and freedom of choice in their daily lives, to allow them full participation in economic and social life.

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Special assistance starts at the check-in desk. How do you get there if you have low or no vision? Traveling to and from the transit point or the drop-off can be long and fraught.

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Lise Wagner

Lise Wagner

Accessibility Expert

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