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Centre for Digital Built Britain

Dr Karen Blay is a Lecturer in Quantity Surveying at Loughborough University and a CDBB Early Career Researcher (ECR). Following a workshop in Brazil to design accessible infrastructure for the education and mobility of the blind, Dr Blay reflects on the need for ‘digital inclusion’.
My academic research spans two distinct areas, inclusivity and digitalisation of the built environment, which I aim to combine. The inclusivity research explores the ways in which different parties involved in a project feel included (valued, supported and respected). The CDBB-funded ECR project was on information resilience, and I also specialise in digital construction technologies.

A five-day workshop, co-funded by the British Council Newton Fundand held in Florianópolis in December last year, was an opportunity to further explore inclusivity and digitalisation. Bringing together academics from the UK and Brazil, the workshop set the task to design accessible infrastructure for the education and mobility of blind people. I was selected on the strength of my research on digital inclusion for vulnerable people in the built environment and welcomed the opportunity to consider the experience of the visually impaired and blind in this context.

Day one started with presentations from all of the delegates to share our areas of interest and identify potential collaboration. We worked in groups to design a navigation system to support a visually impaired person on the final stage of a journey, for example, finding the way home from the bus stop. In order to simulate the exercise, we wore blindfolds to attempt a number of tasks. There were two visually impaired workshop participants who were able to explain their preferences for types of technology to aid navigation.

We developed a pathway system using digital tools considering use of tactile, audio (verbal and non verbal sounds) and possibly smell as ways to speak to the brain that do not rely on visualisation. We wanted to use 3D audio and design a digital tool to enhance a multi-modal feedback system, while being mindful of physiological metrics as indicators to ensure the comfort of the visually impaired person.

A visit to a School for the Blind gave opportunity to talk to adult students to find out how and when they felt excluded, and what solutions they want in terms of navigating the built environment. Many students expressed the need to be consulted from the very start of the design process – they often felt designed for but not adequately consulted. Our conversations also pointed to the use of mobile apps that help the visually impaired to communicate – one student was a coder and used Braille and laptop tools to assist in coding.

We took part in a ‘Coffee in the Dark’ session where sighted people were blindfolded before having a coffee. This was a revealing exercise; the blind students asked us how we felt and some of the sighted participants reflected on how they were usually extroverts but had to be quiet in order to concentrate when their sight was removed.

Back at the workshop we presented our ideas on the navigation system. It was interesting that many of the UK participants came up with solutions incorporating a guide dog before learning from the Brazilian participants that guide dogs are prohibitively expensive in Brazil. The prototypes developed at the workshop are being considered for implementation. My group’s design featured a pair of smart glasses that could speak to the wearer and link to an app on their mobile phone that could direct them to the door of their house at the end of a journey.

My experiences in Brazil highlighted many considerations often overlooked. Digitalisation is collaborative, so how do we include visually impaired people in the process? If a project requires the use of Virtual Reality, how can a visually impaired member of the project feel included?

The workshop has invited reflection for future research. We all need to give thought to how digitalisation of the built environment can be inclusive throughout the entire process of designing, building, operating and integrating our physical, social and economic infrastructure. Only then will we deliver ‘digital inclusion’.