Clearing Our Path

Creating accessible environments ­for people with vision loss

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Acoustics

Sounds can give a person useful information about a space. People with vision loss may snap their fingers, tap a long cane or make another noise to listen for a reflected sound, a process known as “echolocation” (for more information on echolocation, read “How Blind People Use Batlike Sonar ” on the news.sciencemag.org website.

Echolocation may help to detect the size of a room, presence of corridors or proximity of structural barriers (e.g., walls and poles). Within a built space, specific sounds can provide information about the location of specific features, such as elevators. However, the space must be designed to allow all of these sounds to be heard.

Inappropriately high levels of reflected and ambient sound (sound glare) within an environment will result in sound masking. Sound glare interferes with the process of locating an auditory cue and can confuse and tire a listener. Crowds of people, construction or maintenance noise, a jet plane flying overhead or background music in lobbies and elevators can drown out useful auditory information. Layouts that feature large rooms with high, open ceilings, as seen in recent restaurant design trends, result in excessive noise, making navigation or orientation extremely difficult for someone with vision loss. If possible, avoid this kind of layout to ensure all guests and patrons have the best possible experience. Otherwise, consider using noise-masking devices such as white noise generators.

A solid object located between a sound source and a listener can create a sound shadow. Sound shadows can provide useful information, but they can also cause disorientation for a person who relies on specific sound cues for mobility. For example, a temporary display, scaffolds used for building maintenance and repairs or decorative items that are positioned after building construction can distort or block critical sounds.

While a building designer can’t control every occurrence of sound glare or shadowing, several steps should be considered when planning the acoustic design of a space:

Reflected sounds that enable a person to use echolocation are frequently a good source of auditory cues. Consider how the structure and texture of planned circulation routes might interact with user-created sounds (e.g., the tapping of a cane) before building or retrofitting a space.