I first visited the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library for a class project in 2018. Aptly named, the library is meant to serve blind and visually-impaired visitors, as well as neighborhood locals.
What struck me the most about this library was how “normal” it was. There were flat, copy-paper posters taped to the wall about current goings on. There were no audio cues or high-contrast signage. An employee confirmed that new visitors typically needed assistance with getting around and finding resources. Simply put, the library seemed to house braille and talking books in a building made for sighted people.
Researching for this project cleared up a lot of misconceptions I had about visual impairment. I initially didn’t realize that over 85% of legally blind individuals could still see and distinguish color and contrast, nor did I know that only about 10% of legally blind people use and understand it braille. This meant braille couldn't be the sole method of communicating. In order to guarantee an equal experience to visitors, I'd have to develop a system of high-contrast environmental graphics and tactile pathways.
Differentiating direct pathways from ambient space requires a change in flooring material. Pathways between useful objects and locations throughout the rooms could be paved in tile, while other parts of the floor could be in carpeted for an obvious change underfoot. Visitors would always know that while on the tile path, they were going somewhere intentional and not at risk of walking into any shelves or furniture.
A metal bar with embossed braille cues could provide direction for visitors with total blindness and/or literacy in braille. These bars would be installed along directional pathways to provide context and let visitors know where to go to find specific rooms or shelves. From there, they could make their way over to bookshelves and tables, also embossed with braille to demarcate context and purpose. There should also be different textures associated with each section of the library for ease of recognition and for those who might not read braille.
For visitors that are able to differentiate between color and contrast, high-contrast signage and graphics could be more useful than tactile methods.
Assigning color to each genre or section within the library could help low-vision visitors quickly identify and navigate between these areas, especially against the white interior. Color must be used carefully — hues that are too similar to each other could potentially confuse a visitor who struggles with contrast. They also must be used consistently.
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Currently, there is no non-visual indication of the buildings entrance, nor is there a very strong visual presence of the library at all.
There should be a greater visual and non-visual indication of the library’s entrance. A quick paint job, some signage, and the addition of tactile pavement in front of the library doors would help the library stand out to visually-impaired passersby.
All people deserve to self-advocate and self-serve as much as possible in any space, and this is especially true for spaces that are dedicated to groups of people with different abilities.