Many foreign visitors to Prague or elsewhere in the Czech Republic are often puzzled by the ticking sound of traffic lights at pedestrian crossings. It is the acoustic equivalent of the green and red lights and for several years it has been helping the blind and visually impaired to move around cities much more independently and confidently.
Viktor Dudr from the organisation called "Czech Blind United" is the man behind a whole range of unique navigation aids you will find dotted around urban areas in this country. Many of them might not be immediately apparent to people who do not know about them.
"In December 1989, immediately after the Velvet Revolution, we founded an organisation independent of the former communist structures. We agreed that we would try and tackle the limitations posed by blindness ourselves. By that I mean lack of information and difficulties in performing activities that for sighted people are quite common, such as running a household or moving around outside the home. We decided to address those challenges, aiming for maximum independence and safety."
Viktor Dudr says that for every visually impaired person who is willing to lead an independent life, the Czech Republic provides good and widely available social and health care services. To further improve the mobility of blind and visually impaired people, the organisation first had to come up with a list of demands as to how the urban environment could be adjusted to suit their specific needs.
Eventually they found the technical and political support and managed to have the requirements for architectural and transportation adaptations enshrined in laws dealing with urban planning.
"The measures we introduced reflect the fact that visually impaired people obtain all the information about their immediate surroundings through their hearing, sometimes even their sense of smell, but mainly their sense of touch using the white cane. Therefore the most important adaptations are tactile signal and warning strips on the pavement at pedestrian crossings that can be felt both by the stick and by feet."
Those strips for example tell blind people that a crossing is wheelchair adapted. If the crossing has a complicated shape, guiding lines lead the blind safely across. Guiding lines on the platforms of the Prague metro mark a safe distance from the edge or train. Similar adaptations are now in construction on railway station platforms around the country.
Another important type of navigation for the blind and visually impaired is acoustic signalling.
"After Sweden the Czech Republic has the most widespread acoustic signalling for pedestrians at crossings. It's become so common that even the sighted often rely on the sound, without realising it is there primarily to serve the blind. If the sound is turned off in order not to disturb people living in the area we can activate it with a remote control just for the time we need it."
The remote control is a small box with six push buttons. It can be built into the white cane.
As Viktor Dudr of "Czech Blind United" says, remote control activated acoustic beacons are also used to locate important buildings and institutions.
This simple signal says where the door is. Sometimes it gives the user precise information.
...says a speaker above the door to the "Czech Blind United" headquarters just off Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague.
Such acoustic beacons can give people directions around a whole building. And if they can be used in buildings the organisation thought it would be very useful to equip public transport vehicles with such acoustic aids.
"In twelve cities and towns in this country, buses, trams and trolleybuses are equipped with remote control operated speakers which announce this:
"I can even inform the driver that a blind person is about to get on:
"That's what the driver hears in his or her cabin. If I need any help, they will try and assist me."
Viktor Dudr says this acoustic navigation system is very flexible, very cheap and it is catching on fast.
As far as the tactile strips are concerned, the "Czech Blind United" took their inspiration from abroad, and made a few additions of their own. Viktor Dudr says the acoustic guiding system is predominantly a Czech invention.
"We would welcome such adaptations becoming standard in other European countries. The blind too can travel and if I want to stay somewhere for longer, I will learn the routes and be independent."
Although the tactile and acoustic navigation aids are working well, there is still room for improvement.
"We hope that technical progress will bring more sophisticated devices. In the future such technologies as the Global Positioning System will change the whole system of navigation for the blind. One day they will be navigated from house to house."
Viktor Dudr, Vice-president of "Czech Blind United", an organisation whose motto says: "We do not decide and act on behalf of the blind; we are blind citizens deciding and acting for ourselves, on the principles of self-reliance, partnership, solidarity, respect for human dignity, freedom of choice and common sense."
More information at www.sons.cz
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