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How do you find a bus stop if you are visually impaired? Rob Sleath discusses Access Awareness Day and accessibility on transit

Rob Sleath, the chair of our Access Transit Users’ Advisory Committee

Rob Sleath, the chair of our Access Transit Users’ Advisory Committee

It’s Access Awareness Day on Saturday, June 5, so I thought we’d take some time this week to talk about accessibility—the issue has a lot more subtleties than you’d think!

To give us a bit of background, I spoke to Rob Sleath, who helps guide TransLink’s Access Transit accessibility strategy as chair of our Users’ Advisory Committee.

Rob kindly explained why Access Awareness Day is important, the challenges he faces on transit and beyond as a person with a visual impairment, and what people can do to help make their communities more accessible.

“It’s not my vision loss that is the disability,” Rob says. “It’s the environment around me. If you change the environment you minimize my disability.”

Why is Access Awareness Day important?

Well, the title of the day itself implies it all. The whole issue around Access Awareness Day is bringing focus onto different types of accessibilities and different kinds of needs.

When I first started working on accessibility, it was all about people with mobility aids. But the more I heard this word, make it “accessible,” I started to ask, “What exactly does that mean?” I quickly learned it’s about physical disabilities, but there are people out there with hidden disabilities: cognitive, sensory disabilities, and more. And that was my focus, to get the transit planners and transit management to recognize and develop systems that would be accessible and inclusive to everybody.

What challenges do you personally face on transit?

Rob in one of our SkyTrain Mark II vehicles.

Rob in one of our SkyTrain Mark II vehicles.

Bearing in mind that I have a sensory disability, one of my biggest challenges is access to information. And not just because of vision loss: many have a print disability, such as dyslexia. Access to information is a huge challenge.

The introduction of automated bus stop announcements has been an absolute godsend. For people who are blind or visually impaired, how do you know where you are? Especially if you’re on a bus with an operator who is busy, dealing with other passengers. Who’s the one with the problem? Not them, it’s me.

So those automated announcements are a huge step towards independence for those with vision loss. And we’d like to really make it clear that the announcements also help seniors, tourists, people with English as a second language.

As well, something as easy as finding a bus stop is also very difficult. You start to think about the bus stop at the corner of Broadway and Granville, we’ve all sort of been there. But if I say at the corner of Lynn Valley and another street, how would you find that?

I never thought about that. How do you find bus stops?

You guess. I know it sounds like a funny answer, but that’s really it. We do have orientation skills thanks to programs from the CNIB, and there is generally a pattern to of stops follow, but sometimes it’s not the case.

The poles are not always the same texture or design. In Richmond, some of the bus signs are attached to utility poles or lamp standards. There used to be a time when they used to use square wooden poles, and you’d tap those with a hand or white cane. But that doesn’t apply anymore. So it’s guesswork. Some people say, well, why don’t you ask someone for help? Well, sometimes there isn’t anyone around!

But things are coming along. Hansel Wang [one of TransLink’s planners] has been instrumental in developing a universally accessible bus stop standard. Not only for people with sensory disabilities, appropriate shelter, accommodation for people with mobility aids. Adequate sitting for those who need a place to sit down.

And it’s my understanding that they are going to build some pilot bus stop prototypes 10 or 12 and give them a test in the lower mainland. There will be tactile material on the sidewalk so people can see it. The pole will be colour contrasted with TL colours so you can distinguish from a no parking sign. I’ve stood beside no parking signs before and no buses have ever picked me up.

There will be tactile signage, possibly some Braille on there to make it easier to find. And if the pilot projects work we’ll see a couple of hundred of those in the region by my grandchildren’s time.

So what should people pay attention to during Access Awareness Day? What do you hope they take away from it?

Most importantly, I hope they see that people with disabilities do not choose to have a disability. Many of us recognize that when we’re using public transit, we are using a bit of extra space, but people can have some empathy and compassion. I’m not saying “sympathy,” because many of us just want understanding that this is our lot in life.

This is one thing too for operators. When you have someone boarding your bus, recognize that they’re people first. When you ask passengers to stand back, it’s not because you have to unload a wheelchair off, it’s because you’re letting a passenger off. For people with disabilities, they’ve gone through a lot to get to that bus stop in the morning. Someone in a wheelchair probably took one to two hours to get to that stop.

Could you talk a bit about accessibility challenges beyond transit?

I’m going to talk about this at the APTA conference [Rob will be presenting a session on accessibility next week], and I’m going to say this: It’s not my vision loss that is the disability. It’s the environment around me. If you change the environment you minimize my disability.

If you put a print menu in front of me I’m totally disabled. If you put a Braille menu in front of me, I’m totally independent. Whether it be transit, or accessible pedestrian signals, or audiobooks in the library. If you change that environment, vision loss becomes an inconvenience, not a disability.

So what can people do to help make their communities more accessible, or raise awareness around these issues?

My first thought is volunteering for various rehabilitation centres. They’re all really struggling right now. The BCPA, the CNIB, they could always use volunteer help—even if it’s only an hour a week, whatever people can spare.

But in terms of access, I think the best thing to do is if you encounter someone with a disability, don’t be afraid to go up and speak to them. Don’t be afraid about saying the wrong thing. You can never go wrong by saying “Can I assist you?,” not “Can I help you?” Go up and ask them. That can open a door and people with disabilities really appreciate it. People have a tendency to walk around you when you have a disability. I think they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. But you might just be able to assist someone, or it might just lead to a pleasant conversation.

How long have you been working to improve transit accessibility?

The sign dedicated to Rob and three others at Vancouver Transit Centre!

The sign dedicated to Rob and three others at Vancouver Transit Centre!

I’ve volunteered for years now, back when it was still BC Transit. I’ve even got my own bus stop at Vancouver Transit Centre. It’s a mock bus stop used for training, and they had a dedication ceremony for four of us who do a disability awareness seminar for the operators.

I’ve been doing it for about 10 years, and we essentially give about a 1.5 hour seminar at the training centre. We take operators into the yard and we blindfold them and make them find their way along the side of the bus to the front door and get them to get seated. And with the blindfolds on we take them around the city and stop, and ask them where they are.

They quickly get the idea and start to understand. By knowing where you are on the bus, it gives you greater confidence, instead of just sitting and hoping that the driver is going to remember your stop. I always say to them that I haven’t met one of you yet that can turn a trolley around on Seymour Street if you’ve missed the stop.

We let them know about what to do when someone visually impaired is boarding. People don’t think about that: they don’t realize you have to give verbal cues. If you point, or if you say “That seat’s free over there,” it doesn’t work.

But I’m happy that TransLink is going to focus on this even for one day. I really have to take my hat off to TransLink over the years. They’ve done an admirable job making a commitment to accessible transit. TransLink has been around for 10 years now, and there’s still a long way to go but it’s pretty darned good.

Many thanks, Rob!


  • By Sean Turvey, May 31, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    There are so many disabilities to deal with.

    I personally have back problems (among others). My eyesight isn’t terrible but I need to know which bus is mine as soon as possible so I can get ready and stand up, which can be a slow process on certain days. When there are hockey games on (or during the Olympics), the bus signs flashes back and forth from the route name to “Go Canucks Go”. At a distance it is quite difficult to process the information so I either have to stand up for every bus which causes me pain or wait until the bus is close and risk missing it. I have had a bus driver chastise me for not getting up in time.

  • By Brendan, May 31, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    Great post! I’m a visually impaired student, but I have enough vision that I don’t need to carry a cane. I think Rob and the commenter above bring up a good point. There’s spectrum of disabilities, and a gradient of disability within each of those.

    Two suggestions for TransLink:
    -When someone shows CNIB pass the operator should always say “that’s fine” or “thank you” so the passenger knows they have seen the pass (even if they don’t ‘appear’ to be blind). The most common practice I’ve experienced is to nod, which I just can’t see. There’s the guessing that Rob mentioned again.. I’ve been reprimanded by operators for not noticing they’ve nodded and stopping up the line, and for not paying because I thought they nodded at me. I definitely understand the mistake but its still a stressful and embarrassing situation.

    -The bus signs. It would be AMAZING if they size of the bus numbers could be increased. There seems to be room on most signs, and if they were just a little bigger I know I and other VI persons I know could read them. Or I could dust of those braille skills if it were implemented. :)

    On the whole the system and the people are so good. Once I say that I’m VI and ask for assistance, nearly everyone is happy to do so. Just try and remember not all disabled people ‘look’ disabled. Thanks.

  • By Donna, May 31, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    I’m often surprised at how many people grouse about accessibility… and then go and use those same accessibility aids. How many of us have had our hands full and used an automatic door opener? Been pushing something on wheels and appreciated the cut out corners in sidewalks? Been distracted while reading on transit, and not noticed where they were until the automated stop announcement called it out?

    I know a few disabled folks who, somewhat cheekily, refer to non-disabled people as “temporarily able bodied”. I kind of like it, because it’s a good reminder that all good things come to an end, and one day there’s a good chance it’ll be you trying to tell the difference between a no parking sign and a bus stop while the blissfully unaware drift easily through life like you used to…

  • By Douglas, May 31, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    As a (relatively) quick fix for the bus stops, couldn’t there be some kind of tactile material that could be wrapped around bus stop poles, around hand height (just below the turning schedules), about 18 inches long, with an easy to recognize feel like bubble wrap. Service crews could drive along with a long roll of it, cut and apply the appropriate amount for the diameter of the pole. Easier than replacing poles – you can use what’s there now. A bright colour will help bus drivers too.

  • By Sean Turvey, May 31, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    @Douglas this sounds like a good idea however, I don’t think there would be as much need to feel the surface if a turning schedule were on a post as that would be a pretty good indicator in itself.

  • By Cliff, May 31, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Not always. I used to work out of a shop on Bute and Robson. Everyday, for about a week, I noticed a blind man use the bus stop on the far side boarding the 5 to go downtown. One day, his white cane missed the stop and he tapped the wrong pole instead, causing him to wait for the bus at a no stopping sign instead, several metres away from the stop.

    I suppose a tactile floor, like at certain b-line stops could be handy, but it’s awful expensive to install and maintain.

    One idea I have is to install RFID tags at every single bus stop. The RFID tags could be read by anyone and would contain the route number, destination and bus stop number. But, when an equipped white cane comes near it (say about 2 metres or so) the cane vibrates, letting the blind know that they are indeed at the bus stop.

    My story, of course has a happy ending. The man was guided to the bus stop and caught his bus with no incident.

  • By Cliff, May 31, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    And when I say they could be read by anyone, I mean they wouldn’t be encrypted. They would be public for anyone to read, provided they had the equipment to do so. A technology that in the upcoming years, I expect to become more and more ubiquitous like RFID credit cards are.

  • By Monty, June 1, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    While RFID technology is a nice idea, there are definitely access issues involved. Since many VI people don’t use canes this device would need to be a portable device (yet another piece of tech for the pocket) rather than a vibrating receiver insert for a white cane. White canes are already costly enough without adding proprietary technology to them. (electrical/weather issues too)

    If the technology route was to be explored, my vote would be for a very low powered bluetooth transmitter. (standard BT transmitters transmit up to 10 metres and we would need about 1 metre). Most people (including blind people) have mobile phones equipped with BT technology and could accept an incoming BT message with what ever info was necessary. Come to think of it, buses could send this too. This wouldn’t get around the non-permanent nature of stops though.

    the real problem with the current setup is consistency. One needs to locate the pole before even being able to determine what kind of pole it is. In the lower mainland stops are anything but consistent. Sometimes there’s a shelter (sometimes there’s not), sometimes the pole is close (sometimes it’s far away), sometimes there’s a cylinder schedule (sometimes there’s not). One thing I do remember about Translink bus stops is that the stops shake back and forth more than a parking sign does and being tall I could reach up and feel the rectangular bus stop sign. Still, I’m sure I’ve waited for a bus or two at parking signs – think I’ve even been picked up too :).

    I now live in the UK and consistency is a problem here as well. Some councils (like Birmingham) use tactile paving but even that isn’t across the board. Here in Glasgow it’s very inconsistent plus the fact that bus drivers won’t stop unless specifically flagged down which makes things rather difficult when I’m the only person at a bus stop! Then there’s drivers forgetting to call out stops. I wish Glaswegian buses had an automatic announcement system! Sure there’s lots of bugs with CMBC’s automated announcements but at least it’s a start!


  • By Cliff, June 1, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    A cane, a phone, it could even be the shoes! It just needs to read the tag and provide some sort of feedback to the user.

    Bluetooth is nice and more flexible too, but it’s an issue of cost. RFID tags can essentially be free. Pennies on the dollar. Bluetooth is considerably more expensive as it requires chips antennas, etc…

    That’s what a lot of it boils down to. Cost. If we can find cheaper solutions then people will be more likely to make use of them.

  • By ben K, June 1, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    Bluetooth would make no sense in this case, while RFID would be very well suited. (The former would require a microcomputer, software, radio transmitter and power supply to be installed at every bus stop, whereas the latter would simply require a passive chip of negligible cost.)

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, June 1, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    (Just a note: I’m sending this whole thread on to our Access Transit folks, so they’ll capture what you’re thinking. Carry on!)

  • By Sean Turvey, June 2, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    RFID would probably make the most sense from the company’s point of view as it is very inexpensive to distribute.

    There are very small wifi beacons on the market. Pair them with solar panels and batteries you may have a solution.

    These solutions are rather short term. Tech changes so quickly that they will be outdated in a few years. What won’t be outdated is GPS. The US is replacing 24 of the GPS satellites within the next 10 years (1 has launched already). The resolution will bring the accuracy to less than 1 metre. A simple app for your Android or iPhone will make much more sense in a couple of years.

  • By Sean Turvey, June 2, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    Forgot to finish my 1st paragraph.

    … However they also have to cater to visitors. It may not be the best thing to have them buy, rent or borrow a RFID reader.

  • By Cliff, June 2, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    While it may start off with the disabled using these devices, eventually, things like cell phones will begin to have RFID capabilities as times goes on.

    So while just a small fraction of the population will use the RFID tags for say the next 5 to 10 years, and that small fraction needs it most, after about 10 years, I definitely see the general population using it.

    Look at it this way. About ten years ago the first high end laptops featuring bluetooth came out. Cell phones didn’t really have it, but it was viewed as something we would eventually use.

    Sure enough, fast forward to 2010, and I’m linking my cell phone to my friend’s cell phone with bluetooth and transferring songs. Then he takes his phone home and connects it to his computer via bluetooth and transfers said songs.

    I definitely see the same thing happening with RFID. The fact that RFID tags are so cheap tells me that it’s going to happen. It’s already happening, I use MasterCard’s PayPass nearly as often as it gets swiped now. Remember when they were installed at Timmy’s? Who the heck used it four years ago?

  • By Monty, June 3, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    Hello All,

    Apologies for the lengthy post but it’s food for thought!

    As we are continuing the discussion I would like to further comment on RFID vs. Bluetooth.

    I realise RFID tags are very inexpensive (especially when compared to a Bluetooth Transmitter) but they are static and have a very short range (in practical terms less than a foot). This then of course poses the previously referred to challenge of being able to locate the bus stop. Also, although the RFID tags are inexpensive, the cost of the receiving device would be quite high and complex with many people likely not having access to these devices (tourists, occasional users etc) The receiving devices themselves would need speech output, software to interpret the code on the RFID tag (and give the user useful information) and a way to connect to the Translink database containing stop information (since stops change, move and go out of service). While it might be pennies on the dollar to the company it would be hundreds of dollars for the customer.

    Bluetooth transmission technology is relatively inexpensive (it’s been integrated into many mobile phones for the past 7-8 years and is always a feature of Smartphones that many blind people use with Screen Readers) – think of all the Bluetooth transmitters sitting in the huge pile of old/disused mobile phones. A Bluetooth transmitter could send a Bluetooth message to a person’s mobile phone (surely market is nearing 100% saturation) containing dynamic information (bus stop info, next bus info, traffic info and even advertising – who says blind people should miss out on bus shelter ads I’m told are there!). There’s definitely something to be said about dynamic info verses static info, served-by-host verses client interpreted, and company-funded verses private-citizen-funded. Plus, as already stated, most users of bus stops already have a ready-to-use receiver in the form of a mobile. BTW, many shops in the Glasgow city centre are sending Bluetooth messages to folks as they walk past the shops on the street!

    Response to Ben K:

    “Bluetooth would make no sense in this case, while RFID would be very well suited. (The former would require a microcomputer, software, radio transmitter and power supply to be installed at every bus stop, whereas the latter would simply require a passive chip of negligible cost.)”

    Most people have “a microcomputer, software, radio transmitter and power supply” in their pockets right now and one of these devices could be embedded into the top of bus stops away from vandals and the weather! Sure, power might be an issue but surely it’s not the hardest commodity to come by in a modern city. Possibly even solar by day, battery by night.

    Response to Sean Tervey:

    GPS technology is already being used to locate bus stops. I personally use it to locate CMBC bus stops when I’m in the lower mainland thanks to free Google Transit map data (provided by Translink and Google) and free accessible GPS applications like Loadstone GPS (a shameless plug I know but I co-founded the project ) The trouble with this is accuracy, cost and static information.

    Current GPS accuracy is 3-5 metres which can be added on to whatever accuracy exists within the source mapping data. This means that it’ll get you to the general area but not the pole and I doubt the US military will permit accuracies of 1 metre to the general public any time soon. (they can also turn off the GPS system whenever they like)

    While Loadstone GPS is free to use, you need a receiver and a phone, other proprietary GPS systems for the blind are bulky non-standard devices that can cost over (sometimes well over) $1000.

    GPS mapping databases aren’t usually updated in real time. Most of the solutions I mentioned in the above paragraph are yearly which makes it full of potential mistakes and the static nature also prevents other useful information from being disseminated.

    Response to Cliff:

    “I definitely see the same thing happening with RFID. The fact that RFID tags are so cheap tells me that it’s going to happen. It’s already happening, I use MasterCard’s PayPass nearly as often as it gets swiped now. Remember when they were installed at Timmy’s? Who the heck used it four years ago?”

    The Oyster card in London began life in 2003. Sadly Canada is often behind with this kind of technology.

    Just some thoughts and I’m impressed people are actually having a dialogue about this. It doesn’t often happen in the mainstream!


  • By ;-), June 4, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    I heard a friend of a visually-impaired friend has a GPS for getting around. I think the GPS also locates the bus stops.

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  1. The Buzzer blog » A hands-on look at accessibility on buses — March 23, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

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