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BlindSquare app opens up Wellington retail stores to the visually impaired

People with visual impairments can easily walk straight past stores they might want to shop at, says the Blind Foundation’s Thomas Bryan, but a new initiative brought to central Wellington is making retailers harder to miss.

Bryan, who has a high degree of visual impairment, says scented stores like Lush and The Body Shop are easy for him to identify, but most visual marketing is of little relevance to the blind community. Many retailers in areas such as apparel are very difficult for Bryan to locate without help: “I could walk past a shop and not know what it is.”

The Wellington City Council has been working with the Blind Foundation and Radiola to introduce an app called BlindSquare, which uses iBeacons to alert the user to different retail stores as they walk past. If the user chooses to enter a shop, BlindSquare will guide them through the space, offering audio information on the store’s layout and how to find the exit.

Bryan says that without the app, he listens for the voice of shop assistants to navigate through stores. This can be a stressful experience, especially if the path to the counter is not clear: “Something like [BlindSquare] just takes the stress and hassle out of things.”

Wellington City Council community and neighbourhood advisor Anna-Marie Miller says that at the last census, the percentage of New Zealanders with a degree of visual impairment was around 4 to 5 percent. She says that if Wellington becomes known as a disability-friendly city, this could pull in visitors from near and far.

Installation of the iBeacons which support BlindSquare began around three weeks ago. Two hundred iBeacons have been rolled out within central Wellington, with installation complete for 15 so far. Miller says the council will be talking with retailers as it seeks to programme the beacons with details about each shop, reporting that the industry has responded well so far.

“We really see this as a great opportunity and we would like for this to be much bigger,” she says.

Larger retailers interested in participating in BlindSquare should get in touch with the Blind Foundation.

We asked Bryan how retailers without access to BlindSquare could make life easier for visually-impaired shoppers. Here are his suggestions:

  • Ensure your website, ecommerce projects and all related apps are suitable for use with a screen reader.
  • Make sure your stores have open aisles and a clear path to the counter. This is also important for older people, those in wheelchairs and people with pushchairs.
  • If a blind person comes into the shop, or anyone with a disability, don’t ignore them. Don’t position your approach based on their disability, Bryan says, but simply ask how you can help.
This article originally appeared on The Register
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