Blind and partially sighted people in Newcastle are benefiting from an innovative scheme that provides talking signs to guide them around the city centre. Anabel Unity Sale reports
There are 37 talking lampposts in Newcastle city centre. No, they do not battle with David Tennant in a Geordie-based episode of Doctor Who but are an innovative way to increase accessibility for those with visual impairments.
In March this year Newcastle Council became one of only 12 local authorities to introduce the React system of talking signs as part of an initiative to assist blind and partially sighted people to get around.
Under the React system – using technology created by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – a speaker is attached to a lamppost or sign, or is wall-mounted. The speaker contains a recorded message which, when activated by an electronic fob in its range, tells the person carrying the fobthe location, and what is to their left and right.
Newcastle has placed 17 of these speaking signs on its inner city streets, including along the route to the city’s eye clinic at the Royal Victoria Infirmary hospital. Another 15 have been installed on its metro tube system, with five more at the newly-designed Haymarket metro station. It cost £80,000 to establishthe RNIB React system and each speaker unit costs £2,000.Contributions came from Newcastle Council, travel provider Nexus and the European Social Fund.
The idea to improve city accessibility for all disabled people – not just those with sight difficulties – was first mooted in a 2002 report by Newcastle Disability Forum. It highlighted the obstacles for disabled people in moving freely around the city centre and proposed addressing it through better signage via the RNIB React system.
Clare Fish is Newcastle Council’s accessible services support officer and has been in post for two months. She is part of a team, led by accessible services co-ordinator Rachel Archibald, which spent four years working on how React could best be implemented in Newcastle.
The team liaised with local interested stakeholders, including the charity Sight Service, to agree the locations for speaking signs on lampposts and at metro stations, what information each recorded message should contain and what type of voice should deliver them.
There are two male voices delivering the recorded information to React users who activate it using their electronic fobs. Fish explains there was much debate about the sorts of voices and everyone agreed the accents should reflect the local area, and be very clear. Any fears of the speaking signs sounding like the Daleks were completely unfounded.
This type of involvement with and engagement of local people is what has made the project successful, says Fish. “We have had very positive feedback, with people saying it gives them reassurance while they are in the city centre, which is something they need.”
One woman wrote to the team expressing her thanks and explained that it helped her retain her independence, “and she likes using the signs”, Fish says. So far 65 electronic activation fobs have been given to local residents. They are also available at Newcastle College, Guide Dogs for the Blind and local visual impairment groups for people visiting the city to hire them on a short-term basis.
Each month Neil Swinney, access officer in the council’s city design department, goes around the city centre to check usage of the React speakers. Using Bluetooth technology on a handheld computer he is able to tell how often each speaker has been accessed and how long for, and change the recorded messages if necessary.
Having spent the last year assisting the team in the technical side of bringing React to Newcastle, Swinney says he is pleased to see it finally go live: “There is not much information for visually impaired people to access around the city and the feedback we’ve had is that it has been a massive improvement for them.”
Emily Clarke became involved in piloting the system in August last year. As well as having a visual impairment, she works for Gateshead-based charity Sight Service. “A white cane can only help you feel what is a metre in front of you so you are only going to be able to navigate routes you have learnt,” she says. “With React, if you have to move around parked cars or roadworks at least you’ve got to where you were trying to go in the first place. People need this reassurance.”
Clarke would like to see other councils follow in Newcastle’s footsteps: “The more local authorities do this the better because it is about creating an inclusive town centre.”
This article is published in the 7 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Voices in the crowd