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Visible and Invisible Qualities

For blind or visually impaired people, materials play just as important a role in the perception of space, as they do for people with good vision. But other aspects often come into play, says Dr. Markus Wolf, President of the Austrian Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

 

What impressions or perceptions are essential for blind or visually impaired people when it comes to furnishings?

Dr. Markus Wolf:  When it comes to furniture and furnishings in a very familiar area, such as at home or work, we find that those with visual impairment, more or less, experience the same needs as other people. Of most importance, is whether the materials enhance well-being or not. And this can vary dramatically from person to person.

It is different in unfamiliar spaces or in public spaces. Here, materials play an important role, in particular their structure and colour, which support orientation. Good contrasts are very important for visually impaired people, since they aid navigation and create a feeling of well-being

Grey columns on a grey floor, for instance, represent a real challenge. Strong contrasts and patterns in the surface structure, on the other hand, provide great support.

What makes you feel comfortable within a room? The feeling of security is undoubtedly the most important aspect.

Dr. Markus Wolf:  It is crucial that the furniture is well thought-out and that there’s no risk of injury. I myself once had a badly planned kitchen with a projecting edge on which I regularly injured myself. Such dangers can also be harmful for able-bodied people, children particularly, but they could be potentially disastrous for a blind person like me.

It’s also important - and this may be surprising - that the furniture can be cleaned easily. Because even if I can’t see fingerprints, streaks or dirt, I want to ensure that things are nice and neat, and give a good impression. I also want to be sure that surfaces can be cleaned without laborious polishing.

What is important from a functional point of view, so that people with impaired vision might move around more easily?

Dr. Markus Wolf:  Light is very important - as absurd as it may sound initially. It is often forgotten that visually impaired people need more light, but above all indirect light, without glare. For example, it must be considered that some surfaces reflect light strongly or cause unpleasant reflections. This issue often stands in contrast to the latest design trends.

In other words, the trend towards high-gloss or mirrored surfaces is not exactly popular with the visually impaired?

Dr. Markus Wolf:  Probably not. In addition, these materials are also particularly susceptible to dirt. Every person has unique sensory impressions and therefore perceives their environment differently. One person may be led by smells, for someone else, colours are the most important thing, while others prioritise touch, in order to decide whether something is comfortable or not. Generally speaking, how do blind or visually impaired people perceive their environment?

I think the most important senses are sound and touch. For me, for example, acoustics are very important. How does a room sound? How do sounds come back? What changes when I close the curtains in an evening? All this has a great influence on how I perceive the space. Structures and material temperatures are just as key. Does a surface feel good? Does it provide security? Or does it repel in some way? These are all undoubtedly just as important for able-bodied people, but for us, they are essential.

Dr. Markus Wolf is President of the Blind and Visually Impaired Association, Austria. www.blindenverband.at

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