University of Guelph installs BlindSquare app to guide students who are visually impaired

The University of Guelph will be the first Canadian university to map its entire campus and have it on the BlindSquare app to help students who are visually impaired navigate its grounds and buildings.

'With BlindSquare, my world is what I want it to be,' app user Jim Sanders says

Guelph's Jim Sanders uses Blindsquare regularly to navigate around his neighbourhood, the city and trips into Toronto. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A new wayfinding system will help University of Guelph students who are blind or visually impaired get around campus this fall — and all students need to do to access it is download an app on their phone.

A few years ago, the university wanted to do more to make signs more inclusive and accessible, said Jill Vigers, the manager of architectural design in the school's physical resources department.

"We really felt like there was, kind of, a missing piece there if we wanted to truly make it accessible and inclusive,' she said.

"We're aware of and incorporate in all our signs things such as braille, contrast of text to background, height of text, height of information being displayed, surfaces around signs, are they approachable? Those are all good practice pieces, but we just felt it didn't go far enough."

During the school's annual accessibility conference, Vigers heard a woman from CNIB talk about her experiences getting around using the app BlindSquare. 

"We determined that BlindSquare is actually that missing piece. It's a really great solution for people that are blind or have vision impairment or have even night blindness … or spatial cognition issues," she said.

BlindSquare involves placing beacons around campus buildings, GPS outside and QR codes on doors.

The beacons communicate with an app on the user's phone to let them know where they are in a building and the GPS tells them where they are on campus, while the phone can scan QR codes to give the person even more information about the building or room they're about to enter, like whether it's a lab, classroom or office.

The university is the first in Canada to install it on campus, and it's the first campus in the world to have all three levels (beacons, GPS and QR codes).

The goal is to have the entire University of Guelph campus on the BlindSquare within five years. (University of Guelph)

'My world is what I want it to be'

The app is a great move for the campus, 71-year-old Jim Sanders said. The Guelph resident and retired CNIB employee uses the app regularly to navigate around his neighbourhood, the city and trips into Toronto.

"It's really the most used accessible GPS system designed for blind people," he said.

In showing off the app, Sanders tapped a blank screen.

"I always keep the screen off because it saves battery. I don't need a screen," he said.

Once the app is on, it will tell him where he is, which direction he's facing and how far away he is to the next road. When he turns to face another direction, he shakes the phone, and it updates the information.

When he is walking around, Sanders wears headphones called Aftershokz, which are connected to his cheekbones. He listens through his cheekbone, which keeps his ears open for listening for other things, like traffic and people.

To listen to the BlindSquare app while walking, Jim Sanders uses these Aftershokz headphones, which connect with his cheekbone. He says that leaves his ears open to listen to other things, such as traffic and people. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Using other apps on his iPhone, Sanders said he can do pretty much anything a sighted person can, including reading four different newspapers each morning and texting his grandchildren.

"I call BlindSquare the last frontier for those of us who are blind," he said.

"My world was at the tip of my cane and extended to some degree by how much I could hear," he said. "With BlindSquare, my world is what I want it to be."

Sanders said it's incredible to look back at how technology has changed since he was a child.

"Computers generally make the exchange of information for everybody more efficient and faster — for those of us who are blind, made it possible," he said.

Five-year goal

Sanders is a member of the Guelph Lions Club, which donated $48,000 for the project to map the entire campus for BlindSquare. That funding announcement was made on Tuesday during the current accessibility conference at the university.

Rozanski Hall and MacKinnon Building are already live on the app. The university plans to have phase one — which will include all high-traffic buildings on campus — completed and on the app by mid-August.

The next phase will include installing beacons in the Ontario Veterinary College, Summerlee Science Complex and W.F. Mitchell Athletics Centre.

The university hopes to have the system available throughout campus within five years.

with files from Flora Pan


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