Nfld. & Labrador

New accessibility app for St. John's pedestrian mall excludes some with vision loss, advocate says

The City of St. John's has partnered with the CNIB to launch BlindSquare, a navigation app that allows people with low vision or blindness to navigate the mall safely. However, the app is only available on iPhones.

The BlindSquare app is only available for Apple devices, limiting who can use it

A poster advertises the BlindSquare app in Downtown St. John's. The poster contains a QR Code to allow users to download the iPhone app.
The City of St. John's has launched a pilot project with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to launch BlindSquare, a navigation app aimed at helping those who are blind or partially sighted traverse the pedestrian mall safely. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The City of St. John's has launched a pilot project to make the downtown pedestrian mall inclusive for people who are blind or partly blind — but a disability justice advocate says the way the city has implemented the project excludes her and many others.

The city has partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and Frontier Accessibility to launch BlindSquare, a navigation app that allows people with low vision or blindness to navigate the mall safely.

The app uses GPS technology to show the location of things like businesses, sidewalk curb cuts and public seating. It also gives directions based on orientation and allows for custom markers, allowing users to make their way confidently around the mall.

The app is used in other provinces to help people access public transit, parks and more.

Duane Morgan, the CNIB's vice-president of Atlantic Canada and a user of the app himself, says it's a game-changer for getting around the area.

"The most important piece is that it gives more independence to a person with sight loss. So I don't necessarily need someone to go with me to give me all that information about what's around me and where I am," Morgan said Wednesday.

"It's giving me a lot of information that I might not necessarily be able to pick up as I walk along because I don't see signage or other indicators."

A man walks down the road in Downtown St. John's. He's blind, and is walking with a white cane and a phone to give him directions.
Duane Morgan, who is blind, is able to traverse the downtown pedestrian mall through the help of BlindSquare. He says it's a game-changer for navigating the area. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Morgan said the CNIB will work with the city to do more testing and give feedback on how the project worked, or where else it could be used.

St. John's Coun. Debbie Hanlon, the city's lead on accessibility, said it was exciting to launch the app, which has been in the works for two years.

"The city wants everyone to enjoy what we have, and we don't want to exclude any portion of the population," Hanlon said Wednesday.

"We're all about trying to find out other ways that we can make it more inclusive, because we want everyone to come down and enjoy, not just the pedestrian mall, we want everyone to enjoy the city."

Android users excluded from BlindSquare

However, the app's current setup doesn't include all mallgoers — as the app is available only on Apple devices.

That's problematic for people like Anne Malone, a disability justice advocate who is partially sighted and uses an Android phone.

"I actually use an Android because of my sight loss.… I prefer to use Android phones because I often use magnification of text as an accommodation," Malone said Tuesday.

Malone said she also uses an Android for its larger screen, which makes magnification easier. 

Anne Malone holds her guide dog, a chocolate Labrador named Purdy, while standing on a sidewalk.
St. John's resident Anne Malone, who is partially sighted, says the app being available only on iPhones is problematic. (Katie Breen/CBC)

She says an iPhone with a screen comparable to what she already uses would cost about three times the price of her current phone — something she believes she shouldn't have to pay to be able to traverse the pedestrian mall safely.

"Any kind of new technology that is going to be used as an accommodation to navigate public spaces should be very accessible to the people who have to use that technology," Malone said.

"I don't think that any person with any kind of disability should be out of pocket one penny to access a public space that everybody else accesses at no cost to them."

Malone also wishes there was more consultation by the city with blind or partially sighted people outside the CNIB, and hopes the lack of consultation doesn't set a precedent for future accessibility measures.

"We rarely, if ever, get consulted with by the city. And I think that's problematic," she said. 

"It would have been really beneficial to include the end users in the conversation.… That didn't happen."

Hanlon said the city was disappointed by the exclusion of Android users, which came up during the research process. She said she's been told an Android version of the app is expected in the future.

Coun. Debbie Hanlon is the lead of the City of St. John's accessibility committee. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Morgan said the CNIB is also pushing for the app to be released on other platforms.

Hanlon added that consultation did happen with the CNIB during the two-year process, and said the city welcomes suggestions from the public about how to be more accessible.

"We know that this is only the start of a long journey that we're going to work together to make it more accessible for everyone in the city," she said.

"But the best information comes from the users themselves."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Alex Kennedy


Alex Kennedy works for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's.

With files from Katie Breen

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