The European Blind Union (EBU) estimates 30,000,000 visually impaired individuals in Europe, taking into account the prevalence of sight-loss amongst an increasing population of elderly people. According to EBU nearly 70% of all blind and partially sighted Europeans are over the age of 60, and two thirds are over the age of 65. The World Health Organisation (WHO) expects further growth in the number of older people experiencing sight loss, as much as 30-50% within the next 10-15 years, figures attributed to aging and Diabetes.
An ageing population facing age related sight loss will have a significant impact on health and social care services of the future. Serious sight loss can lead to a decrease in the quality of life, reducing the activities of daily living and physical mobility, ending up in possible social exclusion and depression.
For visually impaired travelling outside a limited comfort zone is a huge challenge and requires help from others. While guide dogs are successfully applied in mobility tasks only a small percentage of the blind population is guide dog user, due to the expenses and long awaiting times of dog training. Despite the existing technologies mobility for them often still relies on remembering routes and using a long cane. Providing means of achieving independence and social equity for the blind and visually impaired community is of essential importance; therefore, novel ICT-based navigation and mobility assistance solutions have to be introduced.
In a recent EBU report (“A Tale of Three Cities”, EU PROGRESS project, 2007-2013) transport and mobility issues were studied to provide age friendly cities for visually impaired persons. Participants (with an average age of 70 years) were selected from those who regularly attended activities organized by the blind societies from the cities of Tullamore, Salzburg and Marseille. They reported several barriers faced when accessing their community and identified several demands and factors as room for improvement in their mobility:
- Outdoor spaces and buildings: problem when environments change without warning, public building entrances must be somehow emphasized, clear indication and separation of ramps and stairs
- Transportation: having access to a door to door service; affordability of the service; accessible information in relation to timetables, destinations and locations
- Social Participation: having trained people or a companion to provide personal assistance; access to opportunities for integration as well as to specialist groups
- Information and communication: having a person and not a machine on the other end of the helpline; people should ask what help is needed.
It becomes immediately obvious that there is a huge gap even between the absolutely necessary functionalities required for the urban mobility of visually impaired people and the service types/quality currently supported by mobility assistance solutions. It is worthy also to mention that while the demands are coming from elderly the majority of these affects also the younger generation. In case of an available new technology a valuable exchange between these two groups could be achieved: young visually impaired people mastering new technologies would teach their senior peers during community events, in turn, seniors could show the way how they confidently go about their essential daily tasks.
With this in mind, there can be little doubt that answering these demands by developing an effective mobility assistant and navigation solution would serve to meet one of Europe's major socioeconomic challenges for the upcoming decades.
The goal of the project is to support the daily living of blind and visually impaired people in challenging tasks like participating in urban mobility, providing a simple, effective and affordable door to door navigation and mobility assistance solution.
Contrary to the usual tools providing only outdoor navigation, we also target situations when the blind person plans a journey which includes traveling through unfamiliar indoor environments (subway systems, train/bus stations) or when the journey targets visiting complex buildings (shopping mall, business centre, public office).
In our view, besides the help provided in the daily living for the blind and visually impaired citizens, the envisioned service would be also interesting for companies, offices or infrastructure operators (e.g. local government) where blind people can work or just turn-out, by helping them to integrate and manage themselves in an open community.
In order to provide a truly door-to-door navigation service, which is currently missing from the market, we will design and develop a service framework in which existing outdoor navigation services can be easily “plugged in”. Thus, the already familiar applications can be used in concordance with the proposed indoor mobility service, leading to cheaper and more effective door to door mobility assistance solutions.