I have been shadowing disabled people as they move through public space as part of five research projects beginning in 2009. The majority of this research has used a similar methodology with myself and in most cases a colleague accompanying an individual disabled person on a journey they would regularly make. At the beginning of the journey we request they they provide a running commentary on where we are, how they are feeling and what is making them feel comfortable or uncomfortable. If they say or do something that merits some clarification or a follow up question we will ask and we may have a short discussion before the journey continues. The entire journey is always videoed and subsequently re-watched and analysed. Journeys usually take between one and two hours and analysis takes between one and two days per journey.
Shadowing is a very powerful way of finding out how the design of public space actually affects different people. Because most people do not share the vocabulary used by specialists to discuss street design there is a huge scope for confusion and misunderstanding when research and consultation takes place abstracted from the context. Additionally, as any user-centred designer will you, people often do not do what they say they do – by observing them you find out what they actually do.
In total to date I have shadowed 24 blind and partially sighted people in familiar environments, 30 blind and partially sighted people in unfamiliar environments, 23 people with mobility and/or cognitive impairments in familiar environments and 8 people with mobility impairments in unfamiliar environments.
The first project was at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) on behalf of CABE, the governments advisor on architecture. I shadowed a sample of people with sight loss, with varying levels of usable vision, different mobility aids navigating a mix of urban and suburban contexts. CABE specified the output of the project – a 20 page PDF aimed at the filling knowledge gaps amongst urban designers.
This was followed in 2011 and 2012 by another HHCD project supported by the RLSB where I shadowed seven people with sight loss as they navigated a sequence of genuine roadworks sites. I also shadowed a further 13 blind and partially sighted people as they navigated two dummy roadworks sites as part of an evaluation. This project resulted in the Sight Line system for roadworks.
Also in 2012 I worked with the Centre for Accessible Enviroenments (CAE) and Brenda Puech on an accessibility audit of York city centre. We shadowed 15 people with a mix of impairments, physical, sensory and cognitive, including six with sight loss. This project concluded with a summary report.
In 2014, the HHCD was commissioned by the Future Cities Catapult (FCC) to do shadowing research as part of their Cities Unlocked project with Guide Dogs and the Future Cities Catapult. I worked with Tom Stables and Alice Russell and we shadowed eight people with sight loss on multi-modal journeys in and between Reading, Oxford and London. We asked the FCC to identify the stakeholders they would like us to focus the output of the project on and they came back with central and local government, academia, start-ups, large companies and charities, so more or less everyone. We produced an ‘insight bank’ of 100 insights each supported by up to five video clips clearly framing a problem and identifying an opportunity to solve it. We handed the insight bank to the FCC and Guide Dogs under the impression that it would all published (as we had full consent from the participants). At the time of writing, despite the £48,000 they spent on the research and the generous efforts of the participants, the FCC had published the only six of the 100 insights, and these are no longer available as the web hosting has expired. Here is a video showing some of the issues we came across. The FCC have requested I not publish the insight bank myself.
In 2015 I worked with the CAE again to do an accessibility audit of Bath city centre for Bath and North East Somerset council. Working with Brenda Puech and Alice Russell we shadowed 17 disabled people moving around the central core of Bath. We produced a website of 32 issues and opportunities, many of which were geotagged to specific places. We hope to receive permission form the council to make this public (as again we have full consent of the participants).
In 2017 and 2018 I worked with Urban Movement on a project for Transport for London (TfL) looking at how the designs of the pedestrian islands at staggered crossings affects different groups of disabled people. Staggered crossings exist where, because of the phasing of the traffic lights, pedestrians are unable to move straight a road in one phase and must instead wait on an island between opposing flows of traffic. I shadowed 18 disabled people with a variety of impairments on a route, chosen by TfL, around Blackfriars Bridge and the Embankment. We made specific recommendations to TfL on the design of pedestrian islands based on insights from the research.