Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Auditory Cues Used for Wayfinding in Urban Environments by Individuals with Visual Impairments

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Auditory Cues Used for Wayfinding in Urban Environments by Individuals with Visual Impairments

Article excerpt

Abstract: The study presented here examined which auditory cues individuals with visual impairments use more frequently and consider to be the most important for wayfinding in urban environments. It also investigated the ways in which these individuals use the most significant auditory cues.


In their everyday lives, people often use sounds that support the cycle of perception and action (Stoffregen & Pittenger, 1995). In the case of individuals with visual impairments, the use of sounds is essential because the perception and interpretation of auditory cues are vital for wayfinding. Way finding refers to the process of navigating in an environment and traveling through space using relatively direct paths (Long & Hill, 1997). It includes the features of encoding, processing, and retrieving information about the environment (Blades, Lippa, Golledge, Jacobson, & Kitchin, 2002; Kitchin & Blades, 2001). The term wayfinding was first coined by Lynch (1960), who described wayfinding as "a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment" (p. 3). Vision is considered to be the most powerful sense for collecting spatial information (Gibson, 1979; Sholl, 1996) and can be used to gain rich information about the locations and layouts of near and far space (Warren, 1978). Nevertheless, individuals with visual impairments can successfully use their remaining senses to gain spatial knowledge and then can apply their cognitive abilities to define the meaning of this knowledge for their spatial orientation (Guth & Rieser, 1997).

Hearing, like vision, is a distance sense and can provide information about objects in both near and far space (Blauert, 1997). Successful wayfinding often depends on localizing objects or surfaces in the immediate surroundings (Guth & Rieser, 1997). Objects can be detected using changes in the ambient sound field as an individual walks and interacts with the environment and can be identified on the basis of any sound they produce (Gaver, 1993). Information on the direction and distance of the sound source is necessary for its localization (Grantham, 1995). Hearing facilitates the appreciation of depth and distance and enables the understanding of environmental features (Wiener & Lawson, 1997). For instance, variations in the spectrum of the ambient sound fields within roundabouts can provide information about the roundabouts' spatial structures (Wiener et al., 1997), and the sound of traffic can be used to indicate the location and orientation of a street (Ashmead et al., 1998).

By using auditory cues, individuals with visual impairments can also gain information about landmarks and points of information and can use this information to determine and maintain their orientation within an environment (Jansson, 2000). Hearing is also used to determine the type of environment in which an individual navigates outdoors (Gardiner & Perkins, 2005). Furthermore, Gaver (1993) argued, in their everyday listening activities, people hear events as well as sounds. According to Gaver, sound conveys rich information that is sufficient to determine many features and dimensions of events.

It has long been known that individuals who are visually impaired use reflected sound to navigate within space. For example, this echolocation ability facilitates these individuals' ability to walk parallel to a wall, since the echo of sound on the wall creates a "wall of sound" on one side of the traveler (Ashmead & Wall, 1999). The interpretation of echoes also provides individuals with visual impairments with information regarding the size, shape, and composition of specific objects (Kellogg, 1962; Rice, 1967). A surface that obstructs a source of sound may mediate, reflect, and absorb the acoustic signal, resulting in an acoustic or sound shadow (Gordon & Rosenblum, 2004). Sound shadows are frequently created when the sound of passing cars is reflected or absorbed by objects such as poles, telephone booths, and bus shelters (Wiener & Lawson, 1997). …

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