The Brussels metro: accessibility through collaboration.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Local transit (Research)
Vision disorders (Diagnosis)
Vision disorders (Care and treatment)
Vision disorders (Research)
Authors: Strickfaden, Megan
Devlieger, Patrick
Pub Date: 10/01/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness Publisher: American Foundation for the Blind Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American Foundation for the Blind ISSN: 0145-482X
Issue: Date: Oct-Nov, 2011 Source Volume: 105 Source Issue: 10
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Product: Product Code: 4110000 Local Transit NAICS Code: 4851 Urban Transit Systems
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Belgium Geographic Code: 4EUBL Belgium
Accession Number: 272077510
Full Text: Abstract: This article describes and analyzes the development of a navigation and orientation system for people with visual impairments as it evolved over three decades. It includes reflections on how users have been involved in the redesign process and illustrates how people with and without disabilities have collaborated to create a more suitable and accessible transportation system.


Independence and confidence are required of anyone who wishes to access public transportation to explore an urban environment. To many people, it seems that those who are visually impaired (that is, those who are blind or have low vision) have lives that are more complex than others; however, like everyone else, they need to negotiate getting to work, meeting friends, and taking care of daily life (Uslan, Peck, Wiener, & Stern, 1990). The most effective way for people with visual impairments to move within an urban cityscape is by using existing public transportation. This article describes, analyzes, and reflects on a navigation and orientation system developed for the Brussels metro. It describes how people with and without disabilities have worked together toward a common goal in the process of collaboration over three decades.

The body of this article describes and analyzes the process of the redesign of the Brussels metro. It includes reflections on the evolution of how users with visual impairments were involved in the process-first, from a distance (asymmetrically) and then evolving toward greater inclusion when they are treated as experts (symmetrically). The process of redesigning the metro is described as four distinct moments: designing with the heart, designing with the mind, designing with the body, and designing to educate. The article concludes with suggestions for on-the-ground design details and recommendations for the application of codesign practice. The study reported here is part of a larger research program, which explores issues related to how artifacts and the built environment are designed for and with people who are visually impaired (Devlieger, Renders, Froyen, & Wildiers, 2006; Strickfaden & Devlieger, 2011; Strickfaden & Vildieu, 2011).


Collaboration among users who have different needs and various levels of ability is not a new concept. However, the way that it takes place varies significantly, depending on the people involved (such as designers, personnel of funding bodies, clients, or specialists), attitudes and backgrounds (including awareness of others and a desire to do something good), and the focus of the project (like design or education). Furthermore, considering the specific project at hand and its context is significant in how a project unfolds. In this case, the goal of the project was to make the Brussels metro more accessible. Urban environments often hold a myriad of systems embedded in what sometimes seems like chaotic complexity. One may navigate this complexity by riding public transportation and by using assistive devices, such as maps and signage. These devices, whether simple or complex, act to support people's movement more efficiently from place to place.

This section provides the essential background information that supports our description and analysis of and subsequent reflections on the redesign of the Brussels metro system. Here, we focus on current examples of collaboration with users who have various abilities, problems of accessibility to metro systems, and typical orientation systems created for users who are visually impaired.


There is a growing recognition in the design community that understanding users and their needs is key to the analysis and development of designs. Even so, because of the nature of creative processes (including time constraints and politically driven agendas) and education (for example, design education focuses on artifacts and teaching visual communication), there is typically an asymmetrical balance between people who are involved in creation and end users. There are, however, examples of research that have attempted to move beyond typical models. For instance, in architectural design, Lifchez's (1987) work highlighted bringing people with disabilities into the learning environment to work on the design of accessible buildings; Ringaert's (2001) work illustrated how people with disabilities act as consultants to perform audits on existing buildings; McDonagh et al.'s (2009) work stressed empathy for others by engaging students with disabilities as designers in classes; and Shih and Huang's (2009) work described how people with visual impairments design their own domestic spaces.

Although the idea of collaboration between people with and without disabilities seems like an ideal solution to creating better designs, the process carries many challenges. To create greater symmetry among all parties involved, there are some necessary key ingredients: preserving the identities of all people involved, encouraging a cross-fertilization of ideas, demanding mutual respect, having genuine concern for others, and supporting a symmetry of dialogue (for more details, see Strickfaden, Devlieger, & Heylighen, 2009). In addition, backgrounds, training, and the ability to articulate ideas are important factors in collaboration.


Throughout the world, all but 5 of 50 major cities have metro systems as central means of public transportation. Metro or subway systems are in such cities as Hong Kong, Lisbon, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Toronto, and Sydney. The first appearance of the metro as transportation was the London (1863) system, known as the "underground" or "tube" because the majority of the lines are underground. Other cities with notable metro systems are New York (1869), Paris (1900), Berlin (1902), Tokyo (1927), Moscow (1935), Rome (1955), and Washington, DC (1976). Among these earliest transportation systems is the Brussels metro, with its first plans dating to 1892.

The history of metros during the period of modernization is easily linked to the notion of industrializing transportation for the masses and can even be said to be an industrialization of people as groups. This approach treats individuals as generic masses or objects by dictating movement with little attention to the nuanced needs of individuals. Consequently, these early metro designs did not consider people with various abilities and, in fact, are so embedded with layers of complexity that challenges occur when attempting to add to or redesign these spaces to be more accessible.

To date, there has been limited work on how metro systems have been adapted to be made more accessible for users who are visually impaired. Even so, several significant research sources are worth mentioning. They include Uslan et al.'s (1990) book on access to mass transportation for users who are visually impaired; Washington, DC's, Transportation Research Board's work on the information and orientation needs of people who are visually impaired (Marin-Lamellet, Pachiadi, & Le Breton-Gadegbeku, 2001); Sallnas, Bjerstedt-Blom, Winberg, and Severinson Eklundh's (2006) work on shared navigation and control haptic applications; and Galis's (2006) extensive work on the accessibility of and to the Athens metro. The limited number of studies is evidence of the challenges inherent in making a system with such high complexity accessible to people with disabilities.


Legislation in countries around the world has given rise to the use of various navigation and orientation systems to aid people who are visually impaired, the most common being tactile floor or ground tiles in public spaces. In addition, there has been a rise in explorations to produce accessible graphics, such as the development of tactile maps (Yayla, 2009) and research to create standardized symbols (Trief, Bruce, Cascella, & Long, 2009). Educators and specialists are also finding new ways to teach orientation and mobility, so people who are visually impaired can make better use of public transportation (Besden, 2009). All these navigation and orientation systems include tools to aid travelers in moving from point A to B.

Many metro systems developed network diagrams to provide sighted users with easier access to them. Visually oriented route maps, however, do not help those who are visually impaired to use the metro. Not only do metro systems have different "lines" to follow, there are typically also multiple entrance and exit points, different floor levels (accessed in a variety of different ways that are not standardized-stairs, escalators, and elevators), trains going in multiple directions, and crowds of bustling people. The complexity of the problem of redesigning the Brussels metro is one that required extreme forward thinking and alternate ways of approaching a redesign problem.


Negotiations in collaboration: Redesign in action

The transportation company of Brussels, STIB/MIVB, started consciously to examine access to its metro stations for people with visual impairments in 1990, when an ordinance on the "right to mobility" was established. Almost a year later, a working group, called Access to Mobility for All, was established and met for the first time. The working group included a delegation of transportation companies, service developers, and a number of people with visual impairments. This meeting began the collaboration process toward the redesign of the Brussels metro system, a process that continues to date.

The following section describes and presents a preliminary analysis of the Brussels metro system at four key moments of the redesign process. It illustrates the evolution toward how the people involved in the process think and work together in a different way; the four sections reflect shifts in attitudes that occurred at different times for different people along the way. We begin by describing something that has historically been part of many projects for people who have disabilities, which we call designing from the heart (synonymous with designing for charity). We continue with three other moments: designing with the mind, designing with the body, and designing to educate.


The first phase of redesign began when the working group Access to Mobility for All first met in 1991 to evaluate the metro for dangerous areas and particularly acute challenges in navigation and orientation. In 1992, the first prototype was installed in one metro station that included information panels with schematic maps and perceived danger zones (see Figure 1). It featured a tactile ground plan, with braille information that had been roughly translated from a visual counterpart, and indicated telephone and exit locations (such as the Trone metro stop and Place du Trone, abbreviated as Tronepl) and a message aimed at sighted people that indicated "Help them," with the symbol of a blind person with a cane. Information panels were produced in French and Dutch, because Brussels is officially a bilingual city.

These information panels were eventually posted at the entrances and exits of various metro stations; however, the first-phase redesign solution was not particularly useful to people with visual impairments, and eventually the panels simply were not being used. Although the Brussels STIB/MIVB had the desire and some financial backing to create a more accessible metro, it was clear that more than good intentions were needed to create a usable system.


After recognizing the inadequate characteristics of the first design iteration, the working group began the second phase of the redesign. Considerably more time and money (in excess of 2 million euros) were applied to improving the original system and making the metro more accessible. In this process, members of the advisory board, consisting of people with visual impairments, were increasingly being involved in the project. A new tactile orientation map was created, along with large tactile knobs on the floor that could be used to aid with orientation in situ. The information panels, similar to the first version, were created like a typical map for sighted people, with orientation to compass points having no relation to how orientation would be experienced in the metro. Three lines of knobs were placed close together to indicate guidance, and seven knobs were placed in lines to indicate danger. The danger knobs were spaced so wide that a person's foot could inadvertently land between the knobs without feeling them.

In retrospect, it was clear that this design still followed a more visually oriented approach and was therefore not addressing how users who are visually impaired would feel with their feet instead of seeing with their eyes. The new "improved" second phase caused as much frustration among users as the first phase. In this phase of the design process, the designers were the experts, and the users were assessors of the proposed designs. In essence, the designers were designing with their minds and relying on their design training and not focusing on the users' needs.

Meanwhile, the working group was beginning to explore each station collaboratively. That is, the service developers and the users with visual impairments were starting to understand the metro spaces in a more intimate way related to real-world practices and experiences.


With a realization that the redesigned elements of the first and second phases were not particularly successful, a third phase and second major impetus to create a workable system began in 2000. The information panels and tactile floor guidance materials were further evaluated and simplified. Designs followed uniform principles set out by the Belgian Confederation of Blind and Visually Impaired People, and a system for training users was considered. What is most significant, however, is that the working group was exchanging ideas in a different way. Rather than purely assessing the designs, people with visual impairments were becoming an integrated part of the process. They were now treated as experts as they demonstrated, with their bodies, how they needed to orient and navigate through the metro system.

By focusing on the body more explicitly and on a deeper involvement with users, the designers found that the design problems were becoming clearer. Three key areas were identified: points of danger, guidance, and travel information. Danger points were resolved by indicating them on floor surfaces near stairs, elevators, and train platforms. These points were created by indicating zones of 60 centimeters (about 1 foot) around specific areas. Guidance systems were created in the form of tactile and visually contrasting ribbed lines, also in a 60centimeter zone. The guidance lines were placed in a clear walking direction that leads users from the entrance of the station to information panels, toward the standing information pedestals and panels fixed to walls, to the front doors of the first metro train, and from the train to the exit at the next station. Guidance lines lead users only to important information located away from crowded areas and to safe places to wait for a train (where they are visible to conductors). Tactile flooring was spaced according to how it would be felt with the feet. Travel information was provided on panels printed in braille and large type, as well as through auditory announcements on the metro train.

The resulting design is a system that is embedded with textual, tactile, and physical information related to users' holistic experiences of orientation and navigation. Even so, it was clear that to support people in using the metro system independently, there needed to be more than Phase 3's design intervention.


It cannot be expected that moving from point A to B within the Brussels metro without any prior knowledge is possible for even the most seasoned traveler. To navigate specific trajectories, information about spaces needs to be mediated in as many ways as possible. The outcome of redesigning the Brussels metro with the body provided the required information to address better the complex nature of navigating. However, to enable travelers with visual impairments to use the system independently would still require training. Toward that end, information about the Brussels metro is disseminated through various organizations, publications, and schools. The public at large are made aware of how they are sharing their metro spaces, and specialized training sessions are offered to users who are visually impaired.

As a specific directive for education, a tactile map of each metro station was produced (see Figure 2). Each map illustrates the floor plan, including different levels (ground, -1, -2, and so forth) by providing an overview to orient travelers. The plans were specifically made of contrasting white against a blue background with written information to be used by people who are sighted or have residual vision. This final phase of the redesign of the Brussels metro system considers that traveling on mass transportation is not likely to be intuitive and may be out of the ordinary for most users. Designing to educate people is a natural phase in the development of a highly usable product.

Our description and preliminary analysis marked four key moments in the redesign of the metro. As we indicated, the evolution illustrated how people with and without disabilities think and work together, first in an ordinary way and then in the act of collaboration. This evolution was possible because of several circumstances, the most important being time. Because the redesign of the Brussels metro system occurred over a number of years, the members of the working group were able to get to know each other and learn to work in less traditional ways. As a consequence, mutual trust and respect were inadvertently supported. That is, the service developers realized that they needed the expertise of the advisory group of users, and the advisory group gained confidence and trust in their knowledge base, expertise, and engaging in a different role than they were accustomed.


Collaboration and adaptation of the Brussels metro

In this section, we further examine and analyze the collaboration process through reflection and analysis. We do so by considering all parties involved in the working group: those with disabilities--people with visual impairments--and those without disabilities--the delegation of transportation companies and service developers. Then we further summarize the redesign of the Brussels metro by identifying key characteristics that are embodied in the design.


The redesign of the Brussels metro provided a forum for members of the working group to apply their knowledge in intuitive, holistic, and synchronic ways. What was particularly interesting was that all the people who were involved in the process had the opportunity to develop along the way, which eventually resulted in a more symmetrical negotiation among everyone involved.

The visually impaired participants were not simply talking conceptually about how something "could be"; they were showing how things are and how things could be improved. These bodily actions became intrinsic to the process because it was clear that even when something could not be articulated verbally, actions illuminated potential problems that led to tangible solutions. At the same time, the people without disabilities, the delegation of transportation companies and service developers, moved toward understanding that users who are visually impaired could not be expected to be dependent on others or to be required to adjust to a designed system that did not fit their way of experiencing the physical environment. The service developers began to trust the knowledge base of the users and realized that even small concerns were genuine. More time was spent in the physical space of the metro, where design problems were not just being imagined, but were being simultaneously acted out and evaluated while problems were being solved in situ. A synergy among all the parties involved in the project propelled the collaborative process forward toward design solutions that could not have been imagined at the onset of the project.


As a result of the negotiations between people with and without disabilities, there is recognition that there are different ways of knowing as a result of learned behaviors. Researchers such as Golledge (1993) and Kirsh (1996) have advocated that public environments should be adapted, rather than expecting people to adjust themselves. Our study of the Brussels metro helped us to understand some of the necessary key characteristics in the design of complex spatial environments. These key characteristics are linked to the conjoining of two important factors: the phenomenon of limited sight or sightlessness and the complexity of a particular space within an urban environment.

All people use egocentric (person-centered) and allocentric (object-centered) frames of reference (Antonakos, 2004) when navigating familiar and unfamiliar places or spaces. That is, people use object recognition and the location of objects relative to themselves and other objects to locate and orient themselves. It is well known that people who are visually impaired, to lesser or greater degrees, do not have the ability to see, recognize, or identify size, form, and color. From a navigational point of view, this means that some sensory capabilities are useful and may be emphasized, whereas others may not be used at all. Therefore, people who are visually impaired require an embedded system that supports flexibility while providing definitive and tangible points of reference. In addition, a multitude of different kinds of users of different capabilities must be considered.

Thus, a "system" is required, not just a single solution, to be as accessible and flexible as possible. Examples of how the accessible and flexible solutions are incorporated into the Brussels metro system are related to four significant contributions: (1) straightforward trajectories that are logical and safe, with markers or guidelines that lead directly to significant or meaningful places; (2) the placement of orientation devices, such as signage, that are related directly to the space (that is, they are not abstract compass points) and point the body in the correct direction to move forward; (3) information that is simple yet accessible to broad audiences through the use of various languages, simple symbols, large print, and braille; and (4) training to educate people to understand the system. This training is necessary to bridge people's current ways of knowing with the new thing being taught. For instance, the tactile maps for teaching were not based on visual ways of knowing, but on how travelers who are visually impaired really experienced the different metro stations. These characteristics of a better designed system are directly related to how users were involved in the collaboration process. Without the in-depth explorations of the users' in-body, practice-based experiences and people with and without disabilities interacting over time, this project would not have become what it is today.

Conclusion and future research

Modern-day urban environments require a multitude of different systems that support the dynamic movement of people from one place to another. Whatever the mode of movement, navigation and orientation are always necessary to help one find ways through complex, chaotic urban settings. Actual transportation (automobiles, buses, trains, and the like) moves people from point A to point B; however, it is the other devices that are used to aid travelers that are more significant. For example, aids may include one person guiding another; using a dog guide; and using maps, a Global Positioning System, or compasses. Whatever the chosen device, it acts to assist and mediate a person through, within, around, in, and out of spaces. Such navigation systems support the possibility of directing people through places independently by involving the physical body, previous and current experiences, appropriate knowledge systems, and external elements like landmarks within environments.

Our research recognized that movement as a dynamic human-environment interface requires an embodiment of the following: bodily capabilities (physical, mental, and intuitive), reduction of complexities (visual or physical pollution), preplanning and a clear design focus, prior experience with similar systems of movement and training in new systems, and the use of appropriate tools or devices to assist along the way.

Our analysis and reflections on the collaborative process in the redesign of the Brussels metro provides some important messages for designing with people who are visually impaired. The main message is not of charity or compassion; it is, simply, to recognize the abilities, expertise, inherent actions, thoughts, and feelings of all people and to take the time to understand them. Continuing from what has been learned from this project, we recognize that the process described here is one that can be used in many other design interventions that support living and working independently. A more symmetrical collaborative process leads to more usable and useful outcomes. For example, this process can be used in designing products, buildings, and public spaces such as museums, town halls, educational institutions, and parks.


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Megan Strickfaden, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Human Ecology, Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Alberta, 326 Human Ecology Building, Edmonton, AB, T6G 2N1, Canada; e-mail: . Patrick Devlieger, Ph.D., associate professor, Center for Interculturalism, Migration and Minority Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Parkstraat 45 (P.O. Box 3615), Leuven, 3000 Belgium; e-mail: .

The authors acknowledge their collaboration with Rieke Jacobs of Licht en Liefde for Flanders and Brussels, Belgium, as well as the personnel of the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company (commonly called STIB/ MIVB), the local public transportation operator in Brussels, for sharing their experience and expertise while redesigning the Brussels metro. In addition, thanks goes to the users with visual impairments who shared their personal expertise and experiences.
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