Beacons of Independence in a Busy City

People with vision loss can now enjoy better access to hundreds of Toronto businesses, thanks to a technology-driven pilot project.


For the blind and partially sighted, navigating unfamiliar streets and buildings without assistance can be a scary experience. But thanks to a pilot project, hundreds of businesses along one of the busiest stretches of Toronto’s Yonge Street will receive smart beacons to provide customized verbal navigation cues to people who need them.

The ShopTalk beacons, provided and programmed by the CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind), are being distributed free of charge to local businesses thanks to a grant from the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Access4All Program. The program aims to remove barriers to independence for people at every level of ability.

The CNIB is a Canadian non-profit that provides many community services, including programs and advocacy for people with vision loss. This includes literary support, mobility training, peer mentorship, career services, and kids’ camps.

The pilot project is centred around CNIB’s Toronto location, on a stretch of Yonge Street between St. Clair Avenue and Heath Street, creating a community hub that people with vision loss can navigate with confidence when stopping in for services.

To tap into the network of beacons, users install an iPhone app called Blindsquare. The app then uses a combination of GPS to give verbal directions to nearby businesses from the sidewalk and wireless bluetooth connections to provide navigation once inside. Each business has a customized menu to important in-shop locations, like directions to doors or stairs, public restrooms, checkout counters, or change rooms.

All of this helps users navigate their surroundings with greater confidence and independence.

While this particular initiative focusses on users with vision loss, it also opens up a conversation around more universal accessible design. A lot of the focus is typically on physical mobility, with initiatives like the StopGap foundation providing free and low-cost ramps for more accessible storefronts. However, the range of possibilities goes far beyond this. For instance, making the switch from door knobs to levers also makes entrances more accessible, and installing carpeting can help reduce background noise for people with hearing loss.

The beauty is that once business owners start to adopt accessibility measures like the ShopTalk beacons, non-profits like CNIB can continue to advocate for change through this network by assisting with future developments as well.

As a model for positive grassroots change, the CNIB community hub aims to demonstrate what accessibility can look like, how it can be achieved at low cost, and how it can bring neighbourhoods together. Initiatives like these can spark wider changes in policy and practice in more public settings, giving more opportunities for citizens at every age and ability to take part in our vibrant communities.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.