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A Vision Impairment Simulation Tour of Seattle

Most pedestrians have the opportunity to get from home to work or other destinations with the ability to clearly see where they are heading. For just one day last month – more accurately for just 45 minutes – SDOT engineers and staff had the chance to participate in a blindness simulation tour downtown, hosted by The Lighthouse for the Blind. The experience was truly fascinating and frightening alike as the participants experienced first-hand some of the challenges in negotiating the public right of way and public transportation facilities using blindness simulation goggles. The Lighthouse mobility instructors, led by Peggy Martinez, Meg Johnson, and David Miller, provided assistance and excellent insight to the participants as well as instruction on how a long white cane can be used to help with mobility.

Participants negotiate the sidewalk using simulation goggles and white canes

The goggles that were used provided simulations of varying visual impairments; some participants opted for the full black-out glasses, which was the closest simulation available comparable to total blindness.

The entire simulation lasted for an hour and a half, but participants were limited to 45 minutes each to allow for all volunteers to experience the simulation as the number of instructors was limited. It was important to have sighted people nearby to make sure no one accidentally walked into harm’s way as it was the first time for many to participate in this kind of simulation! The tour began at Seattle Municipal Tower and proceeded to Pioneer Square, where the group descended down to the Pioneer Square Station (very slowly) and prepared to board the light rail. In addition to negotiating sidewalks, the transit station and the light rail, participants also walked through a construction zone and boarded a bus to head back to Seattle Municipal Tower to wrap up the tour.

Lessons Learned

While it is understood that the participants only experienced a simulation of a visual impairment for a brief period of time, the experience yielded many key lessons to be learned. The engineers learned that “predictable design” and consistency of intersection and sidewalk layout can assist those with visual impairments. They learned that tree branches, signs or other objects that are located on or near pedestrian routes may be items that aren’t easily detectable when vision is limited. Pavement surface treatments can be helpful to pedestrians with vision impairments if thoughtfully located; similarly, different textures along a route can be confusing if not well planned. While the participants learned that their other senses such as hearing and touch were amplified when vision was reduced or removed, the concentration required to focus on walking down a typical sidewalk proved to be stressful and exhausting. It was truly an education adventure.

SDOT ADA Coordinator Mike Shaw has difficulties locating the ORCA card reader while wearing blindness simulation glasses


SDOT Engineer Laeth Al-Rashid struggles to identify approaching bus number through limited vision simulation goggles

National White Cane Safety Day

In addition to the blindness simulation tour, SDOT engineers and STAFF also participated in a walking tour of the pedestrian facilities connecting the Lighthouse for the Blind (2501 S. Plum) down to the transit facilities along Rainier Avenue. As a part of White Cane Safety Day, October 15th, this activity was also hosted by the Lighthouse and was open to those that wanted to learn about mobility techniques and helpful wayfinding cues for pedestrians with visual impairments.

SDOT engineers feel a tactile warning strip using canes

The first three photos above are courtesy of the Northwest Universal Design Council, members of which participated in the simulation.

If you have any opportunities for community engagement that involve the needs for pedestrians with disabilities in the Seattle public right-of-way, we encourage you contact SDOT’s ADA Coordinator, Michael Shaw. He can be reached at (206) 615-1974 or by email at