PLANNING chief John Wood had no qualms about making a spectacle of himself on a town centre walkabout.
John, who is chairman of South Tyneside Council’s planning committee, changed glasses several times during the exercise in South Shields town centre.
Each pair of special spectacles simulated the effects of different forms of sight impairment, from one-sided vision to foggy and fragmented sight.
He also tried walking through the centre totally blindfolded and using a white cane.
The route was deliberately chosen as the King Street area of the town has a number of telephone boxes, bollards, benches and advertising stands that provide the perfect walkabout course to give John an idea of the problems blind and visually impaired people have to tackle.
With council officers taking notes during the walkabout, the aim is to use what was learned when redevelopment plans are drawn up.
“It was quite an experience. I learned a great deal and I will never underestimate what blind and visually impaired people have to contend with,” said John.
“The walkabout was very intense and nervy. It highlighted difficulties that blind and visually impaired people have to combat on a daily basis and what they are up against.
“When I was totally blindfolded, two people walked into me and when I bumped into netting around a works site I had no idea what it was.
“I’ll now be able to attend the planning committee meetings with first-hand knowledge. We have to incorporate what we have learned when planning new developments.
“This will be useful input to reflect upon when making any future town centre planning decisions.
“We don’t want a situation where people with various sight impairments have to sit at home because they feel they can’t go out by themselves. We have to help these people.”
John was accompanied by representatives from local groups including South Tyneside Visually Impaired Council, The Talking Newspaper, Visually Impaired South Tyneside Association and Visually Impaired Persons Friendship Group.
The walkabout identified problem areas that might be of use for future town planning programmes, in particular, the positioning of street furniture, refuse bins, railings, underfoot surfaces and any other obstacles that may hinder blind and visually impaired pedestrians and wheelchair users.
One of John’s companions was Marian Stead, 63, of Jarrow, who is retired but formerly worked for a South Shields-based charity for disabled people. She said the rise in pavement cafe culture has become another potential hazard to visually impaired pathway users.
“Blind and visually impaired people value their independence just like anybody else.
“This means that if their environment is user-friendly it encourages them to venture out more often,” she said.
Henri Murison, Royal National Institute of Blind People regional campaigns, officer, said: “RNIB welcomes South Tyneside Council’s commitment.
“Blind and partially sighted people want to be able to enjoy attractions like shopping and visiting open spaces, just like a sighted person and not be at a disadvantage.
“We hope the exercise will help the council to understand the daily struggles people with sight loss face when out and about.
“Armed with this knowledge, it’s hoped when future plans for the area are discussed, the needs of blind and partially sighted people are taken into consideration from the outset.”
This will be useful input to reflect upon when making any future town centre planning decisions