Eyeless in Lucca

Accessibility for differently able visitors to historic towns in Italy can be a problem. So many of this country’s most beautiful places are on hills with often impossibly steep alleys and a plethora of steps. Certainly, to modify these towns and improve the sightseeing experience of e.g. wheel-chair users would involve difficult decisions to make with that intractable conservation body, “le belle arti”, which determines and dictates the smallest modification to artistic and historic monument (of which Italy has over sixty per cent of the world’s!)

If the town is flattish then the problem is undoubtedly greatly diminished and Lucca has been making considerable efforts since last year to improve accessibility, especially for wheelchair users. Typical examples include sloping down pavements to pedestrian crossings and more ramps to access public buildings as at San Giovanni.

I’ve often wondered what those dimpled tiles used on slopes to pedestrian crossings are and thought they may have served some purpose to avoid slipping in icy or wet weather. Not at all! Returning from a concert the other night we walked from near piazza san Martino to Porta Elisa and noticed steel markings of various designs embedded in the pavement, some for a considerable distance.

When we observed a partially sighted person using the grooves in these steel markings as a guide for his special cane we realised that both these grooves and the dimpled tiles we often saw were, in fact, a form of street braille language (“plastic pavements”) to give information to registered blind persons as to such features as street crossings, access to buildings, danger areas and so on.

The system was perfected by an Italian company and goes by the name of LOGES which stands for  “Linea di Orientamento, Guida e Sicurezza” (line of orientation, guide and safety)   Lucca is hard at work,  together with several other Italian cities within the European union, to make easily accessible routes for partially sighted persons within its  beautiful walled city.

There are two routes already completed. They are:

  1. The area around cathedral square
  2. The route from Piazza Antelminelli to Porta Elisa

The route from the station to the cathedral is at present under construction.

The system is based on two codes: a base code and four second level codes. The first code deal with direction and places where to stop at road crossings. The second level codes have extra information including showing access to public buildings, difficult intersections, sudden changes in street level etc.

Fortunately, for the present, both my wife and I have reasonable vision but we regrettably have presentiments of what could easily happen to us in the foreseeable (forgive the pun…) future. There is a history of glaucoma in my family and my mother suffered months of blindness before she sadly died in 2009. (In fact, she’d started learning braille). My wife suffers from incipient macular degeneration and is taking appropriate steps for it.

Around us we know or have known people whose sight has been seriously affected just in the past few years. Our old friend (both relating to the years we have known him and to his age – 99 this year!) Sam is a case in point, and there’s a blind person in our choir. (Churches with their interminable altar steps and steep staircases to the organ loft and singers’ gallery are particularly unfriendly places for visually-impaired persons, even if they are supposed to enter a building within the sight of God (!))

How does the street braille system work?

Here are some examples from a factory making the tiles, which can be either in stone, steel or that wonderfully durable terracotta the Italians are so good at making since Roman times.

loges (1)

Help doesn’t stop there for visually impaired people. There’s a Lucca project called “The Walls for all”, relating to its wonderful tree-lined walls, funded by the Fondazione Banca Del Monte di Lucca. It’s a collaboration between Pisa University’s Engineering Department, the Institute of Science and Technology (ISTI), Pisa’s research centre CNR and Lucca’s section of the National Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted (UIC). The objective is to allow people with visual impairments to move independently in urban environments. Lucca’s walls were chosen as a test site, and after a trial on the San Donato Bulwark in 2011, a hi-tech path of about 1.5 km from San Salvatore bulwark to Santa Maria bulwark, is currently under construction.

The system consists of a smart white cane (“Smart Dog”) built in fiberglass and equipped with appropriate electronics, from a location identified by a pair of buried cables connected to a transmitter and an Android smartphone on which there’s an application which communicates via Bluetooth with the smart stick.

Thanks to this equipment partially sighted and blind people can move independently via a vibro-tactile signal generated from the “Smart Dog” when the receiver, placed at the lower end of the stick, is located within a distance of some tens of cm from the underground cables transmitting a 10 kHz signal. The user’s location is also determined using GPS technology.

Eventually, added information will be added e.g. historical information about the sites on the wall, places to eat, public facilities etc.

When we were irresponsible teenagers we pretended to “see” what it was like to be a blind person and we chose one of our mates as a guinea pig, fitted him up with a pair of dark glasses and gave him a white stick. We were both shocked at the helplessness of our friend but were also encouraged by the amazing helpfulness of strangers.

Of course, we felt somewhat guilty afterwards about the deception we’d tried on the public but it is a fantastic thought that very soon there could be in place the technology to allow partially sighted or blind people to independently enjoy cities like Lucca. After all, we could, some of us, be in the same boat one day… and Handel whose music we’d heard the evening we observed the pavement signs spent his last years in darkness.

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4 thoughts on “Eyeless in Lucca

  1. We take so for granted that we can move, see and hear, not only in our daily lives, but when we visit the wonders our world offers. Brava, Lucca.

    • From feedback I’ve heard it’s truly welcome in a country which has only relatively recently woken up to the fact that we are all equally citizens but not equally able-bodied.

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