Now that’s contrast!

People wearing yellow high visibility tops and hard hats walking through a building site
A ‘Hard Hat Days’ tour of the TouchBase Pears site

One of the most important things, if not, the most important for VIs (visually impaired) is contrast.

At one of the recent ‘Hard Hat Day’ site tours for Sense’s TouchBase Pears community hub being built in Birmingham, I shared with visitors how important accessible design is to those who are visually impaired and those who will use the building. I covered contrast, lighting and the realities of being visually impaired and the importance of toilet design.

Advising on accessible design

TouchBase Pears is space designed to support people who are deafblind, have sensory impairments or complex needs – as well as being a hub for the local community, with a café, art gallery, community spaces and gardens.  As a TouchBase Champion with Usher syndrome, I attended, along with other Champions, meetings with the architects and designers at their offices, allowing us to be involved in the implementation of the building.

On one visit, I was shown the proposed colour of the door frames and the walls.  The door frame sample looked cream to me, and I remember wondering why that colour had been chosen. I learnt afterwards the colour was yellow, not cream. Next to this sample I was shown the wall colour. I waited a short while before responding, as I thought that was just their first choice and we would be shown a comparative, as Champions had forwarded suggestions prior to the meeting.  Nothing was forthcoming, and I realised that what I was shown was what was being proposed. I explained there was no contrast, so it was really difficult to see any difference. I was assured there was a contrast, and looked to my interpreter for confirmation. She confirmed there was, though subtle. I simply couldn’t understand it. Most probably because I couldn’t see it!

My interpreter noticed a blue bag on the floor, so we held that against the sample wall.  In that split second I was excited and exclaimed “that’s contrast!” The blue against the light, pale, wood effect wall stood out marvelously!

I am not clear why yellow was chosen for the door frames (I personally prefer good old-fashioned white!). If a dark colour had been chosen, it would have contrasted against the light coloured wall fine. The designer then seemed to have the expression I must have had a few moments before. It was interesting, as I realised I needed to start explaining “stark contrast” – not just “contrast”. I couldn’t help but feel perplexed by this as I had assumed all designers had studied Colour Theory. In fact, I thought they had to. Thus another lesson!  Never assume!

It has to be said the Architects, particularly Glenn Howell himself, were really good, involving us TouchBase Champions in the meetings, asking various questions and genuinely listening. It was lovely to be heard.

Accessibility in toilet design

The other experience I shared with the group briefly was the discussion the Champions had regarding toilets!  Yes!  It was in depth and in parts quite hilarious.

I thought I would seize this opportunity to illustrate just how challenging a trip to the loo can be!

There are numerous problems with toilet design for the visually impaired. The main one being contrast – that word again. Usually everything is in white and light tones, or black and dark. (Not very often I have seen black/dark coloured ones thankfully, as they are worse than all white! Why? Because they absorb the light!)

The doors of the cubicles are nearly always the same colour as the cubicle walls, hence once they are wide open it is easy to think there is no door, as I have done many times. You realise there must be a door, so which side do I need to track (feel) along to find the edge? But, of course, prior to entering the cubicle, you need to be sure it is vacant!  If the door is closed, we often mistake it for being ‘engaged’ as the bar to indicate otherwise, is usually small, and/or unclear. The last thing we want is to be standing on one side of the door, whilst its occupant is opening it on the other side! It can also be embarrassing to ‘test’ whether vacant or not, by pushing the door gently as sometimes the locks may not be securely closed for whatever reason.

The next problem is finding the lock once you’re inside the cubicle. Again, usually silver colour on a light door or even the same colour and sometimes quite small. Once inside the cubicle it can be testing trying to locate the hook to hang your bag, and long-cane. The hook is usually on the back of the door somewhere, though there are times it can be on the side wall of the cubicle, or none present at all.

Then we need to locate where the paper is. Usually a white container on, yes! a white, or light-coloured, wall. Or the white roll of paper is on a white tiled shelf. Thank heavens for the cardboard centre being a contrast colour of brown to be able to find it… eventually!  Even, at times, the flush can be ‘hidden’ – so that means a scan, and even a ‘track’, around the water cistern, and the wall.

Then to wash our hands. White basins against white tiled shiny walls, with soap dispensers are ‘lost’ against that because of their white containers, or subtle pumps sticking out the wall – not always in the obvious place which I would think, above the basin. Modern sink designs can be even more challenging, where the sink area is a soap dispenser and drier all combined, and where the sinks appear flat, yet they slope down away from you and you can’t see the water at all against the background.

Mirrors add to the confusion because your brain might well warn you someone is standing there, when in fact it is yourself!  (Mirrors can be disorientating for VIs). Finally, we can try to locate where either the paper towels, or hand drier is, while we scan around with our hands poised as if ready to perform surgery!  With all that complete, you must remember which way you came in in the first place, to find your way out! It truly can be a challenge!


There are numerous everyday challenges in terms of accessibility for the sensory impaired that can have a huge impact for the visually impaired. Lighting is critical.

Spotlights are undesirable as they create shadows, and thus confusion for VIs. Glare from both lights, and the sun, can be painful. I did suggest that in TouchBase Pears lighting could be controlled and varied. This way, the light level could be adjusted accordingly to the room user’s preference. It is an area, like many, where you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time.

A final comment on accessibility issues, whilst tactile surfaces are good, the use of patterns are not. We prefer plain; plain walls, plain floors etc. Patterns are not only distracting, but also create confusion. This even extends to clothing; part of Deaf Awareness is to wear plain clothes to enable the Deaf person see better, clearer.

Design of accessibility impacts every day, in every situation and just to reiterate, “you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all of the time”!

Learn more about TouchBase Pears, the new community hub being built in Selly Oak, Birmingham, providing services for the whole community and specialist provision for people with disabilities.

Author: Carol T

Carol is a TouchBase Champion who has provided insight into the accessible design of the building.

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