BrailleWise Doesn’t Sound All That Wise To Me

I think I understand what the seemingly well intentioned folks behind the BrailleWise public bathroom system are trying to do, but I’m not sure who they’ve been talking to if this is their view of us.

Just as the Braille inventor, people with visual disability work hard to adjust to a life without sight. In total darkness and unknown places they can hardly orientate. Every day they face much discomfort when getting around, using public transports and toilets. Therefore, the School of Design at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University has recently designed a new aircraft lavatory especially for them by providing an organized system for reading Braille and other tactile information. This unconventional design is called BrailleWise®, which gives good indication to quickly find and use lavatories on planes. With BrailleWise®, the visually impaired people can now enjoy greater independence and comfort when using toilets.

That makes us sound so sheltered and helpless, am I wrong? Can hardly orientate? Face much discomfort? Yes, sometimes getting around on your average day is a chore, but rarely does it reach the level of what I’d consider discomfort.

Braille toilet signs are not a common sight on plane and even if they exist, they can only be found next to an amenity. But BrailleWise® goes about it differently. Beams are put up around a lavatory compartment showing simple directions. A beam with signs in Braille letters for all functions will show the visually impaired users where they can find the amenities such as toilet rolls. The tactile signs on the beam show the names of the amenities along with upward or downward arrows pointing to their actual locations.

You know, that might be sort of helpful. There’s not much worse in bathroom life than having done your thing only to not be able to find the shit tickets. But having to read all about where they are beforehand…sometimes there’s just not time for that. You wanna talk about facing great discomfort, there ya go.

Once in a cabin lavatory, a visually impaired person can instantly feel the presence of the Braille beams at waist level.

Instantly? I hope you mean without molesting the wall, because I rarely trail full walls with my hands in a bathroom. There’s generally not a need to.

Running his/her fingers down the beam, a user can quickly locate a wanted function such as the toilet bowl, the flush handle and the wash basin.  With good bearings, one can move around freely and independently with greater confidence without relying on a guide.

A guide? Let me clear this one up in the hopes that somebody who needs to see this will actually see it.

I understand why sighted people think we might need a guide in a public bathroom, especially when we’re in a place where we’ve needed help to find other things. Restaurants are a good example. the server helped direct us to the table and will need to direct us to the bathroom, so therefore it’s completely logical to assume that we won’t know how to get around once we’re inside. I’ve given a few waitresses a scare in my time based on this line of reasoning. But here’s the thing. Bathroom’s aren’t that hard. they’re usually the least complicated part of a building, actually. If you’re any good at independent travel, a few steps, a couple of cane taps and a little bit of common sense should be all you need. It’s pretty hard to confuse a sink and a urinal, for instance. You might guess wrong on which part of the room holds which for a second, but that’s easy to fix. And if we’re talking about a plane or bus bathroom, those things are so small that it’s literally impossible to get lost.

Speaking only for myself, I don’t think I’ve needed a bathroom guide since I was something like eight years old. So rest easy, dear pub worker. You don’t have to watch me recycle the beer you’ve been feeding me.

He/she does not need to feel around and risk touching the toilet seat anymore, which is often covered in filthy stains.

Filthy stains like the ones that could possibly be caused by oh let’s see, a constant flow of strangers dragging their dirty fingers along a braille covered bathroom wall?

Travelling and sightseeing are great ways to connect with people. The leader of Public Design Lab in School of Design, Prof. Michael Siu, wanted to make public toilets accessible and comfortable so that the visually impaired people would face less struggles on the go. “Using the toilet in public places is not that straight-forward for the visually impaired. Finding their way around in unfamiliar territory is a big challenge for them. That’s why they would usually avoid using public toilets by not eating and drinking. But it is not healthy,” said Prof. Siu, who has been working with his fellow researchers and the Hong Kong Blind Union since 2000 on products that cater to the special needs of the visually impaired. “Their disability shouldn’t take away their social life and exclude them from society,” said Prof. Siu.

Avoid eating or drinking so they don’t have to use a public restroom? Does anybody actually do that? Is there a Hong Kong cultural thing I’m not aware of at play here? I’ve never met or even heard of a person who would go to such lengths. It seems completely preposterous.

I’m saying all of this sight unseen, so there’s always the chance I could be wrong. But honestly I can’t imagine myself using this.

I think it’s great that people want to make our lives easier. I just wish there wasn’t this tendency to either solve a problem that doesn’t really exist or over think ones that do.

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  1. I was shaking my head while reading the article last night and then when I got to the part about not eating or drinking I was like what? Huh?

    I thought about back when I was first blind and yeah, I was scared to go out for long periods of time with B exactly because of the bathroom thing, but after an O & M lesson in the bathroom at Saavi, I was like oh, bathrooms aren’t scary.

    The funny thing about this is that I prefer the airplane bathroom since it’s just one tiny room and I don’t have to look all over the place for the sink and paper towels.

    I want to write a post about this too but haven’t been writing much. We’ll see if I get around to it.

    1. Exactly. Planes and buses have the easiest layout in the world. You’d probably have more room to get lost if somebody stuffed you into a refrigerator box. and once you master a few basics, bigger bathrooms aren’t intimidating at all.

      Being worried about needing a bathroom isn’t something I’ve ever had to think about having been blind from birth and needing to learn this stuff early, but I can totally see how it would be a worry at the start. But a worry to the point of needing a navigation system?

      My biggest bathroom worry is needing a bathroom that doesn’t exist. Like say you’re taking a bus trip that’s going to take some time, but you happen to be on one of those buses that doesn’t have a bathroom. Nobody tells you this though, so you could potentially be walking down the bus, looking all over for something you won’t find and making yourself feel like a complete fool.

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