How many times have you seen people cautiously approaching a glazed entry to a shopping centre without knowing where the automatic doors are?

Now imagine you have some level of vision loss as you’re approaching that same entrance. Will you register the location of the glazed entry? Will you identify the doorway? Can you safely move through the doorway?

Earlier this month it was reported in the press that Sir Richard Branson had been “in the wars.” What he’d actually done was visit a local jewellery shop to look for a gift for his wife only to walk into the entry door. Branson was quoted as saying “I strolled purposefully into the shop, not noticing there was a glass door in my way. Crash! I hit the glass head first and I got this painful cut above my left eye.”

Branson’s unfortunate accident resulted in three stitches over his eye and highlights that the visual cues most of us register as we approach a doorway may not be so evident to everyone at all times.

These reasons could obviously be due to a person’s low vision. After all, Vision Australia reported that in 2013 there were 357,000 people in Australia who were blind or had low vision. They also predict that this number will grow to 564,000 by 2030, in part no doubt to an ageing population. From a global perspective, in 2010 the number of people who were reports as being vision impaired was estimated at 285 million, of whom 39 million were blind. However, the reasons why people don’t register key features in a building could also be due to distractions in the area, visual confusion, glare on surfaces or poor lighting (or maybe in Branson’s case, evading the paparazzi).

Now consider people moving around a built environment for a moment and think about which other features and facilities would benefit from increasing their visual contrast, thereby increasing a person’s ability to identify these features.

Stairs are one such area, being a high risk for slips, trips and falls in any public building. Research undertaken in 2008 by the Monash University Accident Research Centre and commissioned by the Australian Building Codes Board found that stair and step fall injuries had increased by over 70 per cent during the decade 1993/4 to 2002/3.

Signage is another problematic area. Signs are critical for wayfinding purposes, but are ineffective unless they can firstly be noticed.

So what does the Building Code of Australia require? Well, there are minimum requirements that dictate what features of a building must provide a suitable luminance contrast for ease of identification.

These requirements are limited to stair nosing strips, tactile ground surface indicators (on stair and ramp landings), mandatory signage, lift buttons, toilet seats, doorway frames and most importantly for Branson, glazing bands on glass doors and fully glazed panels. There are also best practice and risk mitigation strategies that can be implemented that adopt overseas technical standards.