Our streets are filled with hidden features that go unnoticed. Features for engineers, features for emergencies, and features which allow the blind and visually impaired to go about their business as normal.

Just having a pavement is a safety feature. Visually impaired people and their assistance dogs can feel the difference in height and they know not to step into the road. This causes a problem at crossings where a warning is needed to make people aware of the hazard.

Step forward tactile paving. These bumpy paved stones have 108 pages of regulations behind them, but effectively it amounts to this: they come in two colours, red for use at crossings with traffic lights and yellow (‘buff’) for use where there are no traffic lights. The red stones need to have a long, thin ‘leg’ which allows people to find the paving and follow it to be taken to the button to press for the traffic lights.

The long part helps people press the button. Photo: Amy Kavanagh

Visually impaired campaigner Amy Kavanagh explained: “Visually impaired people use tactile paving in different ways. Cane users feel the vibrations and listen to the sounds. Guide dog handlers, visually impaired people being guided or visually impaired people not using a cane will usually use their feet to feel the textures.”

Where there are rules, there are problems. Although research has proven that red and yellow are the two best colours for tactile paving because they stand out, experience has taught Dublin and other city councils that yellow can often blend in with its surroundings. A spokesperson for the NCBI confirmed that they had been consulting with a number of people with impaired vision and concluded that two more colours should be unofficially added to the palette: a light grey and a dark grey, to be used where yellow wouldn’t stand out enough.

Since then, most of Dublin city centre has been paved with different shades of grey. Grey is the colour.

Grey is used where yellow wouldn’t work. Photo: John Randall.

Unfortunately, where there are rules there are also mistakes. Dublin’s O’Connell Street seems to be a magnet for them. While no reason has been given for the errors, it is likely that architects were given free reign over the street design – architects and engineers have a history of arguing over whether things should be designed to be pretty or practical.

Among the problems with O’Connell Street are tiles which are painted the exact same colour as their surroundings; shiny studs which are too small to be seen in the wet and too shiny to be seen in the sun; and dark grey paving being wrongly used at traffic lights causing confusion. Amy Kavanagh explained “I wouldn’t see it at all, I’d be relying on my cane to find it”.



It’s not always done right. Photos: John Randall.

Tactile paving is just one of many features of our streets which visually impaired people rely on to help them navigate safely. Amy added: “if you see a visually impaired person pausing on tactile paving they are probably feeling it in order to work out their route or what kind of obstacle there might be”.

When you have 108 pages of regulations over something as minor as a paving slab, it’s inevitable that mistakes are going to be made and it might sound petty to be worrying about the wrong shade of grey being used. But for the people who need these tools to get around, getting it right helps them makes a huge difference to their lives.

For those of us who aren’t visually impaired, one way we can help is by reporting things we find which aren’t right. Amy spotted this one and found it very dangerous.

Photo: Amy Kavanagh