Swarthmore College's Enhanced Campus Navigation System for Blind Among Most Sophisticated at U.S. Schools

iBeacon above Office of Admissions

The small, white iBeacons like the one above the Office of Admissions identify campus features and direct the user through messages sent to an app on their phone.

Swarthmore has enhanced its campus navigation system for the blind, among the most sophisticated at colleges and universities in the country.

The system, which allows blind students and visitors to navigate campus independently, offers three wayfinding technologies. The latest is the iBeacons that were installed across campus this winter, which relay audio messages to an app on a user’s phone.

These proximity-based, low-energy Bluetooth devices identify campus features and landmarks, such as the Admissions Office, to direct the user, give them a sense of progress, and help them at decision points, such as a fork in a pathway or opposite doorways. Messages can also be updated remotely, for instance to help users avoid a construction hazard.

Hayden Dahmm '15, a sustainable development data analyst with the United Nations sustainable development solutions network, has been back on campus this spring to help the College test and tweak the iBeacons. For Dahmm, who is blind, it is his first experience with the technology, which he believes has “exciting potential.”

“I was repeatedly impressed by the pertinent messages,” he says. “For example, as I walked toward Kohlberg Hall, the app notified me that I was near the East and West entrances. As I entered the North side of Parrish, I was told that I was near the Post Office. Along with the Wayfinding app’s helpful root guides, this could improve confidence and independence.”

But beyond its technical aspects, the system reinforces the College’s commitment to making its campus as accessible as possible.

“I hope this new piece will make it significantly more user-friendly,” says Susan Smythe, ADA program manager and senior project manager. “And sometimes just having something like this can say a lot about the welcoming nature of campus.”

Swarthmore’s system also features a step-by-step, indoor-outdoor route guidance database. These narrative routes are presented in segments, similar to what a pedestrian gets from Google Maps. But they highlight the types of non-verbal clues needed by blind pedestrians, and the database is searchable and deliverable through both an app and website.

High-contrast maps for low-vision travelers, which complement the narrative routes, are the third component of the system. The maps can be displayed on a phone or the web, or printed and carried. Swarthmore hopes to roll these maps out this summer.

Dahmm and Smythe have been researching best practices for wayfinding since he first enrolled at Swarthmore in 2011. Dahmm says that while he navigated campus with confidence, there were parts he never visited out of unfamiliarity. 

“I was often too busy to take time to study paths with an instructor,” he says, “and I was worried about becoming embarrassingly lost.”

At first, he and Smythe looked into tactile maps, but they found them to be cumbersome and not portable. The College later contracted with ClickAndGo Wayfinding Maps to customize their app and and website-driven solution for the visually impaired for Swarthmore. It began offering the basic version of the system online in 2013.

While Swarthmore’s enhanced system still needs some fine tuning and orientation support, “it lays the groundwork for greater exploration and engagement by community members with a disability,” says Dahmm.

“I am excited to see where this technology goes in the future.”