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Braille and Tactile Signage

With some saying compliance with braille and tactile signage legislation is fading into the background, Jo Golding reviews the market and talks to key players driving its development forward

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The number of visually impaired or blind people in the UK is set to double by 2050 to around 4 million

Building a more accessible future

At the start of the year, RBS and Natwest launched the first accessible bank cards with braille and tactile markings, hitting home the importance of adjusting for easier access for the visually impaired.

The number of blind or visually impaired people in the UK is currently 2m but it is estimated that by 2050, this number will double. It is a daunting prospect and one that it is not made any easier by exclusions in terms of wayfinding. This is why accessible signage is so important and should not be overlooked—even in a visual medium.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and Equality Act in 2010 brought the issue of discrimination to the forefront, enforcing service providers not to exclude the visually impaired. Rob Goleniowski, sales support manager of Roland DG, explains: “In the UK, the legislation states that all public buildings and areas (also services offered) should be accessible to everybody. Clear signage plays a key role in ensuring businesses comply with this.” This can be done through braille and tactile signage.

Ambiguous market

However, as time passes since legislation was formed, compliance has slipped into the background. David Catanach, director of the British Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA), says: “The initial flurry to comply with new laws has died down somewhat and braille/tactile signs are not to the forefront of a sign-makers business as much as they used to be. That is not to say however that sign-makers should dismiss the opportunity to supply these signs simply because the demand is not there. Being able to supply compliant signs is a must for any company in our sector.”

The initial flurry to comply with new laws has died down somewhat and braille/tactile signs are not to the forefront of a sign-maker’s business as much as they used to be

Similarly, Goleniowski believes the place to go for this particular signage is unclear: “There is a limited number of specialist producers dedicated to this sector, but many brands, companies and consumers are not generally aware of exactly where to go in order to obtain this type of signage.”

Legislation was ‘vague’ for a number of years, according to Michael Woods, owner of Braille Signs UK, which could have contributed to it falling by the wayside. Woods says of their competitors in the braille and tactile market: “I don’t really know many to be honest with you. We’re number one on Google and we've been doing it for years so we do really well out of it. I don’t come across many people who do it.”

Michael Woods, owner of Braille Signs UK, says 80 percent of work they get is from trade

It is also true that for some time, signs for the visually impaired were not taken seriously. “Going back years ago, people used to just think it was all a load of rubbish. Signs for blind people, ‘how are they going to find them anyway’, and they would make a bit of a joke of it but there's more to it than that,” says Woods.

O Factoid: Braille was invented in France by Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight in an accident. He started to develop his own code for the French alphabet at the age of 15.  O

Although the rules may have been uncertain at times, Goleniowski believes the market is now becoming clearer. He says: “However, continued innovation in hardware, inks and substrates have opened up this market in the last few years. As such, we believe there is a great opportunity for sign-makers to diversify into this market and use the skills and the multiple-market customer base they currently have to generate additional revenue streams in a sector that is rapidly transforming due to advances in printing technologies.”

Helping hand

Perhaps one of the reasons why the braille signage sector is more under the radar than others is down to a lack of knowledge. Not every sign-maker can create braille signage and with so many different types of signs manufactures, from neon specialists to banner makers, it would be wrong to assume every firm will have the relevant know-how to create braille and tactile signs.

However, there are ways of getting around this in order to comply with legislation. Catanach argues those who specialise in the area are the best people to step up.

Accessible wayfinding signs are extremely important. David Catanach of the BSGA believes 'being able to supply compliant signs is a must for any sign company'

“Making braille and tactile signs correctly can be beyond most sign-makers’ skills and equipment. Fortunately however there are suppliers out there who specialise in this product and would be willing to support and supply,” comments Catanach.

Braille Signs UK have built up a strong signage portfolio across the nation. Woods explains: “We get quite a lot of stuff off the internet. We're finding a lot of the work we get is trade work such as other sign companies; probably about 80 percent of it. They all tend to return as well. It seems to be people who haven't dealt with braille and tactile signage before, so when they get an enquiry they type it into Google and come to us.”

Wood continues: “We do it the right way. We have a number of machines and they're all for the right things, whereas some people do it who just have a tiny little engraver machine and the time it takes to do it bumps the price up. We have a price for the general public and then we have a trade price as well where we offer a 25 percent discount.”

Sign manufacturers can also turn to physical resources for help including the Sign Design Guide, created by the Sign Design Society. The guide was written 15 years ago to help sign-makers comply with the DDA.

Chairman of the Sign Design Society, Mike Wolff, says: “The guide is quite old now, it was published in 2000, but it’s still essentially accurate. It was written by two authorities on the subject, both of whom were members of the society at the time. Peter Barker’s still with us and he’s very influential in the field of accessibility.

“It describes itself as a guide to accessible signing which is effectively what its conception was. It’s centred around the provisions of the disability discrimination act and best practice as it was at the time. Things have moved on a bit since then, we now have the Equality Act but largely the principles of sign designers laid out in The Sign Design Guide are still current.”

The society provides a platform for dialogue on all signage issues and can help sign-makers keep up to date with legislation. Wolff explains: “We’re a small body that seeks to represent the interests of those who are involved with sign designers and sign manufacturers. In many ways we’re a conduit for the members. We effectively provide a means whereby our members can communicate with one another or indeed add to professional contribution on questions that might arise in our fields.”

Commit to kit

Having the appropriate equipment is essential for creating braille and tactile signage. Take Braille Signs UK, for example, who have invested in over £100,000 worth of specialist machinery. Woods says: “We have two large milligram machines which are CNC machines; they do the steel and aluminium. Then we have two Roland machines which do the plastic tactile and braille. They’re a 600 x 400mm bed so you get most signs on there.

“Then we have a large bed which is a 1220 x 610mm which is a vision engraver. It’s good for larger directories and wayfinding signs. A lot of people can only do smaller sizes. A lot of people seem to have restrictions on what they can do. We have very little restrictions on what we can do; we can do most things.”

(Above and below) All of Braille Signs UK's signs are manufactured in house, including these aluminium and silk perspex signs

Currently Braille Signs UK are working on a project with new German hotel brand, Motel One. Woods adds: “We did the first one in London Bridge pre-Christmas and we’re doing one in Manchester at the moment. It’s a semi-budget hotel chain and they are really nice.”

The firm is also working on a large scale project with the Image Group at Canary Wharf, which could take up to ten years to finish with around 25 percent completed already.

Another company who has invested in specialist equipment is Roland DG. Goleniowski comments: “Roland DG technology is ideally suited to the production of braille and tactile signage. Two methods of production are possible with a range our engraving machines, including the EGX-350, EGX-400 and EGX-600. The first method is by drilling holes in the substrate for specially developed braille beads, which can be placed automatically with an applicator or by hand. The second method is to use a specially shaped cutting tool to cut out beads or shapes.”

He continues: “Sign-makers looking to diversify into this sector can also take advantage of our peerless UV printing technologies. The VersaUV LEF-20 is an incredibly versatile desktop flatbed printer, which in terms of functionality and size is particularly well-suited to the production of many types of DDA/Equality Act compliant signage.

The EGX-350 is a desktop engraver from Roland and is ideal for making brass plaques, indoor signs, and awards

“For larger format tactile signage there is also our VersaUV LEJ-640 hybrid printer and LEJ-640F flatbed, which can create embossed and braille effects on a wide range of both flexible and rigid substrates.”

Roland's hybrid printer, the VersaUV LEJ-640, can create 'embossed and braille effects on a wide range of both flexible and rigid substrates'

Investing in braille and tactile signage can do a lot to help businesses. Goleniowski  acknowledges: “By investing in Roland’s engraving and UV wide-format technologies sign-makers can, with their considerable skills and knowledge of the market, play a key part in helping businesses by providing them with an extensive range of additional tactile and/or braille signage applications and solutions.”

It is evident from talking to braille sign manufacturers and experts in the industry that there are few companies creating this type of signage, therefore having a range of braille and tactile signage provides a significant business opportunity for any sign-maker.

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