Laura Šakaja lecture on practices and mobility of blind persons in Zagreb

Laura Šakaja gave a presentation at a scientific conference Grandes Problemáticas to Espaςo Europeu (= “Major Issues of the European Space”, University of Porto, May 27–28th 2016). In her presentation, entitled “Everyday practices and the mobility of blind and vision impaired persons in the urban spaces of Zagreb”, she presented the first results of a study conducted in Zagreb towards the end of 2015 and at the beginning of 2016. The study was partly financed by the Croatian Science Foundation.

Summary (published in the summary book):

Of all the senses, sight provides the greatest amount of information on and sensory experience of environmental characteristics, so that the geospatial aspect is extremely important when dealing with the problem of everyday mobility of blind and vision impaired persons. It is therefore not surprising that geography has a long tradition of studies related to blindness and vision impairment. In this context, much attention has been paid to providing equal opportunities for disabled people to accommodate their needs by extending their spatial capacity. A good part of the published work in the field has dealt with the application of geographical technologies to problems of vision impairment. The need to represent the environment by non-visual modalities – touch, sound and speech – has stimulated the efforts of geographers to develop assistive technologies – from tactile (tactual) and auditory maps to personal guidance systems and GIS applications.

There are strong conceptual differences in approaches to people with vision impairment. In the framework of the “medical model” of disability, prevailing in early geographical research, vision impairment was seen as “individual tragedy”, while the body was conceptualised as lacking “normal“ standards of ability and mobility.  In the alternative “social model“, disability is conceptualised as the disadvantage caused by a social organisation that reproduces inequalities. The latter model underlines the role of society in the shaping of disabled people’s lives, therefore disability is interpreted as socially constructed.

This paper represents a return to the realities of impaired bodies, while rejecting the discourse of the “medical model,” which implies aiding disabled people to do things “normally”. The paper also rejects the opposition of the concepts impaired and normal that informs the “medical model”.

The paper is based on qualitative research, which was carried out in Zagreb using interviews and a focus group with blind and vision impaired people. The main focus of the research has been on the realities of impaired bodies, primarily in terms of the immediate, real body spaces of disabled people living in Zagreb. The paper discusses the configurational knowledge of urban space, bodily practices and difficulties faced by disabled people moving around the city.  The level of accessibility of essential infrastructure is evaluated, and the ways in which disabled people use the urban space are presented. The research also includes a map of residence locations of blind and vision impaired residents of Zagreb, thereby opening the possibility of defining priority spaces for construction of the necessary infrastructure for the blind.

Special attention is given to evaluation of the use of assistive technologies for the blind. The paper focuses on the ways such technology is used, as well as the problems it involves and the opportunities it opens. The paper also discusses enabling and disabling aspects of the technology, and the capacity of spatial modelling and navigation technology to facilitate configuration knowledge and prevent disorientation in urban space.

Key words: blind, disabled, accessibility, spatial configuration, mobility, tactile maps, GPS, Zagreb

The programme of the scientific conference is available on the web page:

Conference programme


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  • Project is supported by Croatian Science Foundation
  • Project leading institution: Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagreb
  • Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology
  • Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, Department of Geography