Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Charles River Braille Trail

Two blocks down the street from the Perkins School for the Blind is a new Braille trail along the Charles River in Watertown, MA. The existence of the new Braille trail is an invitation for Perkins residents and students to come out and explore. While checking out the trail last month I met local walkers who verified that groups from Perkins had indeed been visiting this wonderful loop walk alongside the river.

Jerry Berrier, who is blind, works at Perkins, and consults with Massachusetts Audubon on their sensory trails, told me he thinks this is one of the best designed trails for people with visual impairments that he has experienced.

The Perkins School was one of several collaborators involved in developing the trail and assists in its maintenance. Other partners included the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Town of Watertown, the Watertown Community Foundation and other local organizations. The Solomon Foundation was a major contributor of funds for the project. The combined efforts of both public and private partners is often what is necessary for such a successful result.

As I walked the trail, I kept my eyes closed most of the time, trying out the guide cable, running my fingers along the cable to each post, and feeling the large wooden beads along the way that indicate elements in the vicinity. A sphere means that there is a bench opposite the trail from the cable, a cube indicates a station or feature nearby, and a cylinder marks a station or feature on the opposite side. Triangular beads tell you what the other bead shapes mean, serving as a key. Since I don't read Braille I had to open my eyes to read the interpretive signage along the way describing the nature and history of the this delightful riverside spot.

Walking with eyes closed, I found it a bit daunting to navigate the transitions where the cable ends and another type of tactile element began. It helped a lot that I already had a visual overview of the area and trail concept. Although the transitions may be easier for those used to navigating with a cane or sighted guide, one suggestion for improvement would be to provide an introduction to the trail via website and audio tour, and maybe even a tactile map on site. The quarter mile long trail is a thin oval shape, fitting in neatly between the river and Charles River Road and connecting to a longer trail on both ends. There are signage stations along the perimeter and a sensory garden in the middle of the oval, entered both on the river side and the street side.

The sensory garden makes this trail unique in all the trails for people with visual impairments that I have walked. It is a beautifully designed space with a stripe of cobblestone underfoot as a tactile guide through the experiences offered there. The garden is edged in a combination of stone walls, trees, and logs cut to establish lines of short stumps and logs cut in longer lengths set cleverly together in an almost braided effect on the ground. Within the variable interactive boundary are a few attractions that are lovely to behold with eyes as well as hands, including 2 wooden rowboats commemorating the history of boat use on the river, a xylophone or marimba bench that can be played while you sit on it, and a large boulder with a grinding space evoking the lifestyle of the first people who lived in the vicinity.

On the west end of the oval - the side closest to Watertown square - nearby there are a few picnic tables accessible off the continuing trail. It would be nice to see a navigational extension for blind trail users to these tables. They are quite a statement, conveying the flow of the river in their design. A few of the benches along the Braille Trail share similar elements and provide lots of enjoyable resting spots.

The Charles River Braille Trail is located close to the intersection of Irving Street and Charles River Road. There is plenty of free street side parking for those arriving by car. DCR has installed a signalized pedestrian crossing to make it easier for those who are walking to access the site. Be aware that there are no restrooms on site or in the immediate vicinity. Plan accordingly and the Charles River Braille Trail is well worth the visit!

1 comment:

Marjorie Turner said...

My friends who have limited sight would second your suggestion for adding capacity for audio or interactive smart phone use.