Why blind people in Vienna hate trashcans

Laura Wissiak
Laura Wissiak

3 min read

When I first started doing research for Hope Tech’s Sixth Sense, we quickly encountered the challenge of “What exactly should we define as a threat and what would just be an obstacle? For the classification of threats, my mind went immediately to traffic, moving cars, or bicyclists of which there are many in Vienna. In my mind, a crash was something that requires two moving things going straight at each other.

Although a blind person walking into a trashcan sounds just like the punchline of a problematic joke, it is a real daily problem!

A bit of background knowledge: Vienna’s trashcans are managed by the wonderful MA 48, department for waste management and street cleaning. To make the bins easy to empty, they are suspended on street poles. Street cleaners can open the lid on the bottom and catch the contents with a net. Super easy, super fast, and as tidy as trash can be!

Because the bins are invisible to the white cane, many users have learned to walk around with one hand up in front of their chest. Extending their hand about 20 cm away from the chest allows them to notice trash bins or other suspended objects. A neat trick to work around this!

The first person who mentioned this to me was using this technique all throughout our walk. At first, I had assumed that he was simply the kind of person who gesticulates a lot while talking. But when we reached the topic of “common mishaps” he immediately talked about the problem with trashcans. It seems like this is something every white cane user has to learn the hard way by running into at least one.

Many people with low vision use a white cane to navigate the world. The concept is simple, yet unsurpassed: The cane bumps into obstacles before the holder does. Great! We love it! But the cane has one downside: It only works on the ground. While knee-high objects can still be detected somewhat accurately to avoid a crash, anything hip-height or above is basically invisible.

Do you see where I’m going with this? The white cane scanning on the ground and the trash bins suspended on poles in mid-air don’t make for the best combination. The cane will pick up on the pole, but not the entire width of the bin. So while roaming the streets of Vienna, any cane user runs a chance that the tiny street pole or traffic sign they just encountered is ready to bodycheck them with a trashcan.

In the context of Hope Tech, this will most likely be an everyday use case. One that no one on the team saw coming: Avoiding those sneaky trash cans. But long term, I’d like to see the city of Vienna take this into consideration as well. So if anybody who is remotely responsible for the trash cans is reading this, hit me up! I’d love to help you solve this accessibility issue.

A grey and orange trash bin mounted on a blue bus stop sign in Vienna. In the background, white hibiscus flowers are blooming in front of one of the historical facades in Vienna’s first district.

This blog post was particularly inspired by user interviews with two residents of Vienna, who are legally blind. However, both of them experienced progressive sight loss over a longer period of time. In this post, I refer to them as blind because that is how they described themselves, but I am convinced that the trashcan issue extends to almost, if not all users of the white cane.

This article was originally published at laura-wissiak.com/blog