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Campus wind chimes guide visually impaired

January 23, 2006

Photo of the wind chimes hanging near the J. Paul Leonard LibraryStudent Toshiro Yamamoto found the answer to his problem blowing in the wind.

While the delicate music of wind chimes heard throughout the campus since early December may be an aural treat for the ears, they also serve as a navigation tool for persons with visual impairments like Yamamoto.

The senior majoring in kinesiology uses a cane and counts intersections to find his way between campus and his Sunset District home. "But on the way home one day, I was distracted, lost count and turned down the wrong street," Yamamoto said. "I wound up trying to get into someone else's house!"

Shortly thereafter, he noticed the sound of wind chimes hung from a neighbor's house and has since relied on them to verify the location of his own home.

"These chimes have been a 'guiding light' to me," said Yamamoto, who has been blind in one eye since the age of 12 and is rapidly losing sight in the other. Wondering if wind chimes might be helpful on campus to others, Yamamoto met with Phil Evans, manager of campus grounds; Geoff Brown, a coordinator of the Disability Programs and Resource Center; and Ricardo Gomes, chair and associate professor of design and industry, to discuss the possibility.

The pilot program consists of chimes hung from a light pole near the library, where students who are blind or have other impairments use adaptive computer equipment. Chimes at the east entrance to Burk Hall, across from the student center, are a reminder that the steep, wide staircase leading down into the building is nearby. More sets were hung near the humanities and student services buildings.

This is not the first time SFSU has explored offering audible clues to visually impaired persons. In 1990, Evans collaborated with design and industry faculty members Brian Donnelly and Robert Natata on a study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The project, entitled "Accessible Landscapes, Designing for Inclusion," explored such multipurpose campus enhancements as talking maps and furniture that would accommodate wheelchair users. Not long after, design and industry students constructed two examples of accessible outdoor study tables on the Fine Arts building patio. The project also spawned a book and an accessible landscapes Web site, which are routinely consulted by designers worldwide.

"The wind chimes will provide a multi-dimensional experience for everyone," Evans said.

While the chimes were an easy innovation to implement, the pilot program has revealed a few kinks that need to be hammered out. The weight and design of the test chimes doesn't guarantee regular ringing in campus winds, and the sounds of each set are too similar for users to make a distinction about which location they represent. Evans hopes to find engineering and industrial design classes that could take on these refinements as class projects.

Meanwhile, Yamamoto hopes the project makes it past the pilot stage.

"Perhaps someone will have a problem with the chimes ... maybe some will find them annoying," Yamamoto said. "But I think that the benefits far outweigh any negative effects."

Anyone with comments regarding the wind chimes on campus should contact Geoff Brown at (415) 338-2377 or

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified January 24, 2006 by University Communications