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Traveling by touch: how useful are tactile maps?

Many of you who are reading this article are itinerant professionals. To do your job, you make daily use of your own car, public transportation, or perhaps a contracted car and driver. If you drive your own car, you probably have caches of maps in accessible places to help you plan your travel. In my car, the maps I use often are in the driver's side pocket, and the rarely used ones are nested in the glove compartment. If you are an aging baby boomer as I am, you may also keep a magnifier for reading maps. Mine is clamped on the driver's side visor, and occasionally when I drive over a bump in the road, I am startled by the magnifier dropping suddenly into my lap.

If you are blind or have low vision, your travel planning is somewhat different. Rather than reaching around your car for a road map, perhaps you plan your travel route with an electronic device that uses global positioning satellite (GPS) technology or with computer software for mapping; you may obtain phone directions or rely on a driver for route planning. If you live in a city and travel by subway or bus, you may even have a complete tactile map of the transit system as a transportation resource. In unusual situations, you may have a portable version of the tactile map that you can consult for information while traveling. The distinctive role of maps for blind travelers is the subject of Practice Perspectives this month. Following this introduction are descriptions of two projects in which tactile maps were developed to address the needs of travelers who are blind.

Before you read these pieces, however, consider how maps are used differently by people who are blind. In the absence of personal expertise on this topic, I contacted four adults who are professionals in the field of visual impairment and blindness and are also blind. I believed they could provide unique perspectives on map usage. They responded to my three questions with a rich variety of opinions and experiences. Eric Guillory, director of Youth Services at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston; Daniel Kish, founder and chief executive officer of World Access for the Blind in Huntington Beach, California, and an orientation and mobility instructor; Mark Nelson, chief operating officer for the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix, Arizona; and Sandy Ruconich, assistive technology specialist at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind and past president (2006-2008) of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, all spoke to me about their own experiences, which provide context for this Practice Perspectives feature. Their responses to my questions are described below, and their thoughtful comments are very much appreciated.


Although Daniel, Eric, Mark, and Sandy all acknowledged that tactile maps were not often available to them as adults, they all had used them for specific purposes at some point in their lives. Mark uses tactile maps mainly for orientation at conferences and meetings as well as for consideration, with his administrative team, of the way space is used at the Foundation for Blind Children. Eric uses tactile maps mainly in his instructional role with children. He stated, "I don't employ them when learning travel routes and/or the layouts of buildings. I have already gained a good knowledge of cardinal directions and geographic relationships due to my previous exploration of tactile maps." Daniel reported that tactile maps are rarely available, recalling that he was disappointed on a visit to Disneyland to find that brailled information about the park was available for blind visitors, but the map provided to sighted visitors was not available in a tactile format. He has found tactile maps to be more available in European countries than in the United States.

Sandy does not use tactile maps often, primarily because she does not feel she learned effective skills in map usage when she was young. In her words, "I went to public schools before it was fashionable. No maps were available to me because my mother and classroom teachers were my only teachers. When other children used maps, I did something else." As an adult, she does not use tactile maps for personal travel because she finds it difficult to orient to the map, but she does find that tactile geographic maps are useful in helping her understand city locations within her own state of Utah.


In spite of the limited availability of tactile maps in their own personal environments, the four people I interviewed were unanimous in the belief that map skills were important to teach children with visual impairments. Eric stated, "The utilization of tactile maps in both instances (mobility and geography) can enrich a child's understanding of his or her world through the examination of a map of a classroom or a detailed globe. I can't tell you how many 'aha' moments I have had when looking at maps, charts, graphics, globes, or other forms of tactile data!" Daniel believes that early map instruction is "absolutely indispensable," noting a strong connection "between tactile spatial awareness and kinesthetic-locomotive spatial awareness." He cited board games and other tactile activities as similarly important for long-term understanding of how a traveler moves through an existing space. Sandy also agreed that map instruction is a key part of the curriculum in helping students understand the relationship of elements within an area, and Mark emphasized the usefulness of maps in understanding personal spaces, such as the arrangement of rooms in a house or lawns.


The four respondents had very different preferences for tactile maps. Mark prefers maps produced on swell paper using a tactile image enhancer. Daniel's favorite is thermoform because it can produce wider variations of texture and depth. Sandy likes maps produced on braille embossers, because the images are strong and distinctive. Eric and Daniel, in contrast, found embossed maps to be the format they least desired. Eric prefers relief maps; both Eric and Mark also mentioned that globes were important physical representations that formed their own understanding of geography. The wide variation of responses here suggests that the variety of new formats for tactile maps appearing on the market will be useful in addressing individual preferences.

The two contributions to this month's Practice Perspectives will provide examples of how tactile maps are becoming more useful to travelers and students who want to understand space through touch. An article from the California School for the Blind describes how an orientation and mobility instructor designed maps as to be useful for everyday living for his students, and a Norwegian article on "Zoom Maps" presents an intriguing method for providing close-up views of tactile maps.

I hope that this Practice Perspectives feature will provide you with new ways to use tactile maps as convenient tools and make them more available to the children and adults with whom you work.

Jane N. Erin, Ph.D., practice editor, JVIB, and professor, Specialization in Visual Impairment, Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology, University of Arizona, 1430 East Second Street, Tucson, AZ 85721-0069; e-mail: <>.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Practice Perspectives
Author:Erin, Jane N.
Publication:Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
Previous Article:A parent's perspective on the importance of braille for success in life.
Next Article:Design of a map and bus guide to teach transferable public transit skills.

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