Building Better Maps for the Visually Impaired

Rebecca Maxwell


For those of us who can see, being able to read a map is something that we take advantage of every day. We use maps to navigate our way around the city using public transportation, take a field trip to the museum, and remember the layout of a new office or home. Reading a map, however, is a visual activity. We get a sense of the world by looking at maps and what they represent.

For the 285 million people in the world who are visually impaired, however, it is another story. Navigating in a new place can be daunting without the ability to read a map. The good news is that a team of scientists, advocates, and architects are developing new methods of map reading for the visually impaired, especially in the areas of public transportation, education, and architecture. These new methods involve the creation of maps and lesson plans that can be touched and heard.

One of the places where audio and tactile maps for the blind are being utilized is San Francisco. Reading maps is a large part of public transit. So Dr. Joshua Miele, a scientist at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, joined forces with a local organization for the blind called LightHouse, to create accessible maps of every BART station in the city.

These maps, crafted on an embossing printer in large print, include both a tactile and audio component. The user can take a smart-pen from LiveScribe and tap on an icon that represents a ticket booth or an exit. They will then hear more detailed information like what intersection is outside or how much a fare is.

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Miele says that this is a special advancement because it is the first time that a visually impaired person can orient themselves to the BART system. They can plan a way to get to the entrance, go through the turnstyles, navigate to the platform, get off and then head to the exit. It will probably be a while, though, before other cities adopt tactile maps because the demand simply is not there. Plus, not everyone can produce these kinds of maps.

As a visually impaired person himself, Miele understands the lack of maps available for the blind. He has dedicated himself for the last 25 years to improving access to information for the visually impaired and has become a leader of this mapping revolution. One of the biggest obstacles he faces is the myth that blind people cannot use tactile maps. There is also a low level of tactile literacy in the blind and visually impaired community. But good design is the key to changing this because using Braille only often limits the effectiveness of a map.

In the same manner, tactile methods of learning are being employed in the field of education. Dr. Colleen Farmer, an associate professor at the University of Utah, realized that science is often neglected in terms of accessibility. Studying the sciences often has a visual component of looking through a microscope or telescope, but in her field of study, morphology, a tactile component can help the visually impaired learn.

Farmer attended a workshop back in 2009 for young blind students where she had them feel dinosaur bones for comparison. Her participation in the workshop spawned other ideas, and she went on to create other K-12 science kits for visually impaired students with help from the National Federation of the Blind. So far, the two kits that have been prototyped include the ecology of the Galapagos Islands and primate evolution.

These kits include audio and Braille lesson plans as well as tactile maps, games, and 3-D printed models of skulls and tortoise shells. Along with the Natural History Museum of Utah, Farmer distributes the kits free of charge to local classrooms. She also hopes that they will inspire other scientists to develop kits centered on their own research.

Tactile maps are also gaining ground in the field of architecture. In 2008, architect Chris Downey was inflicted with a non-cancerous brain tumor that cost him his eyesight. Downey had to figure out a way to keep working, and this led to the production of tactile architectural drawings using an embossing printer.

This new way of figuring out architectural drawings presented plenty of obstacles for Downey. First of all, he discovered that his tactile plans had a steep learning curve. He had hardly any development of his touch senses, even though he had plenty of graphical understanding of how to read plans.

Moreover, the field of architecture is itself a problem for the visually impaired because certain graphical patterns are standard. Building plans are made up of grid lines, long arrows, and color and tones that all serve specific purposes. Downey had to get rid of all the unnecessary information in his tactile plans.

Another problem that emerged is that architectural plans are explored differently for those who are visually impaired. For people that can see, they can get an overall understanding of a place by looking at a map first and then hone in on the details. Using a tactile map is different in that the visually impaired have to start deciphering details with their fingers first and then determine what the overall picture is.

Downey’s mission is to develop architecture into a field that is accessible by all. His passion includes figuring out how buildings are experienced when explored by hand, like how it feels to grab a railing or door handle. Downey’s past projects included one that allowed the visually impaired to differentiate the separate spaces of a building by using different kinds of flooring like cork and polished concrete.

Ultimately, Downey uses his tactile architectural plans at his own consulting firm called Architecture for the Blind. He is also working as a consultant for the accessibility of BART as well as designing plans for AC Transit’s bus system and the new Transbay Transit Center. Both Downey and Joshua Miele agree that it is critical to increase the tactile literary of the visually impaired when it comes to being able to read a map. Physical maps provide a global picture of the space around you, and that is paramount when trying to navigate.


“Maps That You Can Hear and Touch.”

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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on