GST & Universal Design: Creating Access for the Visually Impaired

October 3, 2018

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In my last article, I discussed how geospatial technology and universal design work together to empower people with disabilities to navigate the world around them. The case studies I offered were primarily about how people with mobility impairments are using GST. In this article, I’ll explore another common disability, visual impairment.

UD and GST both have the same goals: inclusiveness and awareness. Back in the old days, maps were often state secrets. In the last two decades, however, maps have become so ubiquitous that we take them for granted...but only if we’re able to use them effectively.

Are maps only for the fully sighted?

Maps, by common perception, are inherently visual, representing an empirical and accurate picture of a place. We know, however, that maps go beyond the visual. After all, a map seeks to represent in two dimensions a three-dimensional landscape. As cartographers, we use hillshades and contour lines to represent topography. We use blue to show water and black to show boundaries, and in our schematic maps, multiple colors represent different subway lines or different types of water lines.

But what if you can’t see those colors, or even see the lines? There are some very innovative solutions to bring geographic awareness to people who are visually impaired. As technology evolves, so do the methods and techniques for using maps with our other senses. The two most common ways to address this are tactile maps and auditory maps.

Auditory Maps

These are maps that speak to us in a literal sense. (Hopefully, if you are a geographer, all maps speak to you in a metaphorical sense.) Auditory maps are a classic example of universal design. Who among us hasn’t used a phone to navigate in an unfamiliar city, listening to turn-by-turn directions?

While these apps are useful for the sighted driver, they have several limitations for people who are visually impaired. First, they assume that you can read the street signs required for navigation. Second, they offer little context about what is around you as you navigate from A to B to C and beyond. And of course, being GPS-based, they don’t work in the indoor environment.

To address these issues, American Printing House for the Blind Inc. in Louisville, Ky., has developed an inventive solution. Nearby Explorer is a paid version of their app, and Nearby Explorer Online, is a free version that works on Wi-Fi. Both are designed for deployment on any mobile device that uses IOS or Android, and both have tiered levels of functionality.

What sets Nearby Explorer apart from a basic navigation app like Google Maps is that it offers context. In addition to simple turn-by-turn navigation, Nearby Explorer includes what the developers call “electronic signage.” As the user passes by certain features, say a transit station or a store, the app will deliver additional information. Using a range of databases, including Google Places, HERE maps, Foursquare and OpenStreetMap, places are described to the navigator as they approach and pass them.

Indoor Explorer, a feature of Nearby Explorer, offers the same features but at a much more local scale. While the data in Nearby Explorer covers all of the U.S., and in some cases far beyond, the maps and data used for the Indoor Explorer feature cover individual facilities. Each building must be individually mapped from a variety of sources, including digital data such as CAD drawings, paper floor plans, or even, in the case of a large mall, a photograph of the kiosk map.

Once the building map is geo-referenced to geographic coordinates using satellite imagery, air photos, etc., Bluetooth Low Energy beacons are installed in the building. These connect to the app and offer both navigation and context. A user can choose the overview mode, which is the electronic signage, or the navigation mode, which will direct them to the specific location at which the phone is pointed.

To date, American Printing House Inc. has mapped over 25 buildings in the Louisville area, from a single Walgreens store to the public library to the Louisville International Airport. The deployment time varies from a single day at Walgreens to almost a month for the airport.

Tactile Maps

These may be one of the earliest and most enduring examples of universal design for navigation. Tactile maps represent the world through touch. Long before digital mapping, tactile maps were used for navigation and geographic representation. The Inuit used carved pieces of driftwood to navigate the fjords of Greenland in the dark arctic winters, and Marshallese sailors have used stick charts to cross the vast south Pacific Ocean for centuries.

Go to any museum or park and if there is a sculpture of a map, you’ll see worn places where people have touched it countless times. Tactile maps draw people in, regardless of their visual abilities. Built both for the eyes and for the hands, a three-dimensional map represents the world in a format that a digital or paper map cannot.

The problem with tactile maps is that they aren’t very portable or scalable. Fortunately, with modern technology, there are ways to make these types of maps more usable for navigation. One innovative solution is to combine tactile maps and audio maps. 

Bay Area Rapid Transit is the public transportation system in the San Francisco Bay Area. With over 40 stations, more than 100 miles of track and nearly 130 million person-trips per year, it is a major component of the area’s thriving economy. And like all public transportation systems, it can be challenging to negotiate, even for the fully sighted. People with visual impairments face even more navigational challenges.

In a partnership between The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute and LightHouse, a local organization for the blind, accessible maps were created for every BART station. Produced in a spiral-binder format, these maps have both a tactile component (created with an embossing printer) and an auditory component. The auditory map uses a smart pen that, when tapped on a certain feature on the tactile map, delivers more detailed information about that feature.

Visual impairment is a spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum, people may be temporarily impaired (think eye surgery or sun blindness). Others may be progressively impaired due to a disease or simple aging, which may or may not lead to permanent impairment. Even the latter has many aspects. Some individuals may be completely blind; others may have limited vision that classifies them as “legally blind.”

Some others have a limited spectrum. Color blindness affects approximately 300 million people, although this varies widely among different demographics. The most common condition is the inability to distinguish between red and green. Clearly, this can pose problems with reading maps.

Since most people with color blindness have otherwise normal vision, this impairment is often overlooked in map design. In the U.S., however, the federal government has made efforts to make maps, and all online content, accessible to people with visual impairments, as discussed in section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The specifics of this law are beyond the scope of this piece, but it offers excellent guidelines for designing universally accessible maps.

The future is now.

Electronic maps, as we know, have diminished the importance of geographic literacy. We can pick up our phone, say an address, tap a few icons, then just follow directions. Teaching map literacy to the fully-sighted can be challenging enough, but to the visually impaired it can be even more challenging.

All of these apps require training, both in the interface and simple map use. Even using tactile maps requires learning how to orient and use the map. As a fully-sighted person, I have touched many tactile maps, but have never actually closed my eyes and tried to use one.

Fortunately, there are many dedicated people conducting research and deploying solutions. What impresses me, and what is most encouraging, is how much work is being done at the primary school level. Children, of course, are our future, and instilling geographic literacy in them is essential to an informed and civil society. One of the richest sites to discover the many ways that geography and mapping is being taught to youngsters is at the Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Mass. This page links to many ongoing efforts and is a great source for further research.


In any effort to discuss mapping for people of all abilities, we ultimately have to ask, “Why does this matter?” Economically, an empowered citizenry leads to a more productive society. The more people who can get to work and school, seek out new opportunities, travel securely and make new discoveries, the stronger our collective community will be. But above all, it is the right thing to do. To leave others behind is to leave ourselves behind.


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