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A Blind Person’s Map of the World

If someone who is blind were to draw a map of your city, what would you think it would look like? What would be highlighted? What would be left out?

Growing up in Kansas, which, if it’s not as flat as a table top, comes pretty close, it was relatively easy for me to have a reasonably accurate mental map of the city or, at least, those portions I needed to know. Streets were straight and paralleled each other, and virtually every block was a rectangle. Viewed from the air, the city was one large checkerboard.

East Tennessee, where I live now, is a vastly different proposition. The city is laid out as though there were a city ordinance against straight lines. Streets meander every which way, and street names change arbitrarily, making it a real challenge for someone who is visually impaired to have more than a vague notion of how the city is laid out.

Unfortunately, most of the world doesn’t come in checkerboards. Instead, we often need to try to construct mental maps of schools, neighborhoods, etc. that violate most of the rules of plane geometry.

Creating mental maps is vastly more difficult than it might appear at first blush. Even when people are asked to draw maps of the area where they live, the results can vary significantly. Years ago, I had a student who, as part of a term project, asked students to draw a map of the university. Freshmen drew maps with the student union, a couple of classroom buildings, the football stadium, and not much else. A majority of the maps drawn by students who commuted was devoted to elaborate descriptions of parking lots with a scattered classroom building here and there. Over half of the space on the maps of students living on campus was taken up with dormitories. I don’t know what it says about the university, but almost no one included the library in their map.

Many blind and visually impaired children learned about the map of the United States through tactile puzzles. They learn how each of the states is shaped and how it relates to adjacent states. As a result, most of the blind people I know have about as good a sense of US geography, perhaps better, than most sighted people.

Learning about the geography of their own local community, however, is a very different situation. If you want to know something as simple as the major streets in town, which way they go, and how you would get from one to another, you usually have to engage in a long series of questions and answers with one or more people who are sighted. Like the college students, you can expect the directions to vary depending on what landmarks the person giving directions thinks are most important, and, if they don’t go to the library themselves, its location isn’t likely to appear in your directions.

It would be the rare public school student who wouldn’t benefit from either a Braille or large print map of their school, especially on the first day of class, and a map of their area of the city as well as a city map indicating the major streets. After all, this is information that their peers and everyone else in society takes for granted. It’s not uncommon for the average blind or visually impaired student to have a clearer idea of where Wyoming or Seattle are located than they do of the major streets in their home town.

There’s just no substitute for a map when trying to understand local geography. For years I had struggled to get a mental picture of our surrounding counties. Weather forecasts, emergency warnings, and local news all assumed that their audience has a reasonable grasp of the counties in the immediate area. It wasn’t until a teacher of the visually impaired gave me a Braille map of the area that everything was instantly clarified. For the first time, I know, if “a tornado has been sighted on the ground in Hancock County,” whether I need to be concerned. Now, if I could only figure out which way the major streets go in the other parts of town and how you get to them.

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  1. Dani Clark says:

    This is very interesting to think about. In the field of journalism and news there seems to be a lack of geographical description most of the time. I never thought about how that may impact someone who is blind when there is a weather concern. I will be sure to keep this in mind throughout my journalism studies!

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