Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Totally cool - tactile maps!

My husband found this story for me, on NPR, and said, "You have to blog about this." I went, and listened, and he was right, so here I am. It's a radio story about a completely new development: tactile maps for the blind.

The original radio story is here.

These maps are printed on a braille printer and show the layout of neighborhoods - streets, etc. - with their names printed in braille. The most amazing thing about them is that in the thousands of years maps have been used, and the 150 years that braille has been around, no one has ever put the two together (at least, I note after the comment below, not this effectively). This is the first time that maps for non-sighted people have been systematically available. It's astonishing! Even more amazing is the fact that so many people have equated visual with spatial information that for a long time people would say that the blind couldn't possibly understand maps. On the other hand, the radio story gives the example of a braille periodic table of the elements - there's a lot if important information conveyed spatially by that layout, which has nothing to do with its visual properties.

Anyway, it's a terrific story and you should all go have a listen if you have a couple of minutes to spare.


  1. There are and have been tactile maps for the blind for a long time. However, they often lack sufficient detail and they are hard to locate. I say this before listening to the NPR story you reference here. Thanks for referencing the story because this is an interesting topic.

  2. That's amazing. I'll have to listen to it later.

    Spatial relationships do tend to seem very visual based. I remember things better when they are visually organized. (I'm predominantly a visual learner.) But at the same time, spatial relationships are just as tactile and kinesthetic as they are visual, or I would not be able to navigate my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night with the lights off and my eyes closed in order to get back to sleep quicker when I was done.

    Not only that, but when I'm remembering how to get somewhere, I position myself to face "forward" and use hand gestures to recall right and left turns. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense to create maps for the blind. You're right; it is amazing that no one ever thought of this before.

  3. Anonymous, thanks for the comment. I think the novelty then must be this new technique for making them, or the web accessibility of them... Listening to the story made me think they were brand new, though. I'd be curious to see what you think of the NPR story.

    Thanks for your comment, too, Jaleh.

  4. Hello,
    This is just cool. I introduced them in my fantasy world. There would be plans of Orlêzh everywhere in the city, usable by blind and non-blind people alike.
    Also, I would like to get in contact with you by LinkedIn.


  5. In front of the old visitor's center at Independence National Historical Park they had a map for the visually impaired- it was made out of bronze and stood in the midst of a brick expanse of sidewalk that was unusually treeless for the area. It had the street names, and raised figures for Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell etc. It was sort of a nice idea, but any blind person who tried to read it would have burned their fingers.

    Glad to hear things are improving.