Assistant Professor Amy Parker asks sighted people to consider what it would be like to navigate the world without access to a map on a phone—or even a reliable paper map.
“Imagine all visual maps have to be drawn by hand,” Parker said.
People who are blind or have low vision use tactile maps with raised objects for a sense of where they’re going. But creating these maps can be time consuming and complicated, with an end result rather like a hand-drawn map, explained Parker, coordinator of the Orientation and Mobility Program (O&M) in the Portland State College of Education’s Special Education Department. That’s the beauty of TMAP, an online tool that transforms open source data (online maps) into a tactile map format. TMAP creates a pdf that can then be printed and embossed to create raised geographical patterns such as buildings with accompanying Braille terms to identify them.
To introduce TMAP to the PSU community, Parker held an online forum on April 29, with a presentation that drew more than 100 attendees. The idea grew out of talks with Greg Kehret, media and accessible design lab director of the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SFLVI), and Steve Lowry, a PSU program alum and student who teaches at the Washington State School for the Blind. Already having completed his master’s as a teacher of visually impaired learners, this presentation was part of Lowry’s portfolio in the O&M program, where he’s in the practicum phase.
“It was a natural to start talking with Steve and Greg about the use of these maps for practical purposes,” Parker said during the introductions portion of the online forum. “It led to a wonderful conversation.”
Kehret and Lowry were among a panel of presenters available for attendees to tap for advice during the online forum. Kehret delivered a presentation in which he explained how someone can enter an address in TMAP and create an online map that can then be printed and embossed so that it has raised geographical patterns. He said maps will be visual (for sighted people) and tactile if you order them from SFLVI. This would allow a blind person to ask a sighted person for directions using the same map.
Also on hand at the forum were certified orientation and mobility specialists Jennifer Huey and Sarah McIntyre from SFLVI and Jane Flower, an outreach manager for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Flower shared her experience using TMAP as someone who is visually impaired.
Flower was born partially sighted, but she began having more trouble with her sight and Huey taught her how to travel more safely after the change in her vision. Flower said her new vision situation meant she knew she was heading from point A to B, but felt unsure of where she was in between.
TMAP “gives me a sense of freedom,” Flower explained. “I have a comfort level knowing where I am if something happens to me.”
Feeling safer and freer is what Parker wants for students at PSU. She wants to incorporate TMAP into her classes and also sees TMAP as a tool for everyone to “have better access to our campus.”
“For visitors and students who come to PSU, TMAP may allow them to have a more customized experience of the campus, with specific areas printed out that are the most relevant for their classes or appointments,” Parker said. “Many people may not see tactile access as a form of equity, but it is. As we support equity for all at PSU, being aware of the use of tactile maps as a tool for inclusivity is vital.”
Parker said there have been other technologies and models able to create tactile maps, but this is tactile mapping on a whole other level.
“We do include the use of tactile maps in our program in our foundational and advanced courses, but again TMAP makes the creation of the file for embossed printing available to anyone anywhere,” Parker said. “While nothing is perfect, it does give O&Ms and travelers tools for deepening environmental literacy skills.”
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