Maps For the Blind


Maps are by nature “visual tools”. It is through our sight we try to comprehend points, polygons, shades, color, tone and orientation. With such elements, the cartographer sends his messages to the reader conveying a particular topic or issue. The eyes are essential instruments in order to acquire skill in reading and understanding maps.  This then poses a disadvantage to at least 500 million visually impaired people in the world.

Both the state and civil society of Hong Kong have come up with ways in order to make their place better for everyone. Different methods have been focused in providing services to those who are handicapped and impaired like ramps, elevators, reserved seats, wheelchair spaces, and maps. It is generally mind-boggling to think that “maps” can be used in order to help those who are visually impaired. We all know that sight is a rudimentary skill in map reading, but map reading should not be only reserved to those with clear vision. The map above is an attempt of the Ebeneezer School for the Blind in Hong Kong to reach out and make a better Hong Kong for all.

The map uses different points and symbols that can be easily felt by those who cannot see clearly. Letterings and all other elements are beveled in order to be understood either by sight or touch. A darker shade of gray is used for the buildings and a lighter shade for the pathways. Bulleted points symbolize routes in order to aid the reader throughout the map. The map serves a dual purpose for those who can and cannot see.

Commentaries:

As a reference map, the writer must say that it has given justice to its purpose. It informs the reader (both visually capable and impaired) the location of certain building and pathways. But still skill is relatively endowed to the individual.

The map caters sensitivity to the color-blind with the use of gray as a neutral color. Focal attention is scattered throughout the map. Variation in shades for the buildings have particularly enhanced visibility or may also signify “hardness” to structure. This is where I see a problem. Due to its neutrality in hue, the reader may find it hard to view his or her current location. With regards to a typical reference map, the viewer may identify immediately, through colored arrows, where his current location is and be able to come up with a route to his destination. But with this type of map, where texture and touch symbology is prioritized; map reading may be challenging to the ones who have been accustomed to interacting with maps visually.

The orientation of the map is quite confusing for the reader.  Typically, when we say “north” we imagine space being oriented following the direction we are facing (north up, or pointing forward). The north arrow is pointing to the right, which is not usual for the visual readers, and may also be the case for the visually impaired. It would be better to orient it as if  in front of the map reader.

Change is inevitable. All maps are ephemeral. The use of metal, as a material, in creating the map, makes it difficult to edit it through time. In the context of a school, there might be conspicuous changes, in a span of 3 years, in the landscape in which the map may not be able capture. Thus, its sense to inform or be of reference is refuted. A sturdy type of wood or plastic may be easier to change through time and reproduction  can be managed due to cheaper material cost.

Making our visual tools cater to the needs of both visually capable and impaired is an ongoing challenge. The map above signifies a single step to this long odyssey for us cartographers. We still have a distant journey in front of us in order to make map comprehension a skill for all.

One comment on “Maps For the Blind

  1. I think this was an excellent find. Honestly, I never thought anyone would come up with an idea like this one. We are aware of books for blind people, but not maps. As Mikko pointed out, change is inevitable, and cartographers will try to adapt based on the needs of perceived audience.

    The production of tactile maps is relatively new and it might take a while for it to go “main-stream”. Human beings have described the world through maps for thousands of years, whilst blind people have used Braille for more or less than a century. Further studies are still needed for us to fully understand how we can make ease map reading for the visually impaired ones.

    Mikko also pointed out the problem with regards to production cost and materials used in this type of Map. I think metal is ideal as it can be melted and is malleable. It should also be pointed out that not only should one possess cartography skills, but also acquiring skills by sculptors or even blacksmiths is a must in creating a tactile map.

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