Accessing a Map of the United States for a Visually Impaired Student (no answers — just musings)

Accessing a Map of the United States for a Visually Impaired Student (no answers — just musings) (PILOT Reflections)

If I wanted to use a map of the United States in a class that includes a visually disabled student, what would I do? For a low-tech solution, I’m sure there are Braille maps, or 3-D maps that show terrain and so forth.

In “Cathedrals,” a much-anthologized short story, a rather cynical sighted man who learns about the power and beauty of cathedrals while trying to describe them to a blind man. While the story employs the stereotype of a blind person as having the unique ability to “see” what the sighted characters cannot, it’s an excellent metaphor for examining writing, teaching, art, architecture, and humanity in general. At the climax, the sighted man and the blind man draw cathedrals together — that might be a way to help the student conceptualize the boundaries of the map.

I recall playing a computer game in the early 90s that let you terraform a planet. There was a lot of information to track. You could trigger what I think the interface called a “song,” that would play a note to indicate the average temperature (or population density or water depth or whatever) in each horizontal band, from the north pole down to the south pole. If you left that “song” playing in the background while you tended to other matters, a sharp change in the “song” meant something was happening on a global scale.

I imagine that if I found a web page that has a good clickable image map, with alt text tags that can be fed to a screen reader, I’d be in good shape. I might download that map and personalize it with my own data.

I don’t rely on maps to teach English, but I have used maps as part of a lesson in visual rhetoric. For instance, one an get a false sense of the geographic landscape of the United States through maps that show huge swaths of sparsely-populated counties voting Republican, while heavily populated areas that take up only a pinprick of space on a map vote for Democrats. (See this analysis of the Schwarzenegger vs. Bustamente contest for governor of California.)

How would one transmit that to a visually impaired person?

If it’s not practical to make a physical model, one alternative would be to use sound. When the user mouses over a region, a different sound could play. Maybe the sound of a braying donkey for the Democrats, a trumpeting elephant for the Republicans. The volume or number of animals could vary to indicate relative differences. This would take some technical doing, of course.

A much more sophisticated version of the same thing is the subject of a Microsoft research project at the University of North Carolina called the Blind Audio Tactile Mapping System (BATS, though that acronym should be BATMS, shouldn’t it?) I wasn’t able to find a quotable prose description of the project, but I gather that it uses 3D surround speakers and “iconic sounds” such as the chirping of birds to represent a forest. If there is a forest west of the user’s simulated position, the sound of birds might come from the left speaker. The volume of the iconic sound would represent distance, and perhaps the number of different birds would indicate the size of the forest. You’d be able to tell you are in the middle of a forest if there are bird songs playing all around you.

Something that is within my technical capabilities would be a textual version of the same thing. Imagine a text adventure game like this…

You are in the state of Virginia, where the lush rolling hills and soaring oaks dig their roots into the soft clay. To the northwest, hills rise to form the Blue Ridge Mountains. The land flattens out to the east, as it falls towards the Atlantic Ocean. In the northeast, the climate gets a little muggy and smoggy near Washington, D.C. (on the other side of the Potomac River).

Route I-95 leads north, through the District of Columbia and on to Maryland, and south to North Carolina.

>go ne

Northern Virginia

You are in northeast Virginia, a tangle of commuter highways and parking lots.

A mural that is part of the scenery in Emily Short’s text adventure game “Metamorphoses” offers an excellent study in the granularity of textual representations of space. I recently played through Andrew Plotkins’ “Shade” for the first time too — it’s a game set in one room, but the room has three distinct areas: a central living room, a bathroom alcove and a kitchen alcove. Depending on what object you interact with, the textual description differs, emphasizing those objects that are near other objects you have recently interacted with.

Hmm… something like that could be really interesting. There is a community of visually impaired computer gamers who play text adventure games (among others). I wonder if a class project like this would be a good way to introduce my students to interactive writing. One more thing for me to investigate, if only I had world enough and time.

I couldn’t simply slap something like this together if I learn that a visually impaired student has just added into my class. Realistically, I’d probably check with a librarian to see whether we have (or can get) a tactile map.

After spending a bit of time on Google, I can see that Canada seems to be putting some resources into making maps accessible to the visually impaired. I might ask a few people I used to know at the University of Toronto whether they can point me to a website with online maps that might be useful for visually impaired users with screen readers.

Since my first instinct is always to go for the high-tech solution, I’ll force myself to consider a low-tech alternative.

While I personally am not very into hands-on crafts, the presence in the class of a student with visual impairment would be an excellent motivator for having the class build a tactile representation of the information in question. Assuming that I wanted to present a map showing the rural nature of Republican political strongholds and the urban nature of the Democrat strongholds, we might photocopy an ordinary flat map onto several large sheets of paper. I’d ask the students in the class who identify themselves as Democrats to come up with an iconic tactile sensation (soft fuzzy fake fur? would that offend animal-rights activists) and likewise the Republicans (maybe fur would better represent the hunters’ rights activists). Glue strips of this material on the map. Perhaps the more populous states could be built up with cardboard cutouts.

All these activities would be perfectly appropriate to a course in media studies. I can imagine that a student studying Faulkner, or Tolkien, or James Joyce would benefit from peer-manufactured tactile maps… such an activity would be great for the day students turn in a major paper, since most will have stayed up all night working on it and would appreciate a change of pace. If we’re running low on creativity, I could at least ask a work-study student to glue yarn onto the contours of a basic line map, and use pushpins and other physical objects as icons to represent various features.