by Dan Roberts
Independently navigating the environment, both indoors and out, is now possible for blind and visually impaired individuals. Making that a reality are audible portable global positioning systems (GPS) and radio signaling beacons paired with smart phones.
And just as exciting, this new miracle of accessibility has stirred renewed interest in something equally compelling and far-reaching. That is the human’s innate skill in mental mapping, which allows imaging and memorizing the geography of one’s surroundings. Mental mapping has been a focus of research since the mid-20th century, when American psychologist Edward Tolman found that rats could successfully navigate mazes by creating mental maps.(1) Since then, mental mapping has been viewed from a variety of social, behavioral, psychological, and biological perspectives, with orientation and mobility among the most important to people with visual impairment.(2)
Mental mapping by the blind has always been vital for spatial orientation, but there has been a drawback. To create maps in the mind, one must first be familiar with the territory, and that has traditionally been accomplished by previewing the surroundings with human assistance, acquiring printed or audible descriptions, or using tactile reproductions of the area. These are cumbersome processes that create another regrettable distinction between sighted and unsighted individuals.
Through its LowViz Guide audible indoor navigation application, MD Support has demonstrated since 2015 that attendees at conventions for the blind and visually impaired can learn about new venues without help from volunteer guides. Like fully-sighted people, LowViz Guide users can traverse the routes independently, taking as much time as necessary to cognitively map pathways and intersections, while also identifying points of interest along the way. In addition, this multi-sensory activity further reinforces mental map memory and skill development—-a practice mutually favored by orientation and mobility specialists.(3)
Mental mapping begins with visualization, which occurs in the visual cortex of the brains of even congenitally blind people. Mapping is, however, more complex, as it involves other areas of the brain, as well. In her paper, “The aspects of spatial cognitive mapping in persons with visual impairment”, Hana Majerova emphasized that mental mapping is an integral and distinctive part of training spatial orientation in a person with visual impairment.”(4) Navigation technology promises to become an effective adjunct to that segment of the low vision rehabilitation curriculum.
With technology that creates mental maps from nonvisual cues, navigating spaces not seen by the eyes but learned through alternative senses is proving successful. One could say that, due to such new innovations and discoveries, blindness may soon disappear as a functional disability. These advances are allowing one to see in different ways, opening new potentials for experiencing and sharing the visual world.
Recommended video: Blindness is just another way of seeing. Lotfi Merabet, PhD (TEDxCambridge. Published October 28, 2014 on YouTube)
1. Goldstein, B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience–with coglab manual. (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
2. The aspects of spatial cognitive mapping in persons with visual impairment. Hana Majerova (Available online at www.sciencedirect.com)
3. Jacobson, W. H. (1993). The Art and Science of Teaching Orientation and Mobility. New York: American Foundation for the Blind. ISBN 978-0-89128-245-7.
4. Majerova, ibid.