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How to adapt maps for learners with vision impairment

Map work is one of the most challenging areas of the curriculum for children with vision impairment (VI). Even with some sight, it’s often difficult (and extremely tiring) for a student with VI to understand map details, locate grid references and maintain the intensive level of concentration required. While enlargement can help, it makes it increasingly difficult for the student to grasp the bigger picture.

"An appreciation of basic map work, in the form of simple directions and routes, is a very valuable skill for young people with VI and is vital for developing independent orientation and mobility."

Difficulties in access to maps may be overcome if the map is broken down into component parts. For example, a series of overlays can be used to gradually rebuild the map – a base map may only show simple contouring and rivers, and acetate overlays may add the features relevant to the study topic.

Using magnification

Many children with VI are able to use original maps through magnification – if they are enlarged on a CCTV, accessed with a low vision aid, or accessed online. The Ordance Survey (OS) provide a wide range of online materials.

Students able to use magnification to access maps will need to learn systematic approaches to scanning for information, but given sufficient time and support they are able to complete map tasks.

Developing tactile skills

Map work presents very significant challenges, and a different approach is needed for children:

  • with limited central vision
  • with poor scanning skills
  • with severe nystagmus
  • who lack colour vision or struggle to perceive contrast; and/or
  • who are registered blind and use braille.

Struggling with map work can single these students out and give them a real sense of their disability. For such students, the task of supporting them is not simply producing appropriate modified diagrams, but also developing their scanning and tactile skills, and allowing them to enjoy success in the activity and avoid failure.

Adapting your approach to map work

Print OS maps are likely to be unsuitable in adult life. Students need to know what they are and how they are used, but they may need to accept they aren’t able to use them independently.

Instead, emphasise other methods they can use to gather information held within a map, such as their listening and memory skills, their spatial and orientation skills, and their mental mapping skills. These are skills they use all the time to negotiate and make sense of their environment. There may also be online tools, for example Google Maps or GPS mobile phone apps, that would be of greater use than struggling with an OS map.

Above all, make the activity achievable and fun.

Practical guidelines

It’s important the teacher and support staff work closely to plan how the work will be modified. Together you should identify times when the student will be able to work on a task with the rest of the group and when to set a complementary mapping exercise more suited to their needs.

Where opportunities arise, develop their ability to prepare maps for themselves, starting with mental maps, perhaps describing the route from the classroom to the dining hall. You can also use plastic embossing film (which makes a raised line when drawn on) to allow the child to draw a simple map. Alongside geography, work on co-ordinates will be continuing in maths and science, and these skills are transferable.

Don’t underestimate the task at hand. For a congenitally blind child, concepts such as distance, direction and scale are difficult enough, without trying to understand that the plan is looking down on the earth from above. Some children find it difficult to understand that a car park is "behind" the school and might insist on marking it beside the building.

Introduce cork boards and mapping pins as early as possible for children with severe VI and braillists, along with rubber mats for embossing film.

Exam requirements

The advice given in this article is intended to encourage teachers to be creative in how they teach map reading skills to children and young people with vision impairment. For students taking qualifications such as GCSE Geography, it is important to make sure that the methods you are using fit with the way that map reading skills will be assessed in external exams.

You should contact the exam board concerned to discuss this as early as possible.

Preparing accessible maps for learners with vision impairment

Below are some tips on how you can prepare accessible map work diagrams for learners with VI:

Preparing diagrams for map work

  • Begin with simple diagrams to teach skills and basic concepts.
  • Be clear about what is important and prioritise to avoid visual overload; each diagram may be quite easy but studying many diagrams will be extremely tiring.
  • Be clear about the time available for production; a simple diagram which works may be far more effective than a beautiful diagram which is too complex.
  • Diagrams take a long time for a student to access; ensure that the task set is achievable.
  • Ensure that the exercise is enjoyable; huge levels of concentration are required to piece together information to create an overall mental map and the student must feel that what they are doing is worthwhile.

At a more advanced level

When there is a need to use a whole extract to test a number of skills, work as follows:

  • Photocopy the extract and highlight and identify the features you wish to retain.
  • Trace these features and build the map up from there.
  • Produce a simple sketch map of the whole area to aid orientation, taking out all extraneous detail.
  • Provide individual modified enlargements of specific parts of the map depending on the task set.
  • If scale is required, ensure that a new linear scale is shown on the modified map.
  • Resist the temptation to "put this one last feature on the map", that is the one that is just too many.
  • Test what you have done before you give it to the student.