Stop! Don’t Look at that Tactile Map, Yet – Part 1

I recently heard a teacher say this to a blind student: “Turn right, I mean left, I mean…stop!”

Too many of the students who are blind or have low vision that I observe (fortunately not many in my school district) are having trouble orienting themselves in their classrooms. Directions like right and left are subjective, and when a blind student begins retracing his steps, he quickly becomes confused. Either he has to think, “It was on the right when I came this way,” or “Was it on the right coming this direction or coming the other way?”

Similarly, I have students that can confidently walk a route, but if a teacher moves the desk, they can’t find their way. Route travel is not a good life skill, because the environment is always changing. Fortunately, there’s a solution for this problem.

Mental mapping is a really important part of orientation and mobility, for it teaches problem solving skills, promotes discovery learning, and helps students to master the art of orientation. In this two-part series, it’s my goal to present you some ideas for teaching mental mapping, regardless of your students’ ages, though first we need to teach our students how to use tactile graphics. (Related: best practices for producing tactile graphics)

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that we are receiving fewer books with tactile graphics. This, I think, is less about the usefulness of tactile graphics, rather it’s thanks to the medium. Braille is so often being read on note-takers or refreshable displays, which do not yet have the capability for displaying this information. Ironically, we have more technology available today to make tactile graphics than ever before. (Sadly, many of the tactile graphics that we have are of poor quality…but that’s a topic for another day.)

The prevalence of tactile graphics in standardized testing is undeniable. So many classroom teachers are using two-dimensional graphics to represent three-dimensional ideas, yet they aren’t giving that same experience to blind students. So, when those graphics come up in a testing environment, the blind student is at a severe disadvantage. Looking at pictures is second-nature for sighted students, because they’ve been seeing them in books ever since they could sit up with their parents. However, I’ve learned—through some bad assumptions—that blind students need to be taught how to look at tactile graphics efficiently.

After explaining that images are meant to be taken in with a broad perspective, I say to my students, “We have flat hands that don’t know how to read braille without our fingers.” (This isn’t unique for braille readers, though, for low vision students with a small field or unclear central vision have trouble taking the whole picture in at once. This might be a good arena to experiment with tactile graphics for these students and see what works for them.)

Then, starting around the outside, I begin asking questions of my students about the big shape that they see, and what else they expect to see. For example, if a student understands that the picture is of a person’s head, they should expect to see eyes, a nose, and a mouth. This prepares them to understand what they are about to explore.

If the image is of an animal, I’ve noticed that most students want to find these things in this order: face, legs, and tail. This makes sense, for these are the elements that they would feel on a three-dimensional figure in order to understand the basic orientation and size.

On some tactile graphics, you’re looking for specific components. Without orientation, though, the entire exercise of understanding the interconnectedness of elements is lost. On a World War II map, for instance, you might want students to understand the shape of Japan, where the bombs were dropped, and the names of the nearby bodies of water. If they don’t gloss over the image with wide, sweeping motions (using both hands), I’ve seen students become overwhelmed, miss the point, and—most importantly—stop learning anything other than unconnected facts.

Next week, we’ll apply these principles to tactile maps specifically as a means of teaching mental mapping. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear how you’ve taught your students to examine tactile graphics. Please post your stories and best practices in the comments below.

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Kristen Sims, MEd

Kristen teaches braille to students from the age of 3 to 22 in West Monroe, La. A proud graduate of the Master of Arts in Teaching program Louisiana Tech University, she is also trained to teach cane travel to students and adults.

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One thought on “Stop! Don’t Look at that Tactile Map, Yet – Part 1

  1. I’m so glad you emphasized the two-handed approach. So many students don’t understand the critical importance of exploring a graphic in the manner described. Nice work.

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