Tactile mapping provides the opportunity for multisensory and inclusive learning.
A map for the history books
Tactile mapping began gaining academic traction in the 1800s. As do Carmo tells us, “Tactile maps have been handcrafted and individually produced since the 19th century.”
The first was patented in 1837, in an atlas of the U.S., by Samuel Gridley Howe, who worked at the Perkins School for the Blind. Tactile maps, designed to teach blind children were then popularized by K.R Klemm, a superintendent at blind schools in Ohio. Inspired by an educational strategy that Klemm learned in Europe, the map was created on waterproof paper with raised lines, so that the children could feel the various borders and lines used to create the image. Klemm would painstakingly create these maps, with the help of his students, by scraping and carving the plaster to create indentations of mountains and plateaus.
“During the 18th and 19th centuries, and even part of the 20th century, almost all tactile geographic maps were handcrafted and used to teach blind children,” do Carmo says. “Despite the development of techniques for the industrial production of maps, individual production continued, and school maps continued to be produced in a handmade way for a long time.”
Tactile maps began appearing in a variety of formats – from maps which relied on embossed topical features and raised Roman typeface, to ones that were made from a thick board and then glued onto another board, so that the roads and streets were elevated. More detailed maps such as Klemm’s would show waterways and mountains, but this was not always the case. Eventually, modern technology came into play and tactile maps could be created using machines.
An invaluable device to teach young people geographical features, and a handy tool to place in public spaces, it’s also a great way to help blind people live more independently and navigate the world on their own. And it's not just limited to teaching students with visual impairments, do Carmo says, because they can also provide a multi-sensory way for anyone to learn about cartography and geography. Like visual and auditory, tactile learning is recognized as a key educational technique.
Who, what, where?
Tactile mapping isn’t just limited to one kind of map – there are multiple different kinds, each used for a different purpose.
Do Carmo explains there are two main groups of tactile maps. The first, orientation and mobility maps, are primarily aimed at those with visual impairments. The second are geography maps, which are designed to not only provide information about the world but teach students with or without visual impairments about geography. How tactile maps are categorized is based on their purpose, scale and characteristics.
Orientation and mobility tactile maps are extremely beneficial to those not familiar with an area. They are time intensive to create, making them more expensive and less common as a result. Adding on any extra bells and whistles in the way of technology – such as multimedia or auditory add-ons– is even rarer, due to the costly process.
“Many people think tactile mapping is something exclusive to people with visual disabilities, but when tactile language is combined with visual language, using colors and printed letters, these maps can be used by everyone,” do Carmo points out.
Of course, traditional tactile maps can’t just be transferred to a phone screen. In recent years, voice-based interfaces have become more popular, and devices have been invented so that braille can be displayed on electronic surfaces. One such device, the Dot Pad, can generate 300 braille glyphs, and is working on ways to represent depths and slopes on it.
Tactile maps must have a lower level of complexity than other maps, so that users are able to decode map symbols by touch. Height levels need to have a significant amount of difference, so that they can easily be recognized, and if the tactile map is working for guidance of movement it needs to be at a larger scale. This brings a certain amount of difference in how tactile maps are designed – some are designed directly in 3D, while others are drawn in 2D, with relief surface created later in the process.
Captions and text on a tactile map are usually in braille, which can sometimes cause confusion due to braille sizing issues that differ from country to country. Although knowledge of braille amongst visually impaired and blind people is common, there are also those that rely instead on text-to-speech. A combination of both is sometimes used, which affords more widespread use and accessibility for a range of users.
“It is possible to insert sound information, expanding the number of users,” says do Carmo. “For people with visual disabilities, they eliminate a communication barrier and for other students they can mean using a multi-sensory way of learning Cartography and Geography.”