The University of Alabama

Map Quest

Heather Baker stands next to a tactile map of Central America.

 

Heather Baker, a staff member in the Office of Disability Services, led in the creation of several large, tactile maps for a student in HY 237: History of Colonial Latin America. The diverse colors shown on the map were for the benefit of the mapmakers. “We had to apply everything over the map lines and the contrasting colors helped us keep track of what needed to be put where,” Baker said. The tactile map of Central America, while smaller than the other study maps, offers the same variety of textures.

 

By Cathy Butler

A student who is blind enrolls in a course that requires a map quiz. The professor, though confident the student can learn the map material, doesn’t know how to provide it. Office of Disability Services staff member Heather Baker says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

In order to reach a generation of visually oriented students, Dr. Teresa Cribelli had incorporated maps, paintings and other visuals into her HY 237: History of Colonial Latin  America course.

When Tree Mabry, a junior majoring in secondary education, became the first blind student to take her class, Cribelli didn’t know how he would be able to access the visual information. But, she says, she never doubted that he could.

“I had no trepidation about him taking the class, and his work has been excellent. For many things, like paintings we examine, as we describe and analyze them he gathers information through the discussion. But the maps stumped me.”

Because geography is critical to understanding how colonization played out on the continent, an understanding of maps and a quiz on them were required in the course. Skipping the map study was not an option, for Cribelli or Mabry.

“The accommodation for my student was in how he would be given the information and how he would be tested,” she said. “My expectations for his performance are the same as for the other students.”

Mabry also realized the maps would be a challenge. “Most things are very easy and accessible for blind people now. For example, I use my laptop to take tests in class. However, maps have to be specially made.”

Cribelli turned to the Office of Disability Services for help.

“There are many ways for people with visual impairments to access information,” said Heather Baker, an ODS office associate specializing in alternative media. “Sometimes it’s a matter of enlarging documents, providing better lighting, using CCTV to enlarge images.”

Those options, however, wouldn’t work for a student with no vision at all. The ODS has a special printer for small textured maps, and Baker even has made small tactile maps and art using a hard, rubber, mat-type tool. But Cribelli’s request for detailed maps of the entire continent of South America as well as Central America required a whole new level of creativity.

“So we went low-tech,” Baker said. While attending the Accessing Higher Ground conference in Boulder, Colo., Baker had been introduced to a variety of ways to create tactile learning resources. But she said what she got most from the conference was the assurance that it could be done.

“I took to heart that there’s a way to convey information, you just have to find it,” Baker said. “It’s really the old saying, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’”

Cribelli provided PDFs of the maps, which University Printing reproduced on inkjet paper using a wide printer, and then stiffened it with a 3-millimeter laminate. When finished the maps measured three-and-a-half feet by five feet.

Baker, with some student helpers, set to work.

Detail from study map.

Detail from study map.

They stocked up on craft supplies, testing them to make sure they would get enough variety of texture. For the next week and a half they labored to turn the two-dimensional maps into tactile representations: chenille trim became coastlines, textured cord marked cities, strips of felt formed rivers, and craft foam built up topographical features like lakes and mountain ranges. A plastic star in each top corner indicated north. (“Like the North star,” Baker explained.) Identifying labels and the legend were written in Braille.

When Mabry picked up the finished product to take home to study he was a little surprised at the size of the maps. “But I do think it makes them easier to read,” he said.

The quiz maps are identical to the study maps, except that labels are numbered but otherwise blank. A Braille word bank is at the bottom of the map.  (Baker also created the word bank in an electronic format that could be read aloud through a text-to-speech app.) As Mabry felt each label on the map, he would determine what answer from the word bank matched each label. He would take the quiz in ODS rather than Cribelli’s classroom.

Cribelli was pleased at how the collaboration turned out. “I knew there was a way to do this, and really saw it as an exciting challenge to get the resources my student needed. I was so impressed with what ODS and Heather in particular has done.”

Mabry concurred. “Heather really did a wonderful job. I am very impressed with the amount of detail she put into these maps.”

As for Baker’s part, she said, “It was fun – a lot of work – but fun. I even got to learn some Braille. I knew we could find a way, if we didn’t give up trying.”.