Multiple sidewalks leading to a college building.

Building Identification: College O&M

How to identify buildings on a college campus as a student with low vision who uses a cane.

Shortly before my second year of college, I received a few orientation and mobility lessons for learning how to navigate with low vision and a blindness cane. These lessons were helpful for learning general travel skills, but I noticed they didn’t get into specifics about navigating college campuses or using university resources available for students with vision loss. One lesson that would have been really helpful is how to visually identify buildings on campus and more in-depth practice with finding buildings, so I’ve created the College O&M series to share my most-used tips and strategies for learning about this topic and others. Here are my tips for building identification and building a mental map of campus as a student with low vision who uses a blindness cane.

Memorizing different addresses on campus

There are a few different options for learning about campus addresses and learning how to identify buildings, including:

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Learning buildings by color

One of the things that helped me to learn how to distinguish different buildings was to look at their colors or other distinctive features. While I can’t see details of buildings very well, I can identify the engineering building by the large dark blue color, the design building with its white brick, and my other class building by the red brick. Many of the surrounding buildings also have similar colors, so I can learn the other building names more easily.

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Using landmarks to navigate

Every student on campus knows where the student center, campus statue, and dining halls are. By learning common campus landmarks, students will find it easier to learn to identify surrounding buildings and can use these landmarks when planning routes to class. For example, I know that if I am standing in front of the campus observatory, then my department building is directly next door, and if I am standing at the dining hall, then the library is across the street.

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Using a tactile map

I don’t read braille due to neuropathy in my hands from a brain condition, but several of my friends have benefitted from having tactile maps printed of different clusters on campus. I recommend printing out maps of small clusters on campus instead of one giant map of campus which can be overwhelming.

Some examples of areas to have on a tactile map include:

Tactile maps can be purchased online through the San Francisco LightHouse or created with free tactile mapping software and printed elsewhere. Some colleges offer accessible maps through Disability Services or the assistive technology office.

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Reading signs with visual assistance apps

I use visual assistance apps for reading signs on campus, such as the Google Assistant camera/Google Lens and Microsoft’s Seeing AI app. For users who prefer a human interpreter, I recommend either the free Be My Eyes app or the paid Aira service. One benefit of Aira for students on college campuses is that the Aira interpreter has access to indoor and outdoor maps so they can follow the user’s location in real time – I was part of their College Success program in 2018 and found this to be really helpful.

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Recognizing major campus areas

The biggest thing that helped me with learning how to navigate buildings was to learn each major section of campus and make a list of which buildings were in each section. My college campus can be divided into several different areas, such as main campus, freshman housing, upperclassmen housing, science buildings, and international buildings. Walking around campus with a certified orientation and mobility specialist (COMS) is the best way to become familiar with each main area on campus, though many campus offices also offer tours of campus upon request.

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More tips for identifying buildings on college campuses

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023

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