Creating Customized Non-Visual Digital College Campus Maps

Strategies for creating the perfect customized university maps for students who are blind or low vision.

Your student is transitioning to college or you have an incoming college student who needs orientation to a large college campus. Time is limited and the student needs to become familiar, comfortable and independent on campus as quickly as possible. How can a student who is blind or visually impaired quickly learn hundreds of buildings, streets, and sidewalks that make up a typical state university? Where do you begin with college orientation?

Ideally, before the student arrives on campus, the student should build a solid mental map of the college campus. Just like their sighted peers, students who are blind or low vision (BLV) can use maps to develop general knowledge of campus and to build a mental map of the college layout. Traditionally, tactile maps of large university campuses are not readily available for individual students to explore at their leisure. The sheer size of a detailed tactile campus map is a daunting project to create; and, these simple versions of university maps are often hand-made and cannot be reproduced. If purchased through a tactile graphics company, a detailed campus is expensive and cannot be updated, adapted or customized for students to meet their individual needs.

Solution: SAS Graphics Accelerator is a free Chrome extension that can be used to create and share non-visual digital maps for students/clients who are blind or low vision. These digital maps can be shared with any student and can be quickly be updated and/or customized as needed. A number of detailed university maps have already been created and are available on Paths to Technology’s Map Library!

Creating a Customized Campus Map

These maps are designed to provide knowledge about the various buildings, landmarks and streets on campus, such as what is there, general area that it is located in on campus, and where it is in relationship to other things. These non-visual digital maps are not intended to be step-by-step directions.

When creating or choosing a map, first consider two things: The goal of the map and the skill level of the user.

Map Goal

Is the goal of the map to learn the entire university campus? An overview of the campus? A particular area of the campus?

While a full digital campus map is ideal for tech savvy students who are familiar with the campus, that detailed campus map contains an overwhelming amount of information. Keep in mind that large universities will have at least 400 data points on the map just to mark the campus buildings and streets – and some universities may have closer to 800 data points. This is staggering amount of information to sort through and organize mentally! Let’s break this down into bite-size chunks by creating several maps with different goals – such as a map that is an overview of campus or a map of a small section of campus.

Overview map

An overview map will highlight main areas of campus using the “whole-to-part” method – developing a “big picture” of the campus before diving into details of smaller sections. Most campuses are broken into defined areas. For example, the Main Campus of North Carolina State University has three distinct areas: Main Campus, Centennial Camps and West Campus. The Main campus is also divided into three sections: North Campus, Central Campus and South Campus. The visual map below shows an overview of the campus with only the main roads, and the general area in color to indicate each of the 5 campuses. 

NCSU print overview map with key roads and colored/labeled areas showing the 5 campuses.

North Carolina State University Overview map (19 points)

Other universities might divide the university into neighborhoods or other types of sections. With Elon University, a small private university, the campus is organized into neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has dorms, dining halls, and academic buildings organized by study. Example: The Collonades Neighborhood is for business majors.

Section Map

Even the online visual maps of North Carolina State University are divided into sections as indicated with the overview or Map Key above. Map 1 is West Campus, Map 2 is Main campus and Map 3 is Centennial Campus. The advantage of the online maps is that users can zoom in to see details as needed. (These visual maps have too many details to for users to see or read the print without zooming.) Note: The non-visual digital SAS maps can also be zoomed in!

Detailed print map of NCSU Map 2, Main campus

The section map of NCSU’s has several hundred data points. This map is still intimidating for most users; breaking the map down even farther is beneficial!

User Level

The second thing to consider before making a map is the user’s level. For non-visual digital maps, how tech savvy is the user? Has he/she used non-visual digital maps before? How are the user’s orientation skills? For a user who is not as tech savvy or has not been introduced to a non-visual digital map, create an initial map with 10 data points or less. (This is a great opportunity to create and use a campus overview map.) Introduce the tech skills and concepts that can be gleaned from the non-visual digital maps. To fully absorb and apply the information available from non-visual digital maps, users should have foundation orientation skills. If not, time should be spent on building these critical orientation skills which will enable the student to be fully independent in familiar and unfamiliar environments. Many of these orientation concepts can be taught using maps then applied to actual campus travel.

For an incoming, new-to-campus student, carefully consider what areas of campus the student needs to know immediately. This includes the student’s dorm, nearest dining hall, and specific buildings for his/her current semester. If the student does not yet have a dorm assignment or class schedule, create a map of general freshman dorms and buildings; if appropriate, buildings associated with the student’s major. Again, depending on the student’s level, it may be best to initially create a specific map with only 10 data points or so. Once the student has mastered this map, additional data points can be added to provide more details and/or the map can be expanded to cover surrounding areas. This is the “part-to-whole” method, where the student learns a little piece of campus and then expands his knowledge from that area. Many students who do not have strong skills, may need to use the digital map and then pair that knowledge from the map with physically traveling that area of campus. Once the student has  firmly internalized that small section of campus, then begin to expand to the next small chunk of a surrounding area. Be sure to prioritize campus areas that the student needs to know. See Concept Development: Own Your Own Real Estate post.)

Maps for Returning Students

A student who is familiar with some pieces of campus may need to learn additional areas before a new semester starts, if he/she has changed majors, or if he/she moved to a different dorm or off campus housing. For these students, a quick customized map of the desired area may be beneficial. If the student has advanced skills, the student may prefer the full detailed campus.



By Diane Brauner