A tactile allocentric map depicting the area around the training area.

The value of GPS System in Orientation and Mobility

Attitudes about the use of accessible GPS systems from the perspective of students enrolled in Orientation and Mobility prep training program.


Orientation and mobility specialists have gained basic information about the use of GPS through their university personnel preparation programs.  While most are familiar with the use of GPS in their cars, many have not included the use of accessible GPS systems in their instruction with blind children and adults.  The purpose of this post is to describe the pre-service attitudes of students preparing to become orientation and mobility specialists regarding the use of accessible GPS systems for teaching orientation in the outdoor environment.

Understanding Space

Orientation and mobility students are taught the various ways that people develop a conceptual understanding of their environment.  The understanding of space begins with one’s own body and starts with laterality or left vs. right in relation to the body and then moves to directionality or projecting from the body into the surrounding areas.  The most basic form of orientation is an egocentric view of the environment.  The individual considers the environment in relation to his or her own position.  Objects in the environment are identified as being to the left or right, ahead or behind the traveler.  This type of orientation allows a person to travel by memorizing a route to an objective and reversing the route, but is limited to specific routes that have been learned.  A more sophisticated orientation to the environment is an allocentric construct which does not depend upon one’s own body for orientation and instead concentrates upon the relationships of objects and streets to each other independent of the individual’s body.  Allocentric orientation makes use of geographical directions, a cartographic representation of street patterns, and the relationship of landmarks to each other.  Orientation and mobility specialists teach their students to construct an allocentric understanding of the environment by constructing tactile and visual maps and by walking through the environment.  Many have not considered using GPS as an additional means of developing and reinforcing an allocentric perspective.


A questionnaire was developed at North Carolina Central University to gauge the attitudes of the current cohort of students preparing to become orientation and mobility specialists at that university.  The students consist of 11 individuals who have completed the first semester of a two-semester series that prepares them to teach indoor and outdoor travel.  During the first semester, they learned indoor skills and residential travel skills with visual occlusion and visual simulation goggles. 

All eleven individuals are employed full time primarily as teachers of students with other disabilities or in helping professions with children or adults with disabilities.  In their coursework, they have learned about allocentric orientation and have constructed tactile and low vision maps as orientation aids.  The post to this website, can be considered a “pretest” of their attitudes and will be followed at the end of next semester with a “posttest” after they have experienced the use of BlindSquare and Trekker Breeze during some of their downtown travel experiences.

The questionnaire asked the following questions:

  1. How comfortable would you feel in exploring the streets under the blindfold without a familiarization from the instructor?
  2. How would blind individuals best orient themselves to brand new areas? 
  3. What orientation aid would help you most when learning a new area under the blindfold?
  4. Would you feel comfortable using a GPS system to provide you with the information that you need?
  5. How difficult would it be for a blind student to use GPS?
  6. How comfortable would you be in using GPS to learn a new area and gain a conceptual understanding of the street patterns?
  7. How would you make use of GPS to gain an orientation to a new area? 

Questions 1, 4, 5, and 6 made use of a Likert Scale to describe their responses in relation to their comfort with GPS.  Questions 2 and 3 asked them to select specific answers from a list that was provided.  Question 7 was an open-ended question.


Question One

Six of the 11 respondents indicated that they would be uncomfortable using GPS to learn about a new environment instead of relying upon a familiarization by the instructor.  The others were either neutral or more positive.

Question Two

When asked how blind individuals could best orient themselves to a new area, five selected “talk to a sighted friend’, four selected ‘find an O&M instructor to provide an orientation’, two selected “walk through the area and explore the streets’, and none of the student selected “use a GPS system”.

Question Three

When asked which orientation aid would help the student most when learning a new area under the blindfold, six responded “a prepared tactile map”, one responded “description by a sighted person” one responded “Wheatly board or other map with movable parts” and one responded “GPS mapping system.”

Question Four

Eight of the 11 indicated that they would be comfortable using GPS as a means of gaining information about the environment.   The remaining three were neutral or uncomfortable.

Question Five

Nine of the 11 felt that learning to use GPS by blind students would neither be hard nor easy and would be average in difficulty.  The remaining two felt it would be easy.

Question Six

When asked about how comfortable they would personally be in using GPS to learn a new area, eight said they would be comfortable and 3 were neutral but not negative. 

Question 7

When asked the open-ended question about how they would make use of GPS to gain an orientation to a new area, eight students said they would use GPS to build an understanding of the streets in the area.  Five said they would use the geographic direction function of GPS to assist in their understanding.  Three indicated they would use the system to plan routes to a destination.  Three discussed plotting points of interest as part of their use, and all eleven suggested that they would use GPS to provide guidance during travel. 


Prior to using GPS as part of their training program, the students valued systems other than GPS to learn about a new environment.  They were positive about the capability of GPS and did not necessarily feel that the systems would be too difficult for themselves or for their students, but were unsure of their value in helping to develop an allocentric mental map of a new area. 

It will be informative to see the results of the students to a post survey on this topic once they have experienced the use of GPS in their own learning of a new environment and use of the system to establish points of interest to assist in the location of their destinations.

By Wienerw

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