Photo of Pittsboro's historical courthouse and text

Why Non-Visual Digital Maps for Young Students?

Accessible, interactive digital maps for early elementary students? Absolutely!

Accessible, interactive digital maps? As an O&M with 30+ years experience, I regularly use tactile maps to help my students learn about O&M concepts and to build mental maps of their community. While I personally use online maps such as google Maps and Apple Maps, these visual maps are not fully accessible with a screen reader. So, what does a fully accessible, interactive map “look” like? Let’s first consider the O&M-related goals that might be taught through tactile maps and/or through digital maps. 

General O&M-Related Map Goals

Maps should be used to develop the O&M skills required for students to become independent, fearless travelers in any enviroment! Keep in mind that sighted and visually impaired travelers who rely on real-time GPS step-by-step instruction tend to be “rote route travelers”.

There are numerous additional orientation-related goals that can also be taught with these maps!

Note: As always, best practice is to introduce maps using tactile maps first! Most students need to have general map concepts under their fingertips before being transitioned to listening to digital maps.

Preconceived Ideas about Maps

As an O&M with vision, I have a preconceived idea – based on my experience – of what a map should look like. A road map will have lines representing roads and shapes or symbols representing buildings or landmarks. These items on the map are visual in nature. When I create a tactile map, I first determine what I want to teach with that map and my student’s skill level. I might decide to create a map which focuses on a particular neighborhood or the main downtown streets of the city/town. 

The first image is of the downtown area of Pittsboro, NC – a small town in NC. (Pittsboro’s population is just under 4,000 people.) 

Screenshot of downtown Pittsboro from Google Maps, street view mode. The map shows the historic courthouse in the center, with a street circling the courthouse and the four blocks surrounding the circle. Streets are named and several businesses are labeled.

Street map of downtown Pittsboro with courthouse circle in the middle and one block out each direction. Several buildings are labeled.

My teacher-created tactile map of Pittsboro Courthouse area will look similar to the visual Google Map with modifications to eliminate clutter and substituting tactile materials to represent important streets and Points of Interest (POIs). This zoomed in map of only a few blocks is easy for my young student to understand and to physical walk around the area using his cane. As always, I want my young student to “own” an expanding piece of real estate. As a toddler he should be an independent and fearless traveler in his home and yard (and daycare, if applicapable), “owning” this small piece of real estate. As he transitions to preschool and kindergarten, he should quickly become an independent and fearless traveler inside and outside his school and ideally progressing to his block or neighborhood. The next step is “owning” an expanding piece of his neighborhood/community. Ideally, the student would begin either in his neighborhood, starting at his house or the blocks around his school. Ideally, the residential streets would be laid out in nice square blocks with sidewalks. For a young, beginner student, my tactile map of Pittsboro Courthouse area initially might include the very basics, such as the names of the four streets that intersect with the Courthouse Circle and one interesting store within the first block of these four intersecting streets. Since Pittsboro is such a rural town, I would also want the student to know the neighboring towns/cities that these four streets lead to. As the student learns more about the blocks around the courthouse, I might add more to the tactile map. O&M goals that I would teach with this very basic map include the street names, spatial location of these streets, one landmark (store) on each street, spatial relationships (where are these intersections and landmarks located on the map and the spatial relationships between these various POIs) and of course, I want the student to build a mental map of these things.

Note: The tactile map typically does NOT provide step-by-step directions and does not provide physical information that the student will come across when actually traveling the route, such as inclines/declines, curb cuts, obstacles, etc.)

I would want my interactive digital courthouse map to provide the same information: names of the four streets that intersect with the courthouse circle, where these street lead to, and one interesting store within the first block.

Keep in mind, for a student who relies on a screen reader, does not need the traditional visual map! Sighted O&Ms tend to rely on their eyes when looking at digital maps; our students will rely on their ears. Be prepared “sightlings” – when you see the interactive digital map, it will NOT look anything like you expect! But, the information is all there!

Introducing Your Student to SAS Graphics Accelerator Maps

Note: This section is a repeat from the post Activities that Build Digital Maps Skills. It is that important to be duplicated here!

Have your student stand in an open area with his cane facing a known landmark. If in school, have him stand in a quiet hallway, facing an obvious landmark, such as the hall leading to the noisy cafeteria. Place several obstacles around him that he can find and easily identify with his cane, such as a metal trash can, a cardboard box, a chair, etc. Items should be placed randomly – some close and some that he has to stretch to reach. Ask him to stretch his cane out as far in front of him as possible and slowly turn in a full circle, stopping to identify each obstacle. The SAS Graphics Accelerator maps are also a big circle with numerous Points of Interest (POIs) around that circle. Some POIs will be very close, while other POIs will farther away.

Now, face the noisy cafeteria. For the purposes of this demonstration, that cafeteria hall is 12:00 (due North). He must now “grow roots like a tree” and plant his feet; he can no longer turn his feet in a different direction. Place an obstacle at various locations around his circle; be sure the obstacle stays in reach of his cane. When he finds an obstacle, ask him to identify the obstacle, name where the obstacle is in relationship to him in the center of the circle (clock-face terms, such as 2:00) and finally ask the student if the obstacle is near him, halfway, or far away. (Far away is currently a stretch of his cane reach.) Without reaching for the POI, ask the student to point directly to a specific POI to build his mental map and spatial relationships. For fun, the student should make a beep sound using a higher pitch for closer items and progressively lowering the pitch for POIs which are farther away. Relate this activity to SAS Graphics Accelerator maps:

  1. You are always in the center of the circle.
  2. You always face 12:00.
  3. You always compare the spacial relationship of your POIs from your location.
  4. Your relate the distance of each POI from your location – near, halfway, far away (For advanced students you can use fractions!)
  5. Items that are closer a POI, the higher the tone; the farther the POI, the lower the tone.

Next, gather a variety of items that make noise. (Examples: a bell, clicker, whistle, a triangle, etc. or simply clap your hands!) Stand farther away from the student (outside of his cane reach) and make a noise. Ask the student to identify the POI (if applicable), name the spatial relationship using clock-face terms. Establish new distances for near, halfway and far, then ask the student to identify the distance of each POI by the pitch of his beep. Be sure to encourage mental mapping skills! If using different noise makers in specific places, name a noise maker and ask the studen to point to where that noise maker is and/or ask the student to remember where the noise was located, state the clock-face location and if it is near, halfway or far. 

The screenshot below is the PBO Courthouse Basic Map displayed in the SAS Graphics Accelerator. 

SAS Graphics Accelerator Pittsboro Basic map with 10 points.

What If My Young Student Is Not Yet Using a Computer?

The SAS Graphics Accelerator is currently available and fully tested for Windows computers running JAWS or NVDA and Apple computers running VoiceOver. The software is a Google Extension and does run on Chromebooks; although, SAS Graphics Accelerator has not been extensively tested with Chromebooks. SAS Graphics Accelerator is not compatible with an iPad.

Even if your young student is using an iPad with VoiceOver, if you have access to a computer, your student can use the self-voicing feature within SAS Graphics Accelerator without learning how to use the computer’s screen reader. You (the COMS or TVI) can upload the map, turn on the self-voicing feature and your student to navigate the map using the same commands with the self-voicing feature. Learn more about the self-voicing feature here.

Note: The self-voicing feature is designed for students with low vision who may not be comfortable with a screen reader.


In my rural area, there are few options of streets with sidewalks – only the four streets intersecting with the Courthouse Circle has sidewalks! In this map example, this early elementary school student is already familiar with and travels basic blocks; the student is now being introduced to the main POI in Pittsboro, the Circle around the courthouse which is in the center of Pittsboro.

SAS Graphics Accelerator software is not compataible with smart phones and is intended to be used to preview areas and to build mental maps. During O&M lessons, the non-visual maps can also be used to teach a variety of O&M-related concepts. If necessary, use a GPS app on a mobile device for step-by-step real-time directions.


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By Diane Brauner