Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Getting from Here to There and Knowing Where: Teaching Global Positioning Systems to Students with Visual Impairments

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Getting from Here to There and Knowing Where: Teaching Global Positioning Systems to Students with Visual Impairments

Article excerpt

Abstract: Global Positioning Systems' (GPS) technology is available for individuals with visual impairments to use in wayfinding and address Lowenfeld's "three limitations of blindness." The considerations and methodologies for teaching GPS usage have developed over time as GPS information and devices have been integrated into orientation and mobility lessons with children, adults, teachers, parents, and orientation and mobility specialists.


If you are a traveler who is blind or has low vision, you would be able to identify and create a route to any attraction in Kansas, such as Call Hall at Kansas State University in Manhattan, President Dwight David Eisenhower's presidential museum in his hometown of Abilene, and the Brown v. Board of Education museum in Topeka, by using a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device. Whether you wanted to visit any of them is another issue. What is important is that you would have the skill to use a device that provides real-time environmental information and routing directions to a destination that is now within your reach.


Lowenfeld (1948) claimed that blindness imposes three basic limitations on the individual: in the range and variety of experiences, the ability to get about, and the control of the environment and the self in relation to it. The use of GPS devices as orientation tools addresses these limitations and supports the growth of what Baldwin (2003, p. 64) defined as environmental literacy, "the ability to use the technologies to gather knowledge about spatial location and the services associated with these locations." Through the use of GPS, the traveler who is blind or has low vision can now easily participate in the environment because the real-time information of what is around replaces what the traveler thinks is around.

The range and variety of experiences in the outdoor environment have the potential to take on a new meaning with the information that a GPS device provides from the positional dynamics of cardinal direction, position in space, upcoming intersection, landmarks, and points of interest. The audible, tactile, and visual information provided to travelers increases the opportunities to "get about" in the environment. "Control of the environment and the self in relation to it" originates from the GPS device's establishment of a position in space, fostering a sense of order and security for the traveler. A virtual open doorway into the environment is created by providing the traveler with information that a sighted individual absorbs incidentally-streets, retail outlets, restaurants, governmental agencies, parks, buildings, banks, ATMs, and, of course, all those golden arches. The traveler now has the choice to pass through the virtual open doorway to experience the environment or not and demonstrate individual control. A GPS device is a necessary piece of equipment for the traveler who is blind or has low vision. It is not, as one member of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team once called it, "fluff."


The U.S. Department of Education's Educating Blind and Visually Impaired Students: Policy Guidance (2000) provides ample support for the use of GPS in its educational programs and provides guidelines on the use of assistive technology in these educational programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). The Vision Department of the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) initiated the use of GPS technology in orientation and mobility (O&M) instruction for students with visual impairments in the fall of 2002 to follow the precepts of the guidance. Continued support by the administrators of the school district has allowed the program to add devices and updates as the technology has advanced. Sixteen students, ranging in age from 3 to 18, have participated.

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