Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Haptic Cues Used for Outdoor Wayfinding by Individuals with Visual Impairments

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Haptic Cues Used for Outdoor Wayfinding by Individuals with Visual Impairments

Article excerpt

It has long been accepted that the ability to navigate autonomously is a fundamental prerequisite to maintaining a satisfactory quality of life both for sighted and visually impaired individuals (Golledge, 1993). Wayfinding involves "a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment" (Lynch, 1960, p. 3). Thus, a competent traveler will devise strategies of encoding, processing, and retrieving information from and about the environment (Kitchin & Blades, 2001). Although vision is considered to be the most powerful sense for collecting spatial information (Gibson, 1979), individuals with visual impairments can use their remaining senses to gain spatial knowledge and can then apply their cognitive abilities to successfully navigate through space (Guth, Rieser, & Ashmead, 2010; Koutsoklenis & Papadopoulos, 2011a, 2011b).

Regarding the sense of touch in particular, Gibson (1966) argues that the haptic system has the potential to provide rich information about the environment, since it is the perceptual system by which people are literally in continuous touch with the environment. Haptic experience is not restricted to the hands, but involves the whole body covered by skin (Montagu, 1971). It involves the feelings of pressure, vibration, temperature, and pain resulting from the stimulation of neural end-organs embedded within the skin and the tissues below the skin (Heller & Schiff, 1991). Additionally, it involves the reciprocal interaction of the whole body with the things that constitute the environment (Boring, 1942). Haptic experience also involves "kinesthesia," the detection of the relative positions and movements of the parts of the body (Gibson, 1966).

The haptic experience refers both to the experience of stationary objects and to movement within and across space (Rod-away, 1994). The body is also able to sense the surrounding environment indirectly, through the use of extensions or tools (Rodaway, 1994). In the case of individuals with visual impairments, long canes are powerful perceptual tools with which wayfarers can extend their touching well beyond the reach of their arms and feet (LaGrow, 2010). The long cane provides a preview of the walking surface and the lower portion of the space in front of a wayfarer with visual impairments (Barth & Foulke, 1979; Schenkman, 1986) and informs on the presence of drop-offs, such as curbs, steps, and holes (LaGrow, 2010).

There are several anecdotal accounts regarding the use of touch for wayfinding by individuals with visual impairments. For instance, in his autobiography, suggestively entitled Touching the Rock, blind academic John Hull provides a number of remarkable accounts on using touch to obtain information about the environment. Hull (1990) argues that after becoming blind, he had to obtain information on the "weight, texture and shape, temperature and the sounds things make" in order to orient himself in an environment (p. 133). Notably, the first four of these types of information are gathered through touch. Moreover, Hull (1990) argues that an individual who is blind "sees with the fingers" (p. 83). Through this perspective, touch functions as the eye in giving navigational cues (Rodaway, 1994).

Gardiner and Perkins (2005) found that through touch individuals with visual impairments obtained information about the consistency, texture, and material of underfoot surfaces and about the topography and orientation of paths. They also remarked that passive touch sensing, such as the feel of wind blowing on the skin, provided information on the nature of the environment. Macpherson (2009) reported an emphasis of individuals with visual impairments to be on their feet while gathering environmental information. Participants with visual impairments gained information about the terrain and reported a sense of spatial continuity through their feet. The use of hands was not stated by the participants as a necessary or desirable component for gathering environmental information while walking. …

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