Multivalent Cartographic Accessibility: Tactile Maps for Collaborative Decision-Making
Conventional visual maps present significant accessibility challenges for blind or low vision users, leaving them with few or no options for interpreting spatial data. This need not be the case: tactile maps, designed to be read through touch, have been published for more than a century. But they have most often been categorized as a navigation tool, or mere “tactile graphics” (i.e., not as expressly spatial documents). Tactile maps that allow their users to explore and synthesize thematic spatial data are rare, as are studies evaluating them. As our world continues to face existential threats that are spatial in nature—pandemics, supply chain disruptions, floods, etc.—maps will continue to provide critical information in ways that other media are unable to match. In the absence of accessible thematic maps, blind people will not only be left out of the loop, but their capacity for contributing valuable input will be severely diminished. In response, I describe here a study that evaluates the potential of thematic tactile maps for providing blind users an accessible means of analyzing spatial data when working in collaboration with sighted partners. Findings indicate that while the maps did not prove to be useful tools on their own, they did facilitate collaboration between blind or low vision participants and sighted participants. This suggests that, with some refinements, similar maps could be feasibly distributed as a means for people with visual disabilities to meaningfully participate in an otherwise inaccessible process that requires the synthesis of thematic spatial information.
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