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Learning more about Way Finding; Blind Navigation PhD Research C Folska

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A recommended read for any Facility Manager, Urban and Building Designer and Architect, and those trying to learn about the future impact of the AODA and ADA in North America. JESleeth Olga Dosis

Blind Navigation: Implications for Urban Design and Cognition

By Claudia Folska, University of Colorado at Boulder, Institute of Cognitive Science

May 15, 2007

In the spring of 2007, I conducted a study of people who are blind or visually impaired to learn how they extract and process information from their built environment in order to navigate it. Specifically, I wanted to find out what mechanisms and systems are in play as people who are blind learn, modify and augment travel routes. While much is known about how normal or fully able-bodied people navigate independently through the built environments, far less is known as to how people without sight navigate. Yet that population represents nearly 10 million individuals. Discovering what methods of learning they use will shed light on how the blind acquire knowledge – how they use their cognitive maps – and how they apply that knowledge to new circumstances related to the spatial aspects of urban environments.

This study is grounded in the work of researchers like Kevin Lynch of MIT and Reginald G. Golledge of the University of California at Santa Barbara. It will take the research on cognition and blind navigation to a new level by showing precisely what changes are taking place in the mind as people without sight build and use their cognitive maps. It also will be one of the largest studies of the blind done to date. The findings will provide urban planners with information to help them better understand this population and to build structures and systems that address the needs of all members of the community. Further, this new information will allow new assistive technologies to be developed that can aid people without sight in navigation. It also will introduce a new taxonomy that planners and urban designers can use in their work going forward.

In 1960 Lynch was one of the first to examine and publish information on this new field. He defined the elements of navigating as landmarks, districts, nodes, paths and edges (Image of the City 1960). Golledge, in his benchmark study, Anchor Point Theory (1978), posited that as individuals become more familiar with their surroundings and branch out further and further, their cognitive maps increasingly build in greater depth and breadth. His theory extends his conviction that these “anchor points” address how individuals learn about their environment and how people represent spatial information in their mind. Individuals as they travel use certain landmarks, nodes and areas separately and collectively. Golledge has termed these “spatial cues,” which anchor sub-regions and link information hierarchically. The most important element in an individual’s cognitive map is his or her anchor point.

My work, which is part of a larger study under way for my doctoral degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Institute of Cognitive Science, should provide additional insights backing up and expanding on Lynch’s and Golledge’s findings, in particular regarding accessibility, imageability and legibility. The current study was conducted at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), in Littleton, Colorado. Students come from all over the world to the CCB to learn practical skills, including independent travel, living, cooking, Braille and the power of positive thinking.

Working with the students, they corroborated my own theory that blind people can do pretty much anything they want, they just need to learn how. I interviewed forty blind participants, asking each to draw a sketch map of the trip route they take when they get off the light rail train at the Littleton station to get to the center a few blocks away. As participants drew their maps, I also asked a series of questions and they were filmed as they discussed their trip route. In a follow-up session, the participants responded to a 121-item questionnaire, known as the Everyday Environmental Knowing Scale or EEKS (designed by Golledge and Allan, 2000).

The filmed interviews will be transcribed and a series of codes to extract qualitative data from this rich pool of information is being designed. The EEKS is a quantitative instrument designed to illuminate patterns and differences in spatial reasoning processes.

It is not enough to simply define wayfinding through anecdotal research or even through studies of a handful of subjects on behavioral measures. This large study, peering into the structure and changes in the architecture of the mind as the subject goes about learning and navigating through environments, will add significant new knowledge about the mind.

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