Getting from here to there and knowing where: teaching global positioning systems to students with visual impairments.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Travelers (Health aspects)
Travelers (Research)
Vision disorders (Diagnosis)
Vision disorders (Care and treatment)
Vision disorders (Research)
Author: Phillips, Craig L.
Pub Date: 10/01/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness Publisher: American Foundation for the Blind Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American Foundation for the Blind ISSN: 0145-482X
Issue: Date: Oct-Nov, 2011 Source Volume: 105 Source Issue: 10
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 272077513
Full Text: 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.

The Sendero system (), the Trekker, the Trekker Breeze () and the Garmin Oregon 450 () are currently being used. The Sendero is a dedicated system of notetaker and Bluetooth receiver. A key feature of the system is the option to receive information audibly and from refreshable braille on the notetaker, which is essential for students who are deaf-blind. The Trekker (Trekker-Maestro) is a personal digital assistant (PDA) with a tactile overlay that can be used with multiple students because it is a stand-alone device. It has not been a favorite of students, however, because it has 38 buttons (many dual functioning) and needs to be reset often. In the summer of 2010, Humanware announced that this device was to be discontinued. The Trekker Breeze is a standalone device featuring the simplicity of 9 multi functional buttons, an internal GPS receiver, and internal and external speakers. The Garmin Oregon 450 was chosen for students with low vision because of its touch screen, color screen, waterproof body, and 16-hour battery life. Additional maps were purchased from Garmin to add more "city" information to the database.


All the students at SMSD are taught the fundamental skills of O&M, focusing on safe, efficient, and graceful travel skills in the home, school, and community. Students begin using GPS at a young age when lessons move outside to create an interest in their surroundings, develop a conceptualization of the world, and provide the first steps in exercising control in the environment. Initially, instruction with GPS is passive to teach the students the language of environmental literacy. A concept is nurtured and the utility of the device is reinforced by listening to the device's information while working from a student-created landmark and expanding away from that landmark. Young students like hearing their voices on the audible devices when they search for the landmarks they have created. The button to repeat a message is activated repeatedly on many lessons, so they can hear the landmark again and again.

One four-year-old student with low vision had an IEP goal of working on her cane skills. She did not readily warm to the idea of leaving her familiar environment to work on her cane skills outside. Traveling in her immediate neighborhood did not interest her. She preferred to sit on her couch and play with her iPad. When the student did go outside for a lesson, she often asked, "Where is my house?" immediately after reluctantly leaving her porch. After she was introduced to the Breeze and taught how to set a landmark at her porch step, she gingerly walked a short distance away from her house with the promise that the device would guide her back. Her attitude toward travel began to change after multiple successful trips. The confidence of knowing her position in space and the knowledge that she could find her way back home made teaching cane skills much easier. The GPS device provided her with information about her environment and served as a wayfinding tool for returning to the security of her home.

A kindergarten student placed landmarks at various locations that are important for her: the school's front step, her "daddy's store," a local grocery store, McDonald's, and her home. She has used the Breeze to set routes to landmarks and points of interest on her weekly familiarity lessons in the community. In her own words, "GPS is fun because it tells me where I am."

A first-grade student, who is legally blind and cannot see more than 10 feet in front of her without a visual aid, is in her second year of traveling with the Breeze. The thought of a device giving her information is still a little strange to her. She will not wear the device around her neck but will walk with the external speaker pinned to her collar. She listened to it only for information during the first year that she wore it. When asked where the voice originated, she pointed to the sky and said, "outer space." The student can tell the street in front of the school, the two streets that border the playground on the east and west, and the direction she is heading. She also asked, "If I continue to walk north, could I reach Santa Claus's home in the North Pole?" In her second year of usage, she is learning how to create landmarks.

Older students like the knowledge of knowing where they are in space and the existence of potential destinations that are nearby. Lessons focus on pedestrian and motorized routing to destinations that will be important in the next stage of their growth: governmental agencies, restaurants, and shopping points of interest, as well as personal landmarks and travel in campus settings with multiple pathways. A skill that is frequently practiced is directing motorized routes. Students manually access the next instruction of the route before the device automatically provides it, passing that information on to the driver of the vehicle during the lesson to give the driver plenty of time to prepare for route changes. They also learn the organizational concept of the streets and avenues by directing the routing. Wrong turns are intentionally made on motorized routes that do not comply with the GPS routing. This practice enables the students to experience the "off-route" message and rerouting feature and to teach that there are many ways to reach most destinations.

Integrating GPS information into academic subjects is a goal that is regularly sought. A freshman in high school had a geography class assignment to make a map to a destination in the community. Alternate possible destinations were offered by the teacher to accommodate what he thought was the student's lack of environmental information. The student identified a destination from the original assignment list given to his peers and then set a pedestrian route to it. By using the indoor preview function of the Breeze, he was able to write a step-by-step and street-by-street itinerary to the target. Accessing information during public transportation lessons teaches students how to listen for the preceding stop or street before their destination, enabling them to prepare to complete the route.

Students who have demonstrated competence in using a device are free to check out the device for weekends or school breaks, and many regularly take advantage of this policy. A fifth-grade student guided his grandparents who were visiting from another city to multiple locations during spring break using the Oregon 450. When he was asked how it went, he simply said, "It was cool." A high school senior has often used the Sendero system on family vacations to another state. He likes to tell family members what is in the proximity of their present location. He also provided directions to a hotel on one trip during a snowstorm, and his father remarked that he often keeps everybody informed of how fast the father is driving.


Interest in using the device has been the most essential element for successful usage, and students' interest has ranged from active to passive. Closely related to interest is the perceived utility of the device. Some students with visual impairments have learned well the lessons of "learned helplessness" and do not see a need to use GPS because their parents, siblings, peers, or significant others have provided too much assistance with mobility needs. Age has not been a factor in instruction, but the maturity to embrace the concept of traveling with electronic information makes teaching easier. The cognitive ability to operate the device and understand and demonstrate the O&M principles of lateral directionality, positional concepts, cardinal directions, definitions of landmarks and clues, and basic spatial awareness are additional considerations. Dexterity and motor ability are needed to operate the devices' buttons. At first, knowledge of how to create routes or to cross intersections is a low priority. The students have demonstrated that the experience of passing through the virtual open doorway and of interacting with the environment spurs an interest and desire to learn those skills. Last, interest in all things involving technology is an added plus but not necessary.


The following suggestions for integrating the use of GPS devices with O&M lessons may facilitate both instruction and practice.

* Because signals can go through glass, it is wise to turn the device on and place it where it can receive information a short time before a lesson. It is annoying to turn the device on and have to wait several minutes for it to establish the present position.

* GPS locations are measured by the intersectional coordinates of latitude and longitude, and the exact spot of the preset point of interest can be unknown. A common concept of GPS has resulted from the driver in an automobile looking at the dashboard-mounted GPS screen, seeing the target, looking up, and confirming it from a visual confirmation, often from quite a distance away. This problem becomes most apparent when a point of interest like the "city library" is the size of a city block. Is the exact reference spot at the center of the building or on one of the bordering streets? Because accuracy resolution with GPS is in the range of plus or minus 50 feet, what Mike May, president and CEO of the Sendero Group, calls the "frustration of the final 50 feet" (personal communication, May 5, 2011), the use of GPS demands fundamental O&M skills of recognizing contextual clues to find the target destination. Self-created landmarks are often easier to locate because the traveler can use physical reference points when he or she creates the landmark to correlate his or her position in space.

* Positions are plotted using street mapping and open-area mapping. Street mapping provides a position in space with a cardinal direction, the street the traveler is walking on, and the nearest civic number. Open-area mapping is used in areas that are more than 100 feet from a street. When traveling in open areas, like parks and campus settings with multiple walkways, direct the traveler "as the crow flies" and use the clock face to direct travel. Say, for example, "Smith Hall is 200 feet ahead at 1 o'clock." The devices recalibrate all directions as the traveler changes position in both modes.

* The device is a "where and when" tool, and those times of access must be taught. Automatic information is provided until the traveler gets within 20-25 feet of the approach of an intersection. It is then quiet until the traveler crosses the intersection, unless it is activated by the traveler. This quiet allows the traveler to focus on the surrounding traffic sounds for safe travel. Access is available at anytime, although accessing the device in the middle of an intersection, as some students have done, is not a good idea and certainly not recommended.

* When teaching GPS, it is wise for the instructor to take a "cheat sheet" on lessons. Trying to remember the various functions of the device and monitoring a student's travel can be difficult, if not dangerous. Take things one at a time to avoid teaching errors that will need to be corrected.

* Preparation is essential for success. Because reception can be variable depending on the location, previewing the route generally makes the experience go far more smoothly than "winging" it.

* Initial instruction in environments that are rich in points of interest, those with many possible destinations, enhances the usability of the device and reinforces the concept of the virtual open doorway. Initially, urban environments are better than are residential ones because more information is provided.

* Earplugs and headphones are not recommended when traveling outside.

* The difficulty or simplicity of learning how to use a system must work for the student first and the teacher second.


"Mommy. We needed to turn there." A parent who is also an O&M specialist drives a roundtrip route everyday with her 7-year-old son, who has no light perception, to the school he attends. He listens to the Breeze on their trips. On this particular occasion, the mother had to run an errand on the way home and started to take an alternate route, but she did not tell her son. His comment demonstrates that he was listening to the device, understood the concept of the route home, and was aware of the change in the route.

"Directing a cab driver to my destination gave me control." A customer service representative had a service call to make, but the cab driver was lost and did not understand the directions he was receiving from his dispatcher. By using his Sendero system, the passenger, who is blind, was able to guide the driver to the destination, arriving on time for his appointment. The device's wayfinding information supports his employment, enhances his ability to travel independently, and gives him the confidence and positive self-esteem to be an active participant in his journey through the environment.

These illustrations demonstrate why GPS is an essential tool for travelers with visual impairments. Child and adult travelers are on either end of the continuum of GPS usage, with the children assembling their worlds from incidental environmental information and the adults directing their way through the environment. Repeated successful travel experiences facilitate the goal of employability, ease the task of travel in the environment, and contribute to an independent life through the development of environmental literacy. Instruction in environmental literacy is as essential as instruction in academic literacy, and the usage of a GPS device should be considered for every individual who is visually impaired.


O&M specialists, teachers of students with visual impairments, administrators, and fellow colleagues at vision conferences and in personal conversations have enumerated a number of reasons why GPS is not being used regularly in O&M instruction. The cost of the devices has been cited most often, closely followed by the intimidation factor of learning a new technology for the instructor and how to integrate GPS into lessons. The lack of the perceived need for GPS by students by those in positions to approve or disapprove the purchase was another reason that was cited. To address these concerns and help professionals in the field experience GPS firsthand, a one-day seminar, approved by the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals, entitled "Overview and Field Practice Using GPS," was created and has been presented to educators in Little Rock, Arkansas; Joplin and Kansas City, Missouri; and Hutchinson, Kansas. A user of GPS information put it this way:


Baldwin, D. (2003). Wayfinding technology: A road map to the future. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 97, 612-620.

Lowenfeld, B. ( 1981). On blindness and blind people: Selected papers. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Lowenfeld, B. (1981). Effects of blindness on the cognitive functions of children. In Berthold Lowenfeld on blindness and blind people (pp. 67-78). New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

U.S. Department of Education. (2000, June 8). Educating blind and visually impaired students: Policy guidance, notice. Federal Register, 65(111), 36586. Retrieved from cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=2000_register&docid=00-14485- filed

U.S. Department of Education. (2005). 34 CFR Part 300 Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities, Federal Register, 70(118), 35782. Retrieved from

Craig L. Phillips, M.S.Ed., COMS, teacher of students with visual impairments, Shawnee Mission School District, Arrowhead Administrative Center, 6601 Santa Fe Drive, Shawnee Mission, KS 66202; e-mail: .
I feel like I'm cheating somehow,
   when I don't have to keep track of
   what street is what, where it's located,
   what direction I'm heading, etc. It
   frees my mind to concentrate on other
   aspects of orientation. Listening to the
   GPS device as I'm riding in a car, I
   realize there is a world that is outside
   my car window that I can interact with
   ... amazing, simply amazing.
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