SCOTT SIMON, host:
San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind has launched the first-ever program to provide Braille maps to the sightless. They can call a phone number, give any address, and a few days later, they'll receive a tactile map in the mail free of charge. For the inventor of these maps, who was blinded at the age of four, this is part of a campaign to change the way people think about blindness.
From member station KQED, Amy Standen reports.
AMY STANDEN: I'm walking down San Francisco's Fillmore Street with Alex Wade, a neuroscientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, which is a nonprofit research center not far from here. It's raining hard - and as we walk, Alex helpfully narrates the various obstacles that he and I should try not to walk into.
Mr. ALEX WADE (Neuroscientist, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute): There's a plant pot to our left, there's rain everywhere, on me in particular. In fact it's raining so hard that as we're about to cross this street, there's a little river running down in the gutter and we'd like not to walk in that.
STANDEN: Alex says that as we walk each of us is funneling all this visual information into a part of the brain called the parietal cortex. You can tap your finger on it about halfway between the nape of your neck and the crown of your head. The job of the parietal cortex is to put all of that data about puddles and plant boxes into a mental map to help us navigate.
Mr. WADE: And in fact you don't walk around the world thinking I'm building a map of where I am in the world. It's all completely automatic and it's automatic to a blind person as well.
STANDEN: Which could be surprising, after all blind people can't see to absorb visual information, but they do have parietal cortexes, so they make their mental maps out of other cues, the sound of a car splashing by or the texture of pavement underneath a cane. But what about places that are too big to see, like the distance between your house and downtown or the shape of California. When sighted people want to make mental maps of things like those, they turn to the regular two-dimensional version. But not everyone can do that.
Dr. JOSH MIELE (Scientist, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute): Really what I was thinking is I want maps.
STANDEN: That's Josh Miele. He's also a scientist at Smith-Kettlewell, and he's been blind since the age of 4.
Dr. MIELE: I want to be able to see as it were: where things are, how streets connect with one another, how streets curve, what intersections look like.
STANDEN: Josh has invented something so basic that you might have assumed it didn't need inventing, maps for blind people that use raised bumps and lines instead of ink.
Dr. MIELE: Yeah, I know it sounds, okay Miele, you know, big deal, who cares. The reason it's important is because this has never been available for blind people before.
STANDEN: The system works kind of like a triple A for the sightless. Dial a hotline here in San Francisco, order a map and a week later, it's in your mailbox. The maps are free if you live in California, $15 for everyone else and they're produced here, at the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco on a printer so loud, it needs its own soundproof box.
(Soundbite of printer running)
STANDEN: The maps are printed on white cardstock, about a foot square, and they show a grid of raised lines for streets with the abbreviated street names printed in Braille on the margins.
Ms. JESSIE LORENZ (Public Advocacy; Information Coordinator, Lighthouse for the Blind, Public Advocacy and Information Coordinator): I have this map in my hand right now and I can't keep my hands off of it.
STANDEN: Jessie Lorenz works here at the Lighthouse for the Blind. She and Josh are running their fingertips over the streets and intersections of downtown San Francisco.
Dr. MIELE: It's like reading about a place that you know. There's something so compelling somehow. I don't - I almost don't…
Ms. LORENZ: …history and Laguna...
STANDEN: Jessie and Josh have been walking around this neighborhood for years, but in a sense, they never really knew what it looked like.
Ms. LORENZ: See that line right there?
Ms. LORENZ: That's Market Street, and there are times when I am like, oh man, how is it that I…
STANDEN: How did I get over here?
Ms. LORENZ: How did I get over here? And just seeing all the streets around it are like nicely gridded and look at this. That is not a straight path, so maybe it's not just me.
Dr. MIELE: So maybe it's not just me. The main way that somebody would be able to learn stuff like this is trial and error. You know, the ability to wander around and get lost on a map is so much better than getting lost in real life.
STANDEN: The irony is that until recently, cognitive psychologists doubted whether blind people could really understand maps. They thought that trying to show the layout of the city to someone who can't see would be like playing music to someone who can't hear.
Dr. MIELE: A lot of the time, there is a chart or a graph of information and somebody will say, oh, well that's so visual. It's not visual, it's spatial. People have thought that because blind people don't have the same visual experience, that they don't have the same spatial experience, and that they don't possess the same spatial cognition skills.
STANDEN: Blind people do have those skills. But like anything else, they need to develop them, ideally at a young age. And that's hard to do, Josh says, in part because parents worry about letting their blind children go outside and explore the world on their own. But not having access to graphic information makes that kind of spatial learning even harder.
Dr. MIELE: Many professions require very explicit types of information that are arranged spatially. I mean it's very difficult for a kid to learn good chemistry without a nice, tactile representation of the periodic table.
STANDEN: Josh says it's not just about maps, it's about opportunity - the ability of blind kids to grow up and become, for example, scientists like he did.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.