Main content

Alert message

by Jay Stiteley []


Independent travel is greatly enhanced through the development of mental mapping skills.  A mental map is based on an individual's experiences and perceptions, and is developed through a process of reasoned expectations.  Once the individual has acquired sufficient travel experience, these expectations can become the foundation of a versatile, and highly useful mental map.

This workshop will focus on key components that we have identified as being important in the formation of a mental map.  Personal travel experience, sensory clues, recall and recognition memory, techniques for soliciting information, visual landmarks, and knowledge gained from reading and individual learning styles are the specific components we have identified for this workshop.

Developing a mental map also requires the skill of transferring information to a new environment or situation.  The objective of this workshop is to bring into focus functional concepts and teachable skills that contribute directly to independent travel for those who are blind or visually impaired, whether they choose to make use of a cane or dog guide.

Components of Mental Mapping Skills

  • Personal travel experience:
    • First hand knowledge is probably the best teacher. 
    • Securing good feedback about ones perceptions is valuable and critical.
  • Sensory clues:
    • Transforming noise into valuable information.
    • Circumstances can define a sound's usefulness:
    • A fountain, at a distance can give direction, and up close, can be a total mask
    • Changing texture and slope under foot
    • Smelling a bakery on the street
  • Recall and recognition memory:
    • Good memory skills are important for mental mapping
    • Recall memory: having passed this way before, you remember general or specific identifiable features from that physical experience
    • Recognition memory: verbal descriptions, patterns, and other resources may prove useful in constructing a mental map although the actual environment is new to you
  • Soliciting information:
    • The difference between seeking assistance and asking for help
    • Use gestures, and don't ask yes-no questions
    • How you ask, and what you ask are key to getting useful answers
    • Whats the name of this cross street?, and Can you direct me to a telephone?
  • Visual landmarks:
    • Sighted people commonly travel by landmarks, more often than by street names
    • Make sure that your mental map includes key visual landmarks
    • While newly visually impaired individuals need to continue cultivating their visual memory, those who never had vision can certainly add this information to their mental map
  • Knowledge acquired through reading:
    • A great resource that provides vivid, accurate descriptions of architecture, building layout and décor
    • For the person who has had vision, this can be information worth remembering, and adding to the mental map
    • For the person who has never had significant use of vision, this can be equally useful in developing the mental map.
  • Learning styles:
    • Visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactual
    • Though a person may profess a preferred learning style, most use a combination of styles

Let Your Environment Be A Useful Resource

While the list of environmental clues that follows is not exhaustive, it attempts to bring to mind items that can be quite useful to the independent traveler who is blind or visually impaired.  As you review the list, you will notice that not all of the items listed are in fact specific or tangible objects.  Several items reference situational factors that are part of the everyday traveler's working environment.

While these items are likely to gain added value through experience and familiarity, they might also prove very useful in giving or receiving directions.  For example, a fountain, a revolving door, and a stereo shop with outdoor speakers, may well fit into either category.  Simply stated, building the mental map is a fluid, and not a static process.  The environment can provide many clues, which will aid you in your travels, and in assembling your own personal mental map.

As you review the list of Environmental Clues, give some thought to the following questions:

  • What level of usefulness might this item play in the daily routine of independent travel?
  • Might it have indoor and/or outdoor application?
  • Is it temporary or permanent, and how might that impact on its overall usefulness? 
  • Might it have both near and distant, applications, and is it possible that these two options could represent distinctly different degrees of usefulness? 
  • Does the item's usefulness impact differently on the person traveling with a long cane and with a dog guide?


  • Accessible pedestrian signals (APS)
  • Back-up beeper
  • Bells, wind chimes, etc.
  • Cash register
  • Conversation initiatives
  • Crowd control devices
  • Curb cuts
  • Doors and doorways
  • Elevators
  • Environment specific sounds
  • Escalators
  • Fountain
  • Furniture and furnishings
  • Information or registration counter
  • Location specific phrases
  • Machinery sounds
  • Noise level changes
  • Plants and planters
  • Security checkpoint
  • Smells
  • Sound reflection
  • Surface level changes
  • Surface texture changes
  • Traffic
  • Unique or special features

Word Picture 1

Jack is a dog guide handler with 8 years of travel experience with his current dog.  He has a job interview, in a community he has never visited before.  He has a number of friends who have encouraged him to think seriously about the position, and should the job be offered, of moving to their fair city.

Word Picture 1 Worksheet

Fill in the blanks with the most appropriate environmental clues, in completing the following "Travel Tale".

In deplaning, amid the stream of other passengers, (___) Jack proceeded through the airport.  By relying on many informational resources, (___) he reached the sidewalk outside of the baggage area and signaled for a taxi.  (___) While entering the taxi, Jack clearly stated a downtown address. Jack confirmed that his dog was secure on the floor behind the driver.

The driver was well aware of the location and therefore, they began to converse.  (___) Jack secured a few additional bits of information about the area related to the location of the hotel in the business district, landmark, restaurants and shops in the area. He also secured the names of the streets that surrounded the hotel.

Upon entering the hotel, and through general observation, (___) Jack continued to learn about his new environment. (___) Using the bellman to identify key locations in the hotel while showing Jack to his room. (___)

Word Picture 2

Linda is a capable and confident businesswoman who is totally blind and travels with the use of the long cane.  She is attractive and highly regarded as a professional trainer and motivational speaker.  In fact, she is now self-employed and about to make a call on a local corporation as a potential client.  While Linda travels frequently, today's appointment is barely a mile from her office near downtown.

The high-rise office building is new to her.  However, she spoke to several friends who knew the building well enough to give her the location and an overall impression of size, shape, dimension and a couple of very useful features.

Word Picture 2 Worksheet

Fill in the blanks with the most appropriate environmental clues, in completing the following "Travel Tale".

Linda makes her way to the local bus stop (_______) and ultimately arrives at the downtown high-rise office tower by public transportation.  Traveling confidently, with her long cane, she pauses, and strategically assesses her surroundings, (_______) and then moves on toward her destination.  Trusting to her skills (_______), judgment (_______), and personal experience (________), supplemented with information offered by her friends (_______), and her new client (_______), she navigates (________) successfully to the (_______) where she alerts her new client of her arrival.