Accessible Cartography

Austin reading the tactile map...Austins hands, reading the tactile map...

Today I visited Austin Serapin again. I made him new maps, using the marker for tactile lines I described before. It was very fascinating to see him explore cartography, as he has hardly any experience with graphics. His mobility teacher once drew maps on his back explaining which routes to take.

After his request I made two more maps of Philadelphia and one of his own neighborhood, Hawthorne. The neighborhood grid, of course, is very abstract. After giving it to  Austin I was curious to see if it would work for him. After explaining some street names, Austin started to “walk” around with his fingers. I made a marker on each map, indicating the South. Austin started to read the map “North Up” , the traditional way of map reading, but as anybody who learns how to read a map, he complained that he had to twist the map in his head. So I suggested to turn it, explaining that there are two ways of using cartography: the rigid one, where you should always keep the north up, or the flexible one, where you allow yourself to turn the map around. The latter becomes more and more logical with digital cartography, especially on phones. Austin tried turning the map around and immediately the reading became way more clear.  He continued to “walk” the streets with his fingers and I could see how the map now quickly started to relate to the street layout in his head.

I found it amazing to observe, this new medium unfolding in his hands and mind. It was a new representation of the world that makes sense. It was also very personal as we had discussed  the territory to make: this was picked by Austin and well known to him. He named every street and found a mistake. I accidentally drew a street that does not exist in reality. I took my knife and scraped it away very carefully. Correction made.