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Visually Impaired Students to Navigate USF Campus with New Innovative Tool

Tactile Maps created by the AVC will help visually impaired students navigate the University of South Florida's campus.
Maps marking emergency exit routes are required by law to be posted in public buildings. While they can save lives, they have little impact on people who are visually impaired. The USF Advanced Visualization Center (AVC) is creating a tactile version of these maps for some classrooms on campus.

“I can’t imagine navigation without my sight,” said Howard Kaplan, visualization specialist of the AVC. “You kind of take it for granted.So, when you see students and family and friends that are able to be successful and navigate and contribute to society, this is the very least we can do for them is to provide them the same tools we have.”

Kaplan developed an encoding system that creates tactile symbols, ensuring they have a proper height, texture and depth – essential for proper finger navigation. They’re then 3D printed using plastic material. So far, six USF classroom (CRP 103, CIS 1048, CMC118, ENG 118, BSN 1300, EDU 316) have been encoded, which include details such as location of emergency exits, whether doors are a push or pull and if there are stairs.

“It’s important to note the room isn’t a flat floor, that there is a gradual increase in height as they go up, so when a non-sighted student enters the room, they don’t trip and they can navigate the room more accurately, safely and independently,” said Kaplan.

Fifty students with visual impairment are registered with USF Students with Disabilities Services. The department connected Kaplan with five students who started testing personalized tactile maps this summer. This helped them get familiarized with certain classrooms prior to the fall semester.

 “This project is very important to USF and Students with Disabilities Services because it promotes equity and inclusion for visually impaired students,” said Dani Thiel, coordinator for Students with Disabilities Services. “Students with visual impairments should have the same understanding of their classroom spaces and paths for emergency exits as everyone else.”

Kaplan is also working with Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He hopes to encode other public spaces such as hospitals and airports, eventually making them accessible worldwide.

The USF tactile maps are expected to start being posted for public use in spring 2019. They’ll be located just outside classrooms, next to room numbers, in which are currently marked in braille.

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