Those of us fortunate enough to be able to read this column, even if we might not like what we read, may not realize some of the problems faced by our sightless friends. For example, how do they read maps?
Few maps for the blind are produced, but the situation is improving. For the last two days, the first international symposium on the subject has been held at the Dupont Plaza Hotel, drawing more than 100 participants from the United States, Canada, Japan, Europe and Australia.
The event was sponsored by the Association of American Geographers with the U.S. National Committees for the International Cartographic Association and the International Geographical Union. Support came from the Washington State Knights of Columbus, the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Among the first people we encountered there was Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl, the founding head of the Washington Ear, which provides a broadcast reading service for the blind. Her organization has taken its mission a step further, producing a set of 14 maps of the Washington area with Braille legends and raised features marking boundaries, transit lines and landmarks.
Pfanstiehl, who relies on a guide dog to get around, said people like her "can't really know your area unless you 'see' it mapped."
Also on display were two sets of maps developed by Lawrence Johnson & Associates for Metro, designed to help visually handicapped riders to find their way on the subway.
Joseph W. Wiedel, a geography professor who teaches cartography (map drafting) at the University of Maryland, said the symposium was designed chiefly to bring together research from around the world so efforts are not wastefully duplicated.
As usual, Margaret Pfanstiehl's husband, Cody, the retired but far-from-retiring Metro flack, had an appropriate quip for the day: "Let your fingers do the seeing!"