Feel The Burn: We Made a Tactile Map of Black Rock City for Blind Burning Man Attendees

Black Rock City map - front cover

As Burning Man has ballooned from a desolate San Francisco gathering to a massive, world-famous yearly festival, it has also stood by its ambitious “10 Principles,” the first of which is “Radical Inclusion.” But for some, the annual, ever-evolving desert colony may still seem to be a daunting frontier for blind and low vision individuals.

But what is it, really, that might keep a blind person from taking on Burning Man? Maybe it’s simply the things that might deter anybody else — radical temperatures, alkali dust storms, swarms of hungry insects, or just the throng of 70,000 that descends on Black Rock City every year. And yet if you have even a slight taste for adventure that might sound perfectly enticing. Could it be that, short of courage, the real obstacle is simply finding the right tools for the journey?

Here at LightHouse we pondered this question — and then we built the perfect new tool to answer it. It’s an elegant, straightforward rendering of Black Rock City, in its entirety, in a booklet that you can read without your eyes. A combination of raised lines, braille dots, and special embossed symbols, the map gives you the location of every street, camping area and official point of interest at this year’s Burning Man festival. That includes straightforward destinations such as restrooms or medical stations as well as more poetic points of interest such as “Life Cube,” “Serpent Mother,’ or the “Burner Express Bus Terminal.”

map showing street names and points of interest

With sparse cell reception and weak wi-fi across the massive, makeshift encampment, a physical map is the simple, dependable way to navigate the more than 50 miles of roads set up to accommodate Burning Man each year. Some intrepid blind travelers have done it without paper maps in the past, though using GPS meant needing a phone and/or Braille display ready, charged, and exposed to the elements — not exactly the liberating experience promised by the Nevada desert. The spirit of cooperation and generosity is high, of course, but for the rugged individualist, the enterprising, independent blind or low vision person who wants to truly have their own experience on their own terms, our map is a fantastic new tool.

Julie Sadlier, our one of our specialists on the Access to Information team, which makes tactile maps of anywhere from UC Berkeley to Disneyland, recently read about the Burn’s “Mobility Camp,” Burning Man’s center for those with mobility impairments (wheelchairs, crutches, walkers). She realized that blind and low vision burners needed mobility tools, too. So she set to work creating the Black Rock City Tactile Map, a hybrid of the official map and a crowdsourced Google Map. Knowing that the city is different every year, she was careful to only add destinations liable to be in the same location as previous years. The result is a map that delivers more useful features than many online maps, but remains clean and uncluttered. And like all of our maps, it’s the nimble type of solution that can be updated and printed by our accessible media team in just a few days.

tactile map showing restrooms and medical tents

“Even if it’s just a very small minority of people that go to Burning Man with a visual disability,” she said this week, “I wanted to have something available to them, to have access to information, to make Burning Man Accessible.” Julie plans to drop off one map at Playa Information Services at Center Camp, and says she will have another one with her at camp Love Potion, located at 7:30 and G, for anyone who’d like to check it out. If you’d like to get your own, email ais@lighthouse-sf.org as soon as possible.

Passing the map around the office, perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that the blind and partially sighted employees responded with particular enthusiasm. Those who couldn’t be bothered to think about the event before were suddenly brimming with curiosity. When asked to assess the map and proof for errors, our braille specialist Frank Welte suddenly found himself intrigued, running his hands over the book, becoming familiar with its stations and roads, and studying the various POI’s studded throughout the pleasingly symmetrical desert settlement. He’d never been to Burning Man, but the map was a small revelation. Julie watched with satisfaction as his interest piqued: “He had so many questions for me, He said ‘I never really wanted to go, but now I kind of do, I want to go see this art, experience this place’.”

We’re looking for blind burners! If you’re headed to the playa next week, please email wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org or ais@lighthouse-sf.org so that we can get a map in your hands.

If you’d like to inquire about tactile maps for your festival, venue, or area of interest, please email ais@lighthouse-sf.org or call 415-694-7349.

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