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New local tactile maps at Adaptations

Photo: Sarika Dagar

Our Mad Lab designers have been hard at work producing a set of new maps of our region. Never before have curious blind travelers had these tactile maps, and they can be acquired immediately from LightHouse’s Adaptations Store.

Here is a list of the available maps:

• San Francisco Bay Area Cities: Ever wonder where the heck Piedmont actually is? This map shows the major cities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. $15

• San Francisco Bay Area Counties: This map shows the counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Now you can see, for example, why Contra Costa County is actually north of Albany. $15

• San Francisco Bay Area Highways: You’ve heard of highway 13, or 237, or 92. Now you can see exactly where they are and how they connect. This map shows the main highways of the greater San Francisco Bay Area. $20

• San Francisco Neighborhoods: Just where does the Western Addition end and the Richmond District begin? Now you can find out. This map shows the neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco. $15

• California: Sacramento is actually more north than people commonly think. This map shows the state of California and its major cities. $20

Each map comes with braille and large print labels and is available for pickup. Get yours today by visiting our Adaptations store on the 10th floor at LightHouse Headquarters, 1155 Market Street in San Francisco. Or for extra convenience, just phone in your order and we’ll mail it to you. For more information call Adaptations at 1-888-400-8933 or email our store staff at adaptations@lighthouse-sf.org.

Maps for the blind: How the MAD Lab is challenging designers’ hyper-visual assumptions

For the experienced blind traveler, obstacle avoidance is not the overwhelming part—that’s why we have canes, dog guide and blindness skills. The challenging part is getting familiar with the lay of the land in order to make the spontaneous choices of everyday life, like which quirky cafe to duck into or how to get to the canal everyone keeps telling you to wander along.

And if you’re a sighted traveler, it’s easy to take mapping tools for granted with GPS apps at your fingers. Most people don’t realize that blind people don’t have easy access to non-visual or ‘tactile’ maps. (You might be asking: what’s a tactile map? It’s pretty simple—it’s a map with raised lines and braille markers that you can feel.)

That’s why the LightHouse Media and Accessible Design Lab hosted a Maptime SF/Oakland meetup last month: to teach multidisciplinary designers about accessible methods to use when creating maps and encourage them to incorporate tactile information into their work.

Attendees came from a wide swath of industries and design disciplines. The MAD Lab team hosted designers from Apple, architects from Arup, graphic designers, transportation specialists, programmers, students in interactive design, occupational therapists, special ed teachers, ocean mapping specialists, and highly skilled cartographers.

After comparing and contrasting examples of different design methods and discussing their effectiveness, Maptimers used these precepts to make their own maps. The group also discussed Tactile Maps Automated Production, and how this automated mapping system is a game changer for tactile map production.

“There’s such a lack of tactile graphics in the world,” says MAD Lab Senior Designer Naomi Rosenberg. “The only way to increase tactile graphic production is to teach more people how to incorporate tactile information into their designs. Sharing our expertise in tactile graphics empowers specialists in other fields to step outside of their normal design process, and design better for their audience and underrepresented audiences.”

Photos from the workshop

Take a little tour of their design process below. And if you’re sighted, next time you walk down the street or hop on Google maps, start to consider the lack of non-visual information that is available to tell you how to get around. If you’re a designer, it might just change how you approach your own designs.

Workshops like this support the MAD Lab’s goal of making visual information accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. Ready to get your hands on your own tactile map? We can quickly create an inexpensive personalized map for you centered on a square mile anywhere in the US – visit or call the Adaptations Store to order! Stop by  at 1155 Market St. or give our specialists a call at 1-888-400-8933.

Behind the Map: Starting over in a new city

In January, LightHouse started offering TMAP — on-demand tactile street maps — for order at our Adaptations Store (1-888-400-8933). We have been hearing some amazing stories about how our maps are being used, so we wanted to share them with our mapping community.

One month ago, Lia Jacobsen sat on a plane, nervous. She was moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan after living in Washington D.C. for 10 years. The prospect of learning a new city after all that time was, admittedly, a bit daunting.

On the tray table in front of her lay two TMAPs: one detailing the area around her new home in Ann Arbor, and another of the streets around the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where she was beginning a masters degree. Leah traced her hands along the raised lines of the map, determined to memorize the criss-crossing, partial grid system of her new town. She reviewed the braille street names using each map key, learning the quarter-mile radius map first, then working her way out to the more dense and complex 1.5-miles radius map.

The flight attendant paused at Lia’s row, and politely asked: “Excuse me, ma’am, would you like me to turn your light on?” The question struck Lia as a bit absurd. Why would a person need light to read a raised-line tactile map? She tried to be polite but some snark crept into her voice as she expressed her confusion. It wasn’t until this moment that she discovered that the maps were more than just embossed paper: the streets were printed in ink, as well.

A TMAP of the University of Michigan.
Image: A TMAP of the University of Michigan.

The humor of the situation helped dispel some of her nerves, and since arriving in Ann Arbor and completing several weeks of classes, Lia pretty much knows the lay of the land.  

“My TMAPs were hugely helpful because when I landed I already felt like I knew where I was,” she says. “It automatically made me feel much more comfortable because I knew what I was passing.”

On her first day on campus she caught a group of lost undergrads off-guard when she interjected and gave them directions to their building.  

“It’s about being more equal and having the freedom not to rely on other people,” she says. “I tend to explore no matter what, but it gives me a foundation and a starting point so I don’t feel totally lost. Feeling lost makes you just want to go home.”

Lia wishes she had had access to TMAP throughout her many years working on the Obama campaign, traveling far and wide as a member of the Peace Corps, traveling alone in Colombia, or as a kid growing up in Florida.  

“I never had tactile maps growing up,” she says. “My first time having a sort of tactile map, my O&M teacher took a piece of felt and put some velcro beads on it and made a makeshift map.”

She expects to use TMAPs much more as she pursues her masters in social work and hopefully heads back to D.C. to become a victim advocate for the FBI.

“I definitely plan on purchasing more TMAPs whenever I move next time and have been spreading the word about how much I love the TMAPs to all of my friends who are blind,” she says. “The task of learning a new community after being in the same place for a decade was daunting, and the maps I purchased were enormously helpful in my feeling oriented from day one.”

Get your TMAP today

To order a map, call our product specialists at 1-888-400-8933 and specify the street address of the map you’re interested in receiving. Within two business days we’ll ship you your map, or make it available for pick up at the Adaptations Store (1155 Market St., 10th Floor, San Francisco, CA).

What’s in the package?

  • You will receive 3 map versions printed at simple, moderate and dense map scale ratios
  • A tactile map key
  • An introductory page
  • All materials are printed on 11” X 11.5” sheets of embossed paper and include ink / large print labels in addition to braille

Learn more about the MAD Lab where these maps are produced.

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Behind the Map: This O&M Instructor uses TMAP to demystify the streets of Vacaville

In January, LightHouse started offering TMAP — on-demand tactile street maps — for order at our Adaptations Store (1-888-400-8933). We have been hearing some amazing stories about how our maps are being used, so we wanted to share them with our mapping community.

Sarah McIntyre has fond childhood memories of San Francisco. These trips were all defined by one nostalgic artifact: a giant, foldable street map from AAA. “My mother taught me to read maps,” Sarah says. “She was always the navigator.” And though most families now navigate with digital maps, Sarah fondly remembers the hard copies: well-loved, frayed on the edges, markings revealing every adventure past and future.

Today Sarah is an orientation and mobility instructor at LightHouse, and when she teaches blind students, she stresses this point: navigating by smartphone works until it doesn’t — until you’re out of service, or the environment is so loud that the speech from your phone is too hard to hear. Even with endless technology at our fingertips, there’s no match for a real map.

This is why, when our Media and Accessible Design (MAD) Lab started creating automated tactile maps (TMAPs) this year, Sarah immediately adopted the on-demand maps as a learning tool for her students.

Working out of Solano County, Sarah finds that towns like Vacaville – where car culture reigns supreme – can be hard for pedestrians to picture in the mind.

Map segment depicting a point of interest on a loop with multiple cross-streets
Map segment depicting a point of interest on a loop with multiple cross-streets

Sarah recently used TMAP to confront just this sort of dilemma with a student living on a street that was a circular loop – but not a perfect circle. Using words to explain the tricky extra turn to lead the student back to her doorstep was proving too difficult. New to America, the student had only been in the United States for three years, and mobility was a challenge. It would be a crucial step forward for her to master her home neighborhood.

Normally, Sarah would have confronted this challenge by taking out her DIY mapping kit: a roll of heavy duty aluminum foil, various hand embossers and loose Wikki Stix, among other odds and ends. But hand-crafting a tactile diagram is a big effort to explain one confusing intersection. With TMAP, Sarah had a touchable diagram of the strange circular block printed immediately.

Another student had Sarah print his first TMAP of the area around Gold’s Gym in downtown Vacaville. As luck would have it, the gym turned out to be smack dab in the middle of downtown, which meant that this map would be a particularly good one; useful for finding more than just the gym.

Sarah and her student headed downtown with the map, starting from the center and getting to know the outlying streets –– turning the map with each turn of the corner to navigate methodically, non-visually, through Vacaville’s old town center.

A map depicting many streets in the downtown grid of Vacaville, centering around 201 Main Street.
A map depicting many streets in the downtown grid of Vacaville, centering around 201 Main Street.

For her student, Sarah says, the map was a revelation. “He didn’t know how to read a map visually, let alone non-visually,” she points out. “That’s a huge emotional thing for people, to actually gain a new skill that you thought required eyesight.” Now, she says, he is talking about traveling for work and getting to know new cities with a new level of confidence.

Teaching her students to use the map key has also been a huge boost for their mobility. Not only does each TMAP come with a prominent compass rose, but the key lists the running direction (e.g. North-South or East-West) of each street – all in large print and braille.

“I love braille,” says Sarah. Usually when someone who isn’t blind professes such a thing, they’re not actually familiar with the writing system, or at best, a romantic. But Sarah is serious. “Audio is very linear, and you need the ability to stop moving forward, to control the pace you’re reading at and backtrack fluidly and with braille you have that option. Braille works the same way vision does in that sense.”

Sarah tells her students they don’t need to know braille in order to benefit from the TMAPs, but it’s sure a valuable skill to develop.

Get your TMAP today

To order a map, call our product specialists at 1-888-400-8933 and specify the street address of the map you’re interested in receiving. Within two business days we’ll ship you your map, or make it available for pick up at the Adaptations Store (1155 Market St., 10th Floor, San Francisco, CA). Each TMAP package is $19.99 per address.

What’s in the package?

  • You will receive 3 map versions printed at simple, moderate and dense map scale ratios
  • A tactile map key
  • An introductory page
  • All materials are printed on 11” X 11.5” sheets of embossed paper and include ink / large print labels in addition to braille

Click here to learn more more about TMAP.

Love Maps? Sign up for our Map Love newsletter!

* indicates required

See California Like Never Before: MAD Lab creates its largest low vision and tactile map yet

Photo: A close up shows the raised tactile features and brights blues and greens of this accessible map of California.

In the era of Google, reading a map can be deceptively simple. The 664 miles from say, Redding to San Diego, can seem like a simple calculation of hours, minutes, or transit stops – but truly understanding a place’s geography is not so straightforward. That’s why our state’s most reputable sources for accessible education tapped LightHouse to create a map worthy of the institution: encompassing the mountains, rivers, desert expanses and the varied, beautiful patterns of California.

Maps give us the bigger picture, show us how the earth unfolds and inform us how to traverse it – all opportunities blind people crave equally with their sighted peers. Unfortunately, most maps are not accessible. But after months of work, LightHouse’s MAD Lab is proud to present a three-foot large print, braille and tactile map of the entire state of California. It is their biggest tactile map yet.

Commissioned by the State Braille and Talking Book Library in Sacramento, the map will be part of a temporary display at the California State Capitol Building in January. It will later be moved to its permanent home at the Braille and Talking Book Library in Sacramento.

The map is 40 inches tall and 34 inches wide and was printed in six individual sections that make up the completed map. It was printed on the LightHouse’s new UV flatbed printer. High contrast coloration and large print facilitate viewing for people with low vision, and a selection of tactile symbols and fill textures denote cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, forests and deserts.

The whole map of California.
The whole map of California.

The state map went through many iterations in the design process, partially because the MAD Lab designers were met with the challenge of creating background fill textures for lakes and forests that, when touched, didn’t compete with symbols for specific landmarks.

“We had to figure out how to create varied textures, so you can tell there are different features, but also fade into the background enough so mountains and rivers could be felt on top as distinct landforms,” says Designer and Accessible Media Specialist Julie Sadlier.

By scaling down the size of the texture, Julie says they were able to achieve this. The first full draft of the map was printed in early December. The LightHouse’st Frank Welte was the first blind person to see the map after it was assembled.

A close-up shot demonstrates some of the fill textures Julie speaks of, like the circular green texture indicating a forest.
A close-up shot demonstrates some of the fill textures Julie speaks of, like the circular green texture indicating a forest.

“I’m a California Native, so I’ve seen some tactile maps of the state before but this one was probably the biggest tactile map of California I’ve ever seen,” says Frank. “It was fun to explore parts of California with which I’m not familiar, like the Northeastern part.”

And though exploring California is a perk, the overarching goal of the display is to raise awareness about the work of the Braille and Talking Book Library and its role in braille literacy and services for the blind and low vision community.

“One of the hardest things in the network of libraries serving the blind is getting the word out about our work,” says Director of the library Mike Marlin. “We provide a free service, so this display is a really helpful outreach tool. It gets our work in front of legislators and the public.”

Frank too, hopes the map encourages more institutions and organizations to make tactile maps and other material available to their communities.

“I think it is wonderful for tactile graphics to be given high visibility, so that the general public can appreciate their value as we in the blind community already do,” he says.

MAD Lab is an important resource in collaborating with organizations to make these kinds of accessible tactile tools available. The MAD Lab has earned a reputation for producing fabulous tactile media of all kinds, including raised line drawings, tactile graphics and tactile maps like this one for Alcatraz, and other GGRNA maps – for everything from Burning Man to BART.

For a rate sheet or an informal quote on a business project, contact MADLab@lighthouse-sf.org or call 415-694-7349.

LightHouse Has a New Digital Printer That Will Create the Next Generation of Tactile Maps and Signage

PHOTO: Naomi Rosenberg (Designer, Accessible Media Specialist), BJ Epstein (Project Manager, MADLab) and Julie Sadlier (Designer, Accessible Media Specialist) stand next to the new UV flatbed printer holding examples of newly printed tactile maps and signage.

The LightHouse, through MADLab, has earned a reputation for producing fabulous tactile maps of all kinds for clients as diverse as South by Southwest, where we created maps of the Austin Convention Center for blind attendees to transit systems such as the Bay Area’s BART system and the City of Calgary, Canada’s Transit system. Up until now, these maps were printed on paper with its limited shelf life. But we wanted to be able to produce durable, physically long-lasting, braille and tactile maps and ADA signage for museums, amusement parks, trailheads and more.

tactile map

PHOTO: Tactile street map of LightHouse’s new location

Enter our new UV flatbed printer. It’s essentially an inkjet printer that prints melted plastic, accreting layer on top of layer, until the final, tactile image is built up. The new printer can print onto a range of materials including wood and metal.

Among the projects we’ve used it for are mid-Market tactile maps that cover the location of our new headquarters building (see photo, above). We’ve produced maps for the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando for the International Deaf Blind Exposition, we’ve created a variety of ADA signage and we’ve honored our significant donors with acrylic panels that are placed on the walls of our soaring three-level staircase.



PHOTO: A photo of one of the panels of our donor appreciation wall, with our staircase and a view of City Hall prominent in the background.

MADLab Project Manager BJ Epstein told us, “The DCS is a game changer for us, and for the blind and low vision community. Not only can we now produce accessible signage, but also mountable tactile maps. Because of the unique ability to print both visual and tactile elements in one machine, our clients will be able to provide an inclusive experience to their guests, no matter what their level of sight may be. Our expertise at designing for the blind community was developed on our paper maps. Now, we are translating that expertise to more permanent and durable media.

“These maps can be used indoors or outdoors. They are cleanable; a bonus for something that will get touched a lot. And not only are they useful, but they are beautiful objects to touch and to see. We are so excited to be able to offer this amazing product to our clients.”

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Tactile Map is Here

hardly strictly bluegrass tactile map - front cover

If you get lost in Golden Gate Park this weekend, try asking a blind person for directions. In anticipation of one of San Francisco’s greatest community events, our team at LightHouse has created something brand new: a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass map that you don’t need eyes to read.

Over the last fifteen years, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has grown to become one of San Francisco’s greatest attractions, bringing hundreds of thousands of music fans to Golden Gate Park each October to enjoy not just bluegrass, but country, folk, rock, pop, and other legendary musical acts — all for free. Established by Warren Hellman in 2001 and carried on after his passing in 2011, HSB was founded as a non-commercial music festival, and as such, one that was open to all members of the community.

Today we’re proud to be pushing that ideal just a little bit further with our first ever map for blind and low vision people of this Golden Gate Park event. Complete with up-to-date stage locations, street names, trails, restrooms, accessible seating, and a number of other dynamically embossed elements, our HSB map is a dependable way for blind individuals to get to know the festival, navigate independently, and plan their weekend with confidence. What’s more, we’ve printed the full set times for all acts throughout the weekend. It’s all here!

HSB tactile map - inside

Last month, we made some similar maps for Burning Man — a fun way to encourage blind folks to consider making a trek like the one to Black Rock City — but with the Hardly Strictly map, we’re creating something truly for the San Francisco community. The festival is free, and as such, so are the maps. More than anything, we want you to go out and have a beautiful weekend.

HSB tactile maps will be available for all blind and low vision persons at Information Booth 1, located at the Main (East) Entrance to to the park (JFK Drive and Transverse Drive). This is also the stop for the ADA transport. If you’d like to receive a map in advance of the festival, please contact us ASAP at 415-694-7349 or email madlab@lighthouse-sf.org.

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 madlab@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 communications@lighthouse-sf.org or madlab@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 madlab@lighthouse-sf.org or call 415-431-1481.