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Blind student helps others see her way

Map will help blind navigate Mount Oread

Submitted/KU Endowment

Rachel Magario pictured with her dog, Hamlet.

University maps generally show what people need to know to get around: the locations of buildings, bus stops and streets. That's fine if you can see the cars and pathways around you – but it can be disastrous for someone who is blind.

At KU, for example, visitors and students who are blind or visually impaired must navigate pathways that end at busy parking lots or loop or splinter in multiple directions. It's critical that the map they use reflects how blind people move from place to place, said Rachel Magario, KU graduate student in education.

That's why Magario, who has been blind since age 6, is creating a new kind of map of the KU campus – a series of navigation charts that interpret the campus from the perspective of someone who is blind.

"Traditional map makers don't think the way that we do," said Magario. "On a map, they try to exactly represent the size of the building to scale. For the blind person it's more important to show the relationships between buildings, or the pathways or the roads, and not necessarily everything at once."

Magario, who earned her undergraduate degree at KU in communication studies and geography in 2004, is working with Robert McColl, former chair of geography at KU, to create the charts of the campus. She said the project is proceeding incrementally as her health and time permit. She has endured being hit by a car on campus, kidney disease and a kidney transplant over the past several years.

For the project, McColl accompanies Magario to areas of campus to look at it from both of their perspectives. As McColl takes notes and observes, Rachel talks about how she navigates an area, emphasizing the order of buildings or bus stops along a sidewalk or road.

She and McColl then work with KU cartographers to "translate" the information into a chart. The chart is printed on swell paper, which is paper that can be textured to convey information by touch. They plan to test the usefulness of the charts by sharing them with other blind or visually impaired students at KU and perhaps from other communities.

The work of the KU cartographers involved in the project has been underwritten by financial support from McColl and additional support from KU Endowment at the request of Chancellor Robert Hemenway.

McColl said maps designed for blind or visually impaired people often are created by seeing people who include too much information.

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