Like most college students, I had to learn how to navigate the campus at my college fairly quickly. An additional challenge I had was that I had to learn to do it without being able to see a thing.
I have low vision and started using a blindness cane the day I got to college. Since I didn’t receive any orientation and mobility training, I had to rely on technology to help me figure out where I was going. I can’t say I learned how to get around overnight, because I ended up getting a ride back to my dorm in a police car after being lost for hours on my first full day at school. However, I have learned a lot since then about how to navigate campus with technology.
Make sure to have important addresses available and easy to access. I recommend having them programmed as contacts in your phone and listed on a document saved to all your devices. My college has a list on the Environmental Health and Safety webpage of all of the buildings on campus with their corresponding addresses. I also recommend inputting addresses of buildings in the vicinity of your destination in case there is an issue with the GPS and it can’t locate your building.
Most smartphones have the capability to pinpoint a user’s exact location and share it with others via a text message. By going into “attach media,” I can send my GPS coordinates to any of my contacts, and they can get directions to the location where I am, and wonder how I got there. This worked great when a group of my sighted friends got lost at the mall, and we were all able to meet up again. Location services must be enabled for this to work.
There’s a joke at my college that the first time you visit, you drive in circles for an hour because the GPS doesn’t know how to navigate campus either. My mom and I experienced this when trying to find the student center for a meeting. Our GPS decided we needed to experience the great outdoors, and took us to a forest outside of campus instead. Even I knew we weren’t in the right place, and that is saying something.
While it isn’t the best app for navigating campus while in a car, the Google Maps software built into Android phones has often helped me. It seems to work best for campuses with older buildings, as the GPS may not recognize newer buildings, or will lead you into the middle of a construction site (been there, done that).
Anyone with a case file with the state Department of Blind and Visually Impaired can request an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) instructor. You should contact the office as far in advance as possible, to schedule the session for once you arrive on campus, and preferably before the start of classes. Do not be surprised if your first session is short, especially if there are many other students in need of these services. You can request more sessions. The instructor will walk you around campus and to your classes, so you will know where you are going. A typical O&M student uses a blindness cane, though it isn’t required to receive these services.
- Seven Benefits of Having a Case With State Departments for Vision Impairment
- Vocational Rehabilitation for Students With Vision Impairments
Some Fitbits have GPS tracking built-in, other models use the function MobileRun within the Fitbit app. I found that this is a great way to track how I get to class. Alternatively, I use it to figure out how I got somewhere and retrace my steps. The app is available on iOS, Android, and Windows, but requires a Fitbit. This is a great gift for students learning how to navigate campus!
My school has an extensive bus system for students that includes both on and off campus locations. This is important for me, because I do not drive and have trouble walking long distances to classes. I probably use the bus system at least once a day, if not more.
If all else fails, call a security escort
Have the phone number for campus police so that they will be able to give you an escort back to your dorm building (this is where having your dorm address comes in handy!). Make sure to tell the dispatcher that you are visually impaired and require additional assistance. Don’t feel embarrassed asking for help, as even people with perfect vision can get horribly lost. I was told that it’s easier to give me an escort than it is to have to track me down when my friends report me missing. Besides, if it wasn’t for the police back on my first day, I would still be wandering around on the outskirts of campus, trying to find my dorm.
Summary of how to navigate campus with low vision
- Save addresses for popular campus areas on your phone that are easy to access
- Use GPS tracking to send location information to friends
- Use Google Maps or other navigation apps to ger around outdoor spaces
- Request orientation and mobility instruction to help with learning campus
- Use a Fitbit to help with identifying common routes
- Use the bus system to get around off campus
- Have the phone number for campus security escorts saved in case of emergency