Navigation and Wayfinding Expertise of People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Individual with visual impairment approaching a street curb

Project Overview

The ability to travel is a significant factor affecting perceived quality of life of people who are blind or visually impaired (BVI). This ability allows people who are BVI to have independent access to employment, education, medical care, and recreational opportunities. The overall goal of the research project is to investigate the cognitive processes underlying effective and efficient wayfinding in people who are BVI. To determine the relevant navigation cues and information used by individuals who are BVI, this research will take a mixed-methods approach by using a range of observational and cognitive task analysis techniques.

Safe and independent travel requires individuals who are BVI to perform complex tasks and activities. For example, a traveler who is blind needs to determine an accurate direction of travel without seeing streets signs or landmarks. Many of them, however, can navigate in indoor and outdoor environments with apparent ease and grace. Amazingly, there are some who perform very difficult spatial tasks such as skiing at high speed or travelling around the world. How do individuals who are blind and visually impaired navigate and find their way so successfully? What distinguishes a skilled traveler from a less-skilled one? These are important research questions, because they have implications for designers and engineers of assistive technologies (e.g., step-by-step navigation apps, accessible wayfinding systems) and teachers and trainers of the blind (e.g., orientation and mobility specialists).
We are addressing these questions by examining travelers’ attentional focus and thought processes. Specifically, we are conducting cognitive interviews with individuals who are blind about the decisions they make while crossing streets. By identifying the spatial information cues they use, we are discovering individual differences in their cognitive skills and the strategies they employ.
Another focus of this project is to explore the interactional expertise of normally-sighted educators and trainers who have spent a significant amount of time teaching and training persons that are BVI to travel safely and independently. Through providing services to the BVI—and hence being immersed in the BVI community—it is reasonable to expect that these educators and trainers have high levels of understanding of what it means to live without vision, or with reduced vision. These professionals do not necessarily perform the target expertise (navigation without vision) in a practical sense, but they may exhibit a good understanding of the BVI individuals’ experiential knowledge. By examining the content and distribution of their interactional expertise, it may be possible to measure their professional development and accelerate their training.  


Team Members

Güler Arsal, PhD (Alumni)
ibvi Research Associate Paul Ward, PhD
Director, Psychological Sciences & Education and Behavioral Sciences, University of Northern Colorado

References & Publications

Cheraghi, S. A., Namboodiri, V., & Walker, L. (2017). GuideBeacon: Beacon-based indoor wayfinding for the blind, visually impaired, and disoriented. Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Pervasive Computing and Communications (pp. 121–130). IEEE.

Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis : Verbal reports as data (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kim, J.-E., Bessho, M., Kobayashi, S., Koshizuka, N., & Sakamura, K. (2016). Navigating visually impaired travelers in a large train station using smartphone and bluetooth low energy. Proceedings of the 31st Annual ACM Symposium on Applied Computing (pp. 604–611).  ACM. 

Klein, G. A., Calderwood, R., & MacGregor, D. (1989). Critical decision method for eliciting knowledge. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 19, 462–472.

Schinazi, V. R., Thrash, T., & Chebat, D. R. (2016). Spatial navigation by congenitally blind individuals. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 7, 37–58.