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Navigating in a Room when Blind
by Ron Kurtus (updated 18 May 2023)
A sighted person or animal finds his way around a room through the use of visual cues. He or she sees the walls, doorway and furniture.
But these cues aren't available to someone who is blind. Instead, the person or animal must use the senses of touch, hearing and smell to become orientated or determine where he is in the room and to navigate or find his way around.
Questions you may have include:
- How is the sense of touch used in navigation?
- How is hearing used to find your way around?
- How is the sense of smell used?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Using the sense of touch
Sense of touch cues that a blind person or blind pet can get in a room include bumping into or touching things, feeling the texture of the flooring and temperature changes from airflow.
Bumping, touching or feeling
When trying to move around a room, the blind person or animal may bump into the wall or furniture. For an animal, it usually means bumping into something with its nose. Humans can reach out and touch things to get an idea where they are.
Making mental map
Finding a given item in a room can allow the person or animal to get some sort of orientation within the room. For example, if you found where the chair is, you might get an idea where you are in the room and where the doorway is. But it can take a while to establish a mental map of the whole house.
Blind humans often may use a tool, such as a cane to help in navigating an area. Dog owners may use a special hoop around a blind dog's head to facilitate touching and reduce bumping into things with the nose.
Holding a sighted person's hand can guide a blind person. A very effective "tool" that blind humans use is a guide dog. Holding onto the dog's harness can help navigation in many areas.
Feeling the flooring
If there are items such as throw rugs or runners on the floor, the person or animal can use them to help navigate a room. It is like following the sidewalk outside.
A cool breeze from an open window or door can give a cue as to where it is. Also, it there is a source of heat, such as an air vent, it can be use to help orientation and navigation.
Hearing sounds and echoes can help a person or animal orientate him- or herself and navigate through the room.
Hearing a radio or TV that is in a set location will help a blind person or animal to become orientated in the room. It is a cue to guide navigation.
Humans and cats are very good at determining the direction of a sound, even from above or behind. Although dogs have sensitive hearing, they don't seem as good at determining direction.
Receiving verbal directions from another person can greatly help navigation. Usually, the other person would physically guide the person, instead of trying to give directions, unless it was a warning of some danger.
Many cities have beepers at intersections to indicate when the Walk signal is on. Hearing that sound is a cue to when it is safe to go.
Subtle echoes off the walls and furniture can help navigation. The echoes can come from external sources, like the radio, or by making noises. A person can speak and hear his or her echo.
Echoes from walking on a hard floor that makes noise can help to orientate the blind person or animal. Some blind people tap a can on the floor to create echoes.
Blind animals use their sense of smell to get around much more than blind humans do. The animals can smell faint odors in the rug and on furniture to help in navigation. Of course, the animal also usually has its nose close to the ground.
A blind person may be able to distinguish areas, especially if there are scented items in a room. Certainly the kitchen will have smells of food around the stove and table.
Blind people and animals must use their sense of touch, hearing and smell to orient themselves and navigate about a room. Touch includes bumping into things, feeling the texture of the floor and noting temperature changes from airflow. Using sound includes hearing a radio or someone talking and sensing echoes. Smells in certain locations can also help in navigation.
Appreciate your senses
Resources and references
American Federation for the Blind - "Fulfilling Helen Keller's vision"
Institute for Innovative Blind Navigation - Michigan-based organization
Navigation for a Blind Dog - Lesson in this site
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Navigating in a Room when Blind