GPS Technology

Google Maps route animation.
Google Maps graphic showing a blue route from a red point to a green point.

Traveling used to involve physical maps and trying to manually find locations. Today, navigating roads and finding the quickest route from Point A to Point B is more accessible thanks to Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

For individuals who are blind or visually impaired, GPS can identify your exact location, find a destination, and provide route options. Not only can a GPS system tell you what street you are on and how far it is until you reach your destination, it can also inform you of businesses, landmarks and bus stops along the way.

It is important to note that while a GPS system can provide guidance to a location and information about what is around, it is not a replacement for a white cane or guide dog. This is because GPS only provides information about fixed landmarks, such as streets and buildings. GPS cannot, for example, tell you that there is a trash can in the middle of the sidewalk. While a GPS system can provide great information about what is around, it should always be used along with your preferred mobility device.

GPS receivers specifically developed for individuals who are blind or visually impaired currently fall into two categories: stand-alone units and smart phone apps.

Stand-alone units are generally more expensive, but do not require the user to know how to use a smart phone. One of the most popular stand-alone units is the Victor Reader Trek from Humanware. This device combines an accessible GPS device with a talking book player and voice recorder. It sells for around $700.

Smartphone apps specifically designed for individuals with low or no vision range from free to around $80. Examples of accessible GPS apps for the iPhone include Soundscape, Nearby Explorer and BlindSquare. All of these and more can be purchased from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store.

Some mainstream GPS apps are quite accessible and are also great tools for individuals who have vision loss. A good example of this type of app is Google Maps, which is free.

Though the Council does not sell GPS devices directly, Jim Denham, Assistive Technology Specialist, will offer two classes so you can familiarize yourself with the options available and learn how to obtain them. Classes will be offered on Wednesday, August 15, at 3:00 p.m. at the Council office at 754 Williamson St., and on Tuesday, August 21, at 1:00 p.m. via the free online videoconference platform, Zoom. These free courses will demonstrate the most popular, accessible GPS solutions. The Victor Reader Trek, as well as commonly used GPS apps, will be compared and users will learn the benefits and limitations of each product. Individuals interested are encouraged to preregister at least two days prior to their course of interest.

See the Council’s website at wcblind.org/events for further details. If you have questions, contact Jim by phone at (608) 237-8104 or email him at jdenham@wcblind.org.

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