Audio map: what is it and why is it needed?

Audio description: photo collage in color with a white icon of a loudspeaker placed over the photo in violet shades. The photo shows a young brunette man wearing black glasses, white t-shirt and sneakers. He is walking down the stairs, holding a white cane in front of him.

Marta Lyubimova is the teacher for the blind, the orienteering and mobility specialist and the columnist of the “Special View” web-portal. She tells, why audio maps are needed and how to use them.

Audio map is a highly advisable thing for a visually impaired person setting on a journey, yet not a must-have. What is an audio map? It is a route description providing thorough step by step instructions. Again, this is important: the audio map is not just a description of the route, but a very specific algorithm of actions that you need to take to get from A to B with a cane. The audio map can be written in various ways, depending on the objective and situation — it can come as an audio track, can be typed in Braille or recorded in an electronic format.

Who and when might need an audio map?
  • If there is too little time to study the route properly and work it off, you can take one or two sessions with orienteering trainer to get acquainted with the route and then use the audio map to navigate on your own.
  • It will help, if a visually impaired person rarely uses the route and naturally tends to forget it.
  • If someone has poor memory or he/she finds it difficult to memorize routes, then these audio instructions can be very helpful on the route.
  • If it is not possible for the visually impaired person to go and study the route with the trainer in advance, the trainer can go alone, compose a map and share it with the participant.
  • Every organization, that welcomes visually impaired people (for example, libraries, museums, shops, hotels, schools) can prepare audio maps to explain the route to reach them: how to get there from the public transport stops, airport, railway station etc. In this case the audio map can be posted in the organization’s web-site or sent directly to the person upon request.
Who can compose an audio map?

Anyone, who understands well, how the route for the visually impaired people is written. Audio map is not just a description of the surroundings, rather an instruction. While sometimes even a simple area or place description might be helpful.

Audio description: photo in color. Cloudless summer day in the city. A blond girl wearing black glasses and light dress is standing by the stairs leading down. She has a white cane in her right hand and with her left hand she holds the leash of a fawn labrador. A multistory building with glass facade is seen behind them.

What is to be included into an audio map?

The algorithm of the audio map creation was proposed by Wendy Sheffers from San Francisco State University in 2002. We will now look closely at a slightly revamped version.

First of all, the audio map can be universal and suit for anyone — for instance, if it is created by an organization working with visually impaired people. Or it can be individual, if such an audio map is recorded for a particular person.

Most commonly, the audio maps are created for the individual use. In this case the author of the instructions knows specific difficulties that a blind person might face, so he can write the most challenging parts in greater details, give additional explanations and recommendations. The length of the instruction for the end user depends on the peculiarities of his/her perception and memory.

The audio map has to include:


1. Greetings. If this map is an individual one, you can welcome a person by name.

2. The aim of the map. Here you need to explain the starting and the end point of the route, you can also give a short description of the territory or area, if necessary, as well as any other vital information about the route.

Audio description: photo in color. Bright summer day. Three young men are standing at the bus stop. Among them — the above mentioned brunette guy wearing black glasses, white t-shirt and jeans. He stands facing the road and leans on his white cane. There is a white sign placed at the bus stop, with large black letters saying “Akademika Petrovskogo Street” and a list of bus routes.

3. Instructions how to use the recording. The recommendations will depend on the format of the audio map. You can prepare such recommendations as:

  • “Stop the audio after hearing the sound signal or words “the end of the block”;
  • “Listen to the full overview of the route at home, and while being on the route follow the step-by-step instruction, always stopping the audio after the sound signal”;
  • “The next instruction has to be listened to in a safe place”;
  • “Start moving only after you have memorized the instruction fully” etc.

4. Instruction what to do if a person gets lost:

  • “Listen to the audio again”;
  • “Go back to the point of the route that you know”;
  • “Ask the passers-by for help”;
  • “Call this number...”

5. Common warnings about moving in the given area.

6. List of mobility skills that a visually impaired pedestrian will need on the route, such as the use of the cane techniques, defensive techniques etc.

The route overview
  1. The route or building configuration (line, Г-, П- or Z-form of the route, one, two or more stores in the building).
  2. Any road to be crossed.
  3. Any public transport to be used.
  4. Challenging areas/places.
  5. The starting point of the route.
  6. The point of destination.
Step-by-step instruction
  1. 4 orienteering systems can be applied:
    • Describe the position of the objects related to the pedestrian: left, light, ahead, behind, diagonally.
    • Describe the position of the pedestrian among the reference points and the position of the objects to each other.
    • Describe the movement and the position of the objects in relation to some commonly known structure or system: for example, city blocks or addresses etc.
    • Use the cardinal directions: North, West, South, East. The cardinal points are used to create a universal map since they are constant and unchanged, especially when a building or block is placed according to the cardinal direction and has corresponding mentioning in naming: Western gates, Eastern building block, Northern district etc.
  2. Write the instructions as if you are talking to the listener in person: “Now you are standing with your back to the porch. Find the curb on the right and stand so that the curb is on your right...”
  3. Divide the route in sections — from one reference point until another. Write a very detailed, thorough instruction how to walk this part of the route with the cane. Finish each step close to a particular point that a visually impaired person has to reach. For example: “Walk along the curb to the corner and stop”, “Stop at the 3d door”, “Walk down the stairs, find the curb on your right and stop”.
  4. Begin the next step by describing the current position.
  5. Mention the reference point that can help the listener understand that he/she has passed by the point of destination. It is critically important in difficult cases, as well as when describing the right place to cross an open area.
  6. Name the mobility techniques you advise to use, with corresponding explanations, if needed.
  7. Include any additional useful information, such as potential sound references, even if they are unstable.
  8. Include visual and meaningful references for people with no visual impairments. Overall, try to describe anything noticeable that can be found around in this or that moment. It will help if a person gets lost — knowing these visual references he/she will find it easier asking passers-by with no visual impairments for assistance.
  9. Try not to make a labyrinth out of your route — always relate the actions and the position of a person to the objects around.

Important: it is impossible to create a good audio map using online maps and never visiting the real place. Even if you study several route options and spend a lot of time on working the route out, there is always a chance you miss something and will need to elaborate the route further after it has been tested by the visually impaired pedestrians.