His maps help blind keep in touch with the news Professor's designs grow in demand

December 26, 1991|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Correspondent

ADELPHI -- Joe Wiedel, a veteran geography professor with the University of Maryland, is introducing blind Americans to the landscape of war in Baghdad and the shape of political change in Byelarus.

A pioneer in designing maps for the blind, Dr. Wiedel created Braille-lettered, raised-line charts of such tourist meccas as the Capitol building, Washington's Metrorail system and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. There was less demand for geographic maps, he said.

But recently, blind Americans have begun asking for tactile maps of different parts of the globe to help them better understand current events -- such as the breakup of the Soviet empire and the war with Iraq.

"The blind are much more familiar now with maps" today, said Dr. Wiedel, a lean 63-year-old who says he feels happier hiking in the mountains than doing research in a library. "They've actually developed spatial concepts. They don't feel they have to walk an area to understand it anymore."

This sophistication has translated, he said, into a thirst for more information about news events than radio, their usual source of information, can provide.

"It doesn't mean anything when they talk about Iran, Iraq and Kuwait until they have an image and can see how these places fit together," said Dr. Wiedel, who is sighted.

Last year, Library of Congress officials asked the cartographer to make a map of the Middle East, prompted by an intense interest among blind Americans in the gulf war.

Library officials paid several thousand dollars in production costs in exchange for about 25 maps, while Dr. Wiedel donated the week's worth of labor it took to produce them in his College Park lab.

Word spread quickly. About 175 blind people around the country heard about the place mat-sized white plastic maps through the grapevine and bought their own from Dr. Wiedel for $10.

The success of the Persian Gulf map led the Library this year to commission another of the Soviet Union -- which, Dr. Wiedel admits, is already out of date.

The map uses the name Leningrad for what is now St. Petersburg, for example, and the words "Commonwealth of Independent States" is nowhere to be found. But the blind still find it useful because most of the names and borders have remained the same, he added.

Dr. Wiedel's maps are advertised by word of mouth, and word travels quickly among the nation's blind population, estimated at more than 500,000.

"Within two weeks I had requests from the West Coast" for the Soviet tactile map, he said, which may be the only such map outside the old Soviet Union itself.

Marc M. Maurer, president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, said there are far too few tactile maps.

"The latest maps of the United States that I've seen were made in the 1960s, which means they're mostly out of date," said Mr. Maurer, who is blind. "The political boundaries haven't changed, but the population figures and other information has."

Mr. Maurer said he has never come across a tactile topographic map, which would show elevation, mountains and other physical features.

While he has heard about the Gunpowder and Patuxent rivers, he said, "I haven't the faintest idea of where they are."

Dr. Wiedel, who was born in Nebraska, moved to Prince George's County with his family after his father got a job with the Veterans Administration in the 1940s.

During the Korean War, Dr. Wiedel served as a surveyor in Navy construction battalions building electronic listening posts in the Bahamas and Nova Scotia.

His love of staking out terrain led him to map-making. So after receiving his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Maryland, he joined the geography faculty there in the late 1950s.

Dr. Wiedel became interested in tactile maps in 1962, after arguing with another cartographer who had produced a tactile campus map.

"What do you need all these roof patterns of buildings for?" Mr. Wiedel recalls demanding of his colleague. "This is just a map for the sighted with raised lines. What you need is a map for the blind."

The topic gripped him. He read all he could.

He studied the Smithsonian's small collection of maps for the blind -- which includes a tactile U.S. atlas produced in 1836. He began collecting foreign tactile maps, and spent a year studying perceptual psychology in Great Britain.

"For every question I found an answer to, I found 10 more questions," he said.

He quickly confirmed his suspicion that tactile maps were profoundly different from visual maps. One reason, he said, is that blind people use maps in a fundamentally different way -- building a picture from the pieces instead of taking it in all at once.

Also, he said, tactile maps should "have a network of points that they can build spatial information around."

A tactile map he created of The Mall in Washington in the mid-1980s is designed so readers can keep one finger on a tall bump representing a Metro station and sweep their other fingers around to read the location of museums and institutions.

For the first 10 years he worked on them, he said, "I beat my head against more brick walls than you'd believe. Sighted people working with the blind had decided maps were of no use to blind people."

At the Maryland School for the Blind, for example, Dr. Wiedel got a chilly reception from a middle-manager who thought his work was "useless." But she changed her mind after an experimental map-reading class produced positive results.

"The kids were so much improved in their travel skills and orientation," he said.

Today, thanks to legislation and wider public awareness of the needs of the disabled, tactile maps are widely used.

In recent weeks, Dr. Wiedel has been asked to produce such maps by Disney World, a Honolulu hotel and local officials in York County, Pa.

Dr. Wiedel said isn't a businessman, but if he were he could probably start a business and keep four mapmakers busy producing maps for the blind.

C7 "You wouldn't be able to meet the demand," he said.

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