Using Compass Directions in Orientation and Mobility

a compass with the needle pointing almost directly north

By Scott Truax

If I tell you my house is on the right hand side of the street, you will only find me if you are coming from the same direction I was. If I tell you it is on the north side of the street and midway down the block, your chances improve dramatically. Compass directions are an important part of becoming an independent traveler and are part of what your blind or visually impaired child will learn in orientation and mobility instruction. As in all things, compass directions must be learned and practiced and you can help by learning to use them at home.

The use of right and left, as I illustrated, is dependent on your direction of travel. Compass directions are permanent, and once you learn to use them they make travel easier. Young children begin by learning the basics of right, left, front, behind, and more. These concepts are the first step in learning how to describe where things are. Compass directions take it to the next level and are the real tools that will be used while traveling.

Here are the basics for young children.

  • North and south are opposite of each other, as are east and west
  • Standing in a box or in a small space, touch the north and south sides of it
  • Now touch the east and west sides
  • The use of braille labels or symbols will help in making the sides a learning tool

Just as you memorize multiplication tables it is important to memorize how the directions relate.

  • When I face north: south is behind me, west to the left, and east to the right
  • When I face east: west is behind, north is to the left, and south to the right
  • When I face south: north is behind, east to the left, and west to the right
  • When I face west: east is behind, north is to the right, and south to the left

With practice, we can all instinctively know how the directions are related to our current position in space.

Here is a good example of how you can describe traveling to a particular location:

  • Head north from First Street along the east side of Avenue A.
  • Travel for two blocks to and cross Third Street.
  • Turn west and cross Avenue A, and go one and a half blocks along the north side of Third Street.
  • The building you are looking for is mid-block and has a water fountain that is usually on, and also is the only building with revolving door.

You can see that since every street has two sides and every intersection has four corners, it is important to say the exact side of the street. If we just say "mid-block between B and C," you will have exactly a 50% chance of being on the correct side. If we plan to meet at the intersection of two streets, we only have a 25% chance of being on the correct corner. Compass directions are important in accurately knowing where you are and where you are going.

Note that the water fountain is a good clue for locating the building, but only as long as it is on, and a blind traveler can hear the water moving. Revolving doors are permanent, and therefore make a good landmark to confirm that you've reached the correct building. It is a good idea to become used to using both landmarks and clues to help in identifying where you are. Experienced travelers soon learn about how long it takes to travel to the building and will become good at knowing when they are close.

These same concepts apply inside buildings. Once you go into the building (remember you are traveling north as you enter the door), the elevators are located on the north wall of the entryway and we are on the third floor. Good thing the elevator is marked in braille and you can easily hit the correct button.

You get the idea: compass directions are difficult to learn but make travel easier. The very beginning of learning about compass directions is to get accustomed to hearing them and using them. The front door of our house is on the south wall of the house. We are going to the grocery store which is east of us. We are going to grandma's house, which is in a city south and east of us.

By learning to use compass directions in everyday speech, you will be helping your child to build important independence skills.

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