GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 195 we’ll meet civil rights activist Ever Lee Hairston. From fighting discrimination and demonstrating with Dr. Martin Luther King, to her journey with vision loss and becoming a leader in the NFB, she has lots of life experience to share. Then Lil Deverell talks about mental mapping and how whether or not we do it impacts the ways we navigate in the world.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon welcoming you to our podcast for February of 2021. This is a month here in the United States that’s been marked with extreme cold. States like Texas and Oregon have really been fighting this because their power grids aren’t used to functioning in such cold temperatures. And my heart goes out to everybody who’s in one of those states and may have really cold houses with frozen pipes and the like. Anything we talk about on this podcast is going to pale by comparison.
But I do have a personal story that I think kind of parallels the path that many of us take when we learn new technology. Has nothing to do with that. It has to do with our dogs, and one of our dogs, who’s really having trouble with the cold, on the bottom of her feet in particular, when she goes outside. So we bought her some doggy snow boots that slip onto her feet and get attached with two Velcro straps each. My wife put them on the first few times. She did it in about three minutes. And I realized that my time was coming, and I was really anxious about it, both because I wanted to make sure I didn’t put them on upside down – I didn’t want to distress the dog. I didn’t want to cause any extra anxiety to her.
So the first time I did it with a lot of trepidation. It took me about 15 minutes. But now that it’s a week later, I’m down to four or five minutes. It’s much easier. It’s much easier on the dog. And what was really difficult upfront has become second nature. So we never know what confounds us. And very often, if we face those things, we find that they shouldn’t have been confounding at all.
And speaking of confounding, the Power Tip I shared with you in December confounded a lot of people, only because I said it wrong. Here’s the story. The Power Tip had to do with selecting text between a mark that you set and the point where you ultimately move the cursor. The idea is that you move somewhere, let’s say on a web page or in a document in Word. You use the keystrokes WINDOWS+CTRL+K to set a temporary marker, then move down to where you want to end the area of selection. Press JAWS KEY+SPACE+M, and you’ve now selected between those two points.
The problem was that I said the command for setting the place marker was JAWS KEY+CTRL+K, which caused a lot of people to say, “I tried it, and it didn’t work.” Well, yes, it didn’t work. Even though I demonstrated the right keystroke, I said the wrong thing and didn’t catch it at the time. So to set the mark, it’s WINDOWS+CTRL+K; and then the JAWS KEY+SPACE+M at the bottom of the area you’re trying to select will select in between those two points. And my apologies for saying all of that wrong.
We’re heading into CSUN conference season, as is often the case around the beginning of March. But in the case of so many things during the past year, CSUN conference has gone virtual this year. It does still cost money, if you want to attend the major festivities. It’s $425 for the conference. But there is a free Exhibit Hall pass that you can get. The conference is the week of March 7th this year. And if you want a free Exhibit Hall pass, search for CSUN conference. Go to the registration page, and under there all the details on getting your pass. And Freedom Scientific of course will be at the conference, both doing presentations and at the Exhibit Hall, visiting with you virtually. We’d love to see you. For the details on our conference involvement, go to our main web page, FreedomScientific.com.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip. It comes to us from Bernhard Stöger in Austria, related to tables on the web. I wonder if you’ve ever seen a website where you’re pretty sure the data is laid out in a table, but JAWS doesn’t identify it as such. This could be for a couple of reasons. But one reason might be that JAWS thinks that this is a table used exclusively for layout, and so we figure there’s no purpose in announcing it to you. And the way you can kind of decide if that’s the case is to turn on layout tables. It’s an option that’s available in Settings Center or in Quick Settings. Search for “layout,” and you’ll see that option. That’s the way it’s always been with JAWS up until 2021.
But with JAWS 2021, there’s a new wrinkle. And that is that we change the way we decide if something is a data table. It used to be that we made our own decisions based on an algorithm that we developed over time. It worked pretty well, overall. But people have mentioned to us that it’s a little disconcerting to have different screen readers finding different tables on pages. And so we decided that we’d start using the browser’s determination of whether or not the table is used for layout. That, too, works pretty well.
But as of JAWS 2021, since that’s the new default, you may find that there are websites where you don’t see tables where you previously did. And there’s a new option, and that’s the one I want to highlight for you. And currently it’s only available in Quick Settings. So the idea is to go to a web page, press JAWS KEY+V to bring up Quick Settings.
JAWS VOICE: Quick Settings – Chrome dialog. Search box edit.
GLEN: And I’m going to type in “layout.”
JAWS VOICE: Layout tables ignore. One of three search results.
GLEN: So that’s the old option, the one I mentioned to you a couple of minutes ago. I’m going to arrow down.
JAWS VOICE: JAWS determines if a table is for layout purposes only, not checked.
GLEN: So if you check that by pressing SPACE, it’ll enable it for this website only. So if you find that the new behavior isn’t working real well for you on a particular site – incidentally, I haven’t been able to find one, but other people have reported them to me – simply check this option for that page, and it’ll go back to the pre-JAWS 2021 behavior. I thank Bernhard for his Power Tip and for indulging me the ability to massage it a little bit to include this new option.
One additional thing that he mentioned is, if you’re ever in Settings Center for the browser, and you want to actually make a change for a particular web page, just like CTRL+SHIFT+D will take you to the default settings, CTRL+SHIFT+W will bring you to settings for the web page that you were on right before you brought up Settings Center. Something that I didn’t know about, and I dare to say probably you didn’t, either. So for his various Power Tips we thank Bernhard, and he’ll get a year added onto his JAWS license.
If you have a Power Tip for us, send it to me, either with audio – and if it is audio, please make it less than two-and-a-half or three minutes; if it’s any longer than that, it really is too much for the podcast – or in written form. We’ll take it any way you send it. And if we use your Power Tip you’ll get a year added onto your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license. Send those tips, complaints, comments, howdies, anything you’d like. Always great to hear from you at email@example.com.
GLEN: On the line with me now is civil rights activist, mentor, long-time member of the NFB National Board, and published author Ever Lee Hairston. Her autobiography “Blind Ambition” is something I read in less than 24 hours because it is so compelling. Ever Lee, welcome to the podcast.
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: It’s wonderful to be here.
GLEN: Will you talk a little bit about what your first memories are growing up as a kid?
EVER LEE: Well, of course I lived on a plantation. It was called the Cooleemee Plantation, which was located in North Carolina. That plantation was at one time owned by the richest slave owners throughout the South. They had plantations in North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi. And so growing up on the plantation with sharecroppers, the thing that I guess always has stuck in my mind is the fact that we worked our heads off on someone else’s land, and for very little pay.
We would sell the cotton to the cotton gins. And what would happen is that my parents and grandparents would only get 30% of their earnings. And I just thought that was so unfair because my oldest siblings, a brother and a sister and I were the ones who had to stay out of school, usually three consecutive weeks at a time. And that is just a memory that is implanted in my mind. So but I got an opportunity to mention that later in life.
GLEN: How did that come about?
EVER LEE: I was working a government job and was asked to be the keynote speaker at our family reunion. And I thought, wow, this is – what an honor. And most of the years at our banquet, Judge Peter Hairston, who was the plantation owner, and his wife Lucy would attend, along with Judge Peter’s brother and some other whites. So I was there, and I was giving my speech. And so I guess the truth just came out when I was speaking.
And so I was talking about sitting on those bags of cotton after seeing snakes and just being so afraid, and feeling that there had to be a better way of life for me. So I turned to Judge Peter, and I said, “I knew there had to be a better way of life for me, Mr. Peter.” And oh, my gosh. Everyone was so quiet. The whole room you could have heard a pin drop. It was unbelievable. And I thought, what have I done? But I was pleased. And especially after my father said to me, “Ever Lee, you have spoken something that I have always wanted to do, but never had the courage to.”
EVER LEE: And so, so many disliked the treatment, but none of them were able to express their dislike or their objection to the treatment that they had received on the plantation.
GLEN: You seemed from a very young age to kind of sort of intuitively know that education was your key out of that life.
EVER LEE: That is correct. I knew that the only way I could get off of the plantation and to get away from that life was to get an education. And so at age 17 I answered an ad in a newspaper, and it was asking for live-in maids in New York. And it was $35 a week, so much more than what I was making on the plantation, at the plantation house. They would only pay me $4 a day. So going to New York was a way to escape from that and make money. So that my whole purpose initially was so that I could make enough money to attend nursing school in Durham, North Carolina. But unfortunately, I failed the eye exam and did not become a candidate.
GLEN: How early do you remember having vision issues?
EVER LEE: I remember at age 10 I went to Durham to stay with my aunt and uncle, and the next-door neighbor was in a wheelchair. And I was so fond of her. I remember that she had noticed that I couldn’t see in certain areas where it was very dark because that is, of course, is one of the early symptoms of RP, and I couldn’t see in the dark or at night. And so she noticed and would ask me about it, but I was ashamed and really did not want to talk about it. But I did notice it at age 10.
But the real notice of it came when I was a junior in high school, when my sister and I were invited to a football game. We went to the game, and when we arrived there, it was still daylight. But at the end of the game, on our way out of the stadium, there was a long path to the street. And we were meeting a friend there. And on our way down that long path, there were little lanterns lit, but neither of us were able to see them. And of course we fell into a four-feet hole.
EVER LEE: And that was just devastating. The ironic thing is no one stopped to help us.
GLEN: That must have been horrible.
EVER LEE: It was horrible. But we didn’t talk about it.
GLEN: Were there things growing up that you were particularly confident about?
EVER LEE: I think that we were real churchgoers, and my grandparents were very involved in church. So was my father. He was the superintendent of the Sunday school. And so we were always involved in church and church activities. And so I recall being asked to give a speech on why I am a Baptist. And I didn’t understand why I was chosen. But I was. And I studied real hard to give this speech. But I remember the day that I had to do it. I was so fearful that I may miss a step as I was walking up onstage. But I made it. And I knew that I could do well with the presentation. But my fear was will I be able to get up onstage and down without fumbling or falling.
GLEN: Obviously, you did.
EVER LEE: Obviously, I did. And that gave me confidence. It’s like, you know, sometimes, you know, fake it till you make it. That was what I thought back then.
GLEN: I remember there was an incident in your book where there were girls who were trying to bully you. And you basically were really scared, but you took care of them, and that was that.
EVER LEE: That’s right. That’s what I mean. It’s like, push me, push me. But then I get strength. And I think that was part of my faith and never wanting to give up who I am and just the hope that was still inside of me, not to allow people to just totally try to destroy me and who I am.
GLEN: When you were in college you had a brush with Dr. Martin Luther King; right? You marched with him. Can you tell us a little about that?
EVER LEE: Oh, one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in my life was when I marched with Dr. King. He would come on campus and give seminars. And I would listen and listen, but fearful of getting involved because neither my parents nor my aunt and uncle approved of me being in the civil rights movement because they were fearful of their jobs. But this one particular evening I thought, I’m going to do it. I’m going to participate.
And the reason I did, because I was fighting for our civil rights. It wasn’t just for me, but it was for my parents and my family members and my friends, just all of us as African Americans. It was necessary. So we were marching from the campus and reached Sears, Roebuck and Company five miles away. But as we were walking, there were whites throwing rocks, stones, and all kinds of debris. But Dr. King had taught us, don’t focus on the people. Focus on your task. So when we arrived at the Sears, Roebuck and Company, we sat down and all started to sing. We were singing freedom songs and holding hands and just knowing that we were there for a purpose. And it felt really good.
And then all of a sudden there was a bus, buses actually, coming in our direction at a very high speed. And it seemed like they were going to run over us. We were frightened, yelling, screaming, praying. But they stopped suddenly. And then the police got off the buses and began to push, shove, and actually pick us up. And they hauled us off to jail. They packed us into those jail cells like sardines in a can. If we had to, we could have performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
But during the night it was announced that the jail keeper had had a heart attack and died. This was very frightening to me because I didn’t know if we would be blamed for the jail keeper’s death. However, we weren’t. We were let out of jail the following day. And many of the things that we were fighting for – at that time, Sears refused to hire blacks. We were barred from movie theaters; water fountains, believe it or not; restaurants; restrooms. So we were fighting for those rights at that time. And that was in 1963, the early part.
But as you know, Dr. King’s iconic speech “I Have a Dream” was in August 1963. And so I can recall 1964 going back to the county seat where I grew up, and the next town over, which was Lexington, North Carolina. And so now all of these restaurants and the movie theaters were supposed to be integrated. So I said to my mother and my siblings, “Let’s test it out.” So we went into the restaurant called Stamey’s Barbecue. We went in, sat at a table booth.
And so while we were there, it’s interesting because the waiters would come by and said, “We’re not going to serve you.” And my mother was, “Let’s go.” I said, “No, we are going to sit here. We’re sitting.” And so we sat. And eventually the manager came out, and he said, “Serve these people.” And so they served us. And that was – I felt like all the work that we had done, the frightening experience of being in jail, I felt like it had paid off because we just needed to continue to advocate for our rights, for justice. It was a slow process, but it was necessary to do so.
GLEN: One of the things that I remember from your book is you moved north.
EVER LEE: Moved to New Jersey thinking that, wow, all of that discrimination all is behind me. I’m now going to have a new life. So while waiting for my teaching position, I applied at one of the local banks. And when I went in for the interview, the manager took me in, and he said, “Miss Hairston, I would love to hire you. You are impressive. But unfortunately, the policy of this bank is not to hire blacks.” I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. I just couldn’t believe it. This shocked me more than what I had dealt with in the South because, I guess, of my expectations.
GLEN: You taught for a while in New Jersey; right? And then did you have to stop teaching because of your vision?
EVER LEE: Yes, I did. In fact, once I started teaching, I knew that I was having some issues in the classrooms. I was teaching business education courses. And I recall one day when I was writing some shorthand forms on the board, you see, focusing was an issue. I would look on the board, write down the shorthand forms, and then turn to the class to explain.
And on this one particular day, when I turned to the class, I guess just the stress of trying to just pretend and to use what vision that I had, I fainted. And the ambulance was called. They took me to the hospital, and they started looking and see if there was drugs. And I was like, no, no drugs. I just can’t see. So anyway, unfortunately, that was after four years of teaching, and I was forced to resign.
GLEN: Did it even occur to you that there might have been another option besides resigning?
EVER LEE: No, it didn’t because at that time, remember, I still wasn’t really talking about it. But it was soon after that that I went to Wills Eye Hospital to get a definitive diagnosis. That’s when I found out that it was RP, and that more than likely I would go blind.
GLEN: Am I right that it was somewhere in the early ‘70s that you got your diagnosis, and it wasn’t till the late ‘80s that you went to an NFB convention?
EVER LEE: That is correct. After losing my job as a teacher, I really got other jobs. I just wasn’t at that time willing to give up. And once they found out that I couldn’t see, I would just move on to something else. And then I had gotten a couple jobs through Title 20, government positions. And they knew that I had poor eyesight. And then I was invited to attend an NFB convention. And I was afraid because by that time I had taken a Civil Service exam, had gotten a job with the New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services, but they started me at the very bottom, which was a counselor trainee. I didn’t care because I felt in my heart that I would eventually be able to advance. And sure enough, I was, but not until I attended that convention in 1987, Phoenix, Arizona.
And when I was going through the registration line – this is the beginning of a new life for me. I was asked, would you like a braille or a print agenda? Well, I can no longer read print, and I didn’t know braille. And a light bulb just went off. Again, the tears started rolling. And I thought, here I am, a college grad, but illiterate. And I knew then it was time to talk about it and to do something about it. But it took, unfortunately, from ‘87 to 1990 to get to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and get the training that I needed.
GLEN: How did your life change after you had those skills?
EVER LEE: Oh, after I had those skills, I had courage. I had confidence in myself. I began to do so many things that I had not done before. Actually, I took additional Civil Service exams. I was promoted to supervisor. And I had the confidence in myself because I was met with some resistance prior to going to the Center. But this time, now that resistance that I was being met with, I thought, I’ll write them up for insubordination, if necessary. And I did. And one lady said to me, “Look, I’m not going to work under a black, blind, female supervisor.” I said, “Okay, well, I’m not going anyplace. So, you know, you have a choice to make.” And that’s how confident I had become. I just thought, you know, I know who I am. And if you can’t deal with me, that’s your problem because I’m on my way up.
And sure enough, I moved up to the program director. And it was not without a struggle. But that’s what I wanted to do, and I did it. And not only did I do that, but I started the Garden State Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind in my hometown. It was at that time one of the largest chapters in the state of New Jersey. And then another lady and I sat down, and we talked about teaching blind teenagers. And I was able to get the New Jersey State Commission for the Blind – they didn’t help me, but I was able to get them to help fund a program for blind teenagers. It was called the LEAD program.
And I was just so proud of that. We were able to teach leadership, education, advocacy, and determination. And just I see young, or actually not so young now, blind students or blind persons who went through that program. They became scholarship winners and just leaders of the federation. I felt that it was also important to continue to fight for my civil rights as an African American. So I was also the cofounder of the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Incorporated in New Jersey, where we started awarding black students scholarships so they could attend historical black colleges and universities. And so those are some of the things that I did. And of course after moving to California I became the first vice president of the California affiliate, and later the president of the California affiliate.
GLEN: Not to mention the fact that in 2010 you joined the National Federation of the Blind National Board.
EVER LEE: Yes, something I’m very proud of. It has given me an opportunity to travel all over the United States as a national representative, representing our presidents under Dr. Maurer first, and now under Mark Riccobono, and just traveling and inspiring other blind people and really encouraging them to live the life they want.
GLEN: What prompted you to write a story about your life?
EVER LEE: Well, I felt like my story needed to be told in order to help others. Growing up on a plantation at my age I thought was unusual. Growing up with three sisters who had RP and not able to share with each other about the difficulties that we experienced. Two of those three sisters died at an early age, one at age 16 and the other one at age 22. Their deaths were tough. They were difficult. And I also wanted to write the story so that my mother could get a better understanding and not feel guilty for what they did or did not do. So I just felt like, if I can help someone by telling my story, then they could have a better journey.
GLEN: It’s a really powerful book. I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to read it and to know about it. It has a great name. It’s a name that I always wanted to use for a podcast interviewing blind people about their lives.
EVER LEE: Okay, okay. I like that.
GLEN: It’s called “Blind Ambition.” I know it’s available from the National Library Service for the Blind. It may be on Bookshare. I haven’t looked.
EVER LEE: It is. It’s on Bookshare. And if someone would like a print copy to share with a friend or family member, you can still order it through Amazon; and/or you can contact me, and I can autograph a copy and send it to you. And that’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
GLEN: I was a little quick to mention the free sources of the book. I should have talked about Amazon first.
EVER LEE: It’s okay. It’s really okay. Because that way people get an opportunity. And that’s the whole purpose.
GLEN: So I have two questions for you, in conclusion. The first is what would you tell your 15-year-old self that would have really helped you to know, if you had known it?
EVER LEE: I would have told my 15-year-old self to talk about what you are experiencing to your teachers, to your family members. And don’t just stop at one. Find someone who will listen and help to make a difference.
GLEN: And is that the same thing you would tell those growing up today about the life ahead of them and how they should approach it?
EVER LEE: Today I would say, “Dream.” And if you want to be successful in life, the most important thing is to know that success means having courage. It means having determination. And it also means having the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.
GLEN: Ever Lee, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I realize you have lots of choice in terms of who you talk to, and I’m glad you were willing to be on this podcast.
EVER LEE: Thank you. Thanks for reaching out to me.
GLEN: I learned about Lil Deverell because Joe Stephen, one of our longtime JAWS developers, was on her podcast, “RO&Ming with Lil.” And the O and the M are separated by an ampersand, as in O&M, because she teaches orientation and mobility down in Australia; but has also done a bunch of studying related to how we map our environments. I figure that’s really interesting fodder for conversation. She’s our captive guest for the next little while. Lil, welcome to FSCast.
LIL DEVERELL: Thanks. It’s great to be able to join you today.
GLEN: I’ve been thinking about the fact that I pretty much have a fairly good mental understanding of places that I’m familiar with, to the point that if someone asked me where one object was relative to where I was sitting or standing, I could pretty much tell them that. And it never occurred to me that there are people who might not think about things in that way.
LIL: But they do. And some people don’t map their environment at all, Glen.
GLEN: So maybe this is a worthwhile branch to take here on the discussion. So what have you found in terms of how people perceive the world around them?
LIL: One of the pivotal learning experiences for me quite early in my career was contact with a young man called Finn. When he was first referred to me, I organized with his mum that I would pick him up from school and drive to his place. She was also a teacher, and it was going to be helpful for me to do this and then meet with her at home rather than meet with the whole family, first of all, at home.
So I picked up Finn. And in the car on the way home, I asked him to tell me what he could see. Well, he picked up things that were in my car, and he could read fine print, I’m talking N4 kind of fine print, in a moving car. And I said, “Well, what can you see out the window?” And he read to me all the signage of the shops that we were passing by from a moving car. I thought, why have you been referred to me? This is a ridiculous amount of vision for someone who’s been referred for O&M work.
So I met with his family, and we did the assessment, and I was curious about the fact that his handwriting at age 15 or so was similar to that of maybe a four or five year old, with fairly ill-formed letters. But he was reading books that were age appropriate. He had witty, politically informed repartee, a fascinating young man. And I said, “Oh, well, we’d better complete the process. Let’s go and do the functional O&M assessment.”
So we went out to his front gate. And I said, “I just want you to walk down to the end of the street, turn left, and stop at the next corner and wait for me. I’m going to hang back and see how you’re going.”
Well, he had cerebral palsy so walked with a bit of a limp and had some spasticity in his left arm, but otherwise moved pretty freely. However, this instruction completely stymied him, and he couldn’t do it. He could argue politics with me, but he couldn’t go to the end of the block, turn left, and stop at the next corner. This led me to refer him for neuropsych assessment. And after the neuropsych assessment, you know, his mum just had this epiphany.
She said, “Oh, this is the answer to what we’ve been watching and have been confused by throughout Finn’s life.” Because he had a very specific deficit in his spatial cognition, which meant that he couldn’t make sense of the relative position of objects in space. And he knew that his left arm was called “Lefty” because of the spasticity, and that helped him distinguish left from right. But apart from that, he really couldn’t make sense of directions, distances, angles. He was okay at your basic maths, but anything to do with geometry was horrible, recognizing basic shapes. Those things were all a challenge for this young man.
So I had to find ways other than directions, distances, angles, shapes, to teach him how to walk safely from his place to Gran’s place in his local residential neighborhood. Such a good learning curve for me, and a way that actually distilled the difference between visual or mental pictures and mental mapping. The place in his brain that affected his orientation and mobility, it was not about visual cortex and that primary visual processing. His brain didn’t know what to do with visual spatial information and how to map that and interpret it.
And one extreme example of this was when I took him to a very complex intersection, and I said, “So, Finn, can you see the chemist” – or what do you call it, drugstore – “on the diagonally opposite corner? How would you get there?” And I saw him seriously consider walking directly there through the middle of this extraordinarily complex intersection, rather than looking to leapfrog using the traffic lights from one traffic island to the next to the next to the next, in sections. And it just reinforced for me that we needed to unfold the process very sequentially, very systematically, in linear order, rather than expect him to interpret that multidimensional complexity.
GLEN: Am I correct in saying that this mental mapping is a little bit like swallowing? I mean, yes, you can do it consciously. But it normally is unconscious and really fast.
LIL: Correct. And little kids work it out for themselves usually before they enter school. So that first five years of life are pretty critical when it comes to working out mental mapping. And it begins by a little baby waving their arms around in relation to midline and finding things and locating how far they are from their tiny little body, even without vision.
GLEN: Do you have any idea what percentage of people in the world do mental mapping?
LIL: My own research suggests that about 85% of people actually work out mental mapping and use mental mapping in their day-to-day orientation and mobility. And that is not dependent on their vision. That’s regardless of their visual status, that 85%. But about 15% of people have departed from the use of mental mapping. Now, at the extreme end of spatial dysfunction you’ll have someone who’s had a stroke or a head injury in their right parietal lobe and right hippocampus, which means that they cannot learn the relative positions of objects in space and have to use other strategies to navigate the world.
But in between that level of spatial dysfunction and people who do use mental mapping, there are degrees of practice that’s needed to work out how the things in the world fit together. And I guess it depends on need, on imperative, on motivation and interest, as to whether that developing child and then an adult puts that effort in and does the repetition needed to build up mental maps.
GLEN: So is mental mapping different for someone who has vision and does not?
LIL: The process to achieve is the same. And any sensory pathway that is available can be useful for mental mapping. So there are congenitally blind people who are brilliant mental mappers because they’ve learned to use their hearing and touch really effectively to locate things in the mental map in a stable position, and therefore be able to navigate really fluently around the environment because they know exactly where things are.
So Daniel Kish, you know, our international echolocation expert, is a fabulous mental mapper. And he would not be able to ride a mountain bike without being able to do this with no vision. So he’s putting together his mental mapping and his echolocation skills, and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
GLEN: How can we create an app to teach these skills?
LIL: Oh. I think that the focus needs to be on the developmental years for such apps. The question has often been asked of me, can an adult learn mental mapping skills who scores poorly on our Stuart Tactile Maps Test? So this test is a tabletop test that just takes 10 minutes to do and gives us a very quick predictor of people’s functional orientation skills and use of mental mapping. So if people score poorly on that test, they’ll say to me, could I learn these skills? Could I learn mental mapping as an adult?
To which my reply is usually you are already using some mental mapping skills, like at home and at work, but there are other things that are quicker and easier. And unless you have need to learn mental mapping, really stick with the strategies that you’re using and strengthen those strategies that are easier for you, like using your word skills, your memory of sequencing, your beacon wayfinding skills, your ricochet wayfinding skills at home, where you walk until you hit something and then just have a feel around and see if you are where you thought you were. GPS apps, mapping apps that give that spatial big picture, but then offer audio sequenced instructions, are just a gift to a person who doesn’t use mental mapping skills well.
So it’s about taking that multidimensional information and simplifying it and sequencing it in order. That is the magic trick to developing any technologies that are going to be useful for people with poor mental mapping skills.
GLEN: I’d be interested in knowing if people who are good at computers or smartphones in terms of being able to reason how to do things versus people who are good at it, but they do it because they remember the steps, if there’s a parallel between that and people who do and don’t do mental mapping.
LIL: I would love to know that, too. And do you know, we haven’t really had an easy way of researching this until the Stuart Tactile Maps Test has become available. So it would be a simple thing to use the Stuart Tactile Maps Test and do some research comparing people’s functional orientation skills and then their technology confidence, perhaps, with smartphone devices, apps, and desktop computing.
GLEN: Do you find that there’s a difference between people who lose their vision later in life and people who are born blind, in terms of their ability to spatial map?
LIL: No. I find that there’s a difference, and I’ve found in my research that there’s a difference, at around about LogMAR 2, which I think in your language is 20/2000 visual acuity, and for us in Australia in the metric system is 6/600. There’s a thing that I’ve identified that people are using which I call “ambient vision.” I mean, we talk about the ambience in the room. It’s that mysterious something or other that makes it just work. So this notion of ambient vision is apparent in the difference between a person who uses mental mapping and who doesn’t use mental mapping. Because below that LogMAR 2 level of vision acuity, a person can have real difficulty visually identifying a whole thing in the environment. They might just see fragments.
The person with good mental mapping skills will use that process of spatial understanding and constant comparisons to put together the fragments of the visual jigsaw puzzle into a meaningful whole. The person with poor mental mapping skills cannot do that. Those fragments remain meaningless because they’re not stitched together. They’re like jigsaw puzzle pieces sort of shaken up in the box.
And so a person with good mental mapping skills uses ambient vision, this map of fragments that they’ve pasted together to move surprisingly fluently to the point where an observer will think, oh, the ophthalmologists made a mistake. They’ve got a lot more vision than actually has been measured in a clinic. They don’t. They just use the fragments of vision incredibly well because of their spatial skills. And that’s what the person with poor mental mapping skills cannot do when their vision is reduced from whole object recognition to fragments only.
GLEN: Have you ever met someone where they started out having no mental mapping skills, or very, very poor mental mapping skills, and actually were able to learn it after the fact?
LIL: I have had people who have told me that they’ve worked hard on their mental mapping skills. But in actual fact, when they’ve described what they do, what they’ve worked hard at is developing confidence through practice of traveling in unfamiliar areas using a whole raft of strategies that don’t involve mental mapping.
So I’d be very interested in hearing from your listeners, Glen. What works for them in terms of navigating the world? Are your listeners people who use mental mapping confidently and maybe effortlessly to understand where they are in space and get where they want to go? Are they people who need to be a bit more intentional about seeking out maps, and concentrate a bit harder to interpret those maps in planning where to go? Or do your listeners actually do away with mental mapping strategies and go for more linear approaches that unfold the route one step at a time?
GLEN: I think this is a great idea. It of course depends on those of you listening being willing to send something in. At a minimum I can pass it along to Lil. And depending upon how many responses we get, it could be a segment on a future FSCast.
LIL: I think it’s a conversation that we need to keep having and wondering about. I think it’s a great conversation to have with young kids and children during their school years about how they think about space and how they use what they’re learning formally in the school classroom about using maps, and then piecing that together if they go on holidays, or you say vacation. If they’re going on vacation to new places, how do they go exploring? What are they courageous about? What do they feel a little bit intimidated about and need to go with another person to show them the way? These are really good questions to ask. And the difference between familiar places and unfamiliar places, and what are the strategies that we use to navigate in both of those places, can be interesting differences to explore.
GLEN: This was great. I’m really glad I reached out to you, and even happier that you were willing to talk with me about this. These are topics that I don’t think about that often and certainly don’t discuss with people that often. So thanks. Thanks for joining us on the podcast.
LIL: It’s my pleasure, Glen. Great to talk with you.
GLEN: As I mentioned earlier, Lil does a great podcast about all things orientation and mobility. It does have an Australian focus, but I found much of the content applies around the rest of the world, as well. If you want to give it a listen, it’s called “RO&Ming With Lil,” and between the O and the M is the ampersand symbol. Her website is LilDeverell.net. That’s L I L D E V E R E L L dot net. If you missed out on the spelling, you can read the text transcript, thoughtfully prepared every month by Elaine Farris. And it’s alongside the audio episode. So if you go to blog.freedomscientific.com/fscast, pick an episode, drill into that page, and there’ll be a link to read the text transcript.
And that pretty much does it for FSCast 195. I’m Glen Gordon. Thanks for joining me.