Maps and map accessibility: where to start?

A woman holds a tablet with a map on the screen, She is standing in the street. Access mapsWhen a government department or access committee starts talking about access maps and map accessibility, where do you start? Of course there are consultants to help with this, but it’s good to have some idea of what to put in the brief. It’s also a good idea to know if the right thing has been delivered. A toolkit or guide for maps would be great but there’s a little to be found in lay language.

Technology moves fast. So toolkits and guides for digital maps soon become out of date. Another problem is they can’t stop software updates from stripping accessible features. And then there is is the issue of inadvertently uploading or linking inaccessible content on websites. But not all is lost. 

Access maps and map accessibility are distinct areas of endeavour.  However, we would want a digital access map to also be accessible. City of Sydney has an example of an interactive digital access map.

Access map with many different icons.
City of Sydney access map with all icons


Access map with icon filters applied.
Sydney access map with filters applied

Making access maps accessible

Screenshot of Seattle Access Map.
Screenshot of Seattle Access Map

Many people use Google Maps and similar apps to help them navigate the built environment. They focus on road networks and points of interest but lack information for pedestrians. Google has an option to list individual “accessible places” such as a park. But this is of little use to someone with vision impairment. So how to make access maps accessible?

There are two key accessibility issues. One is collecting and integrating access information into maps. The other is designing digital maps so they are accessible to users with diverse physical, sensory and cognitive abilities. There is a third issue. Some local governments have an access or mobility map, but these are often buried on a website somewhere. Many people don’t know they exist. 

A conference paper has more detail about the challenges faced in designing and creating digital accessible access maps. The title is Grand Challenges in Accessible Maps published on the ACM website.

Resource list

Here is a list of links that cover basic and technical issues of map accessibility including non-digital maps. Thanks to Jo Szczepanska for sharing the list. 

An article by The Paciello Group explains the issues clearly and has other useful links for non technical people. 

A plan for accessible maps is an easy to read webpage that sets out the basics. A good starting point.

The W3C website has a section on different types of accessible maps including tactile maps. Static maps and interactive maps are covered in Map Accessibility.

Accessible Maps on the Web is a magazine article from the US. It’s a bit more technical but illustrates some of the issues. 

A research paper specifically for visually impaired users has recommendations and example solutions. This one is technical.  A more digestible article is Design Accessible Maps – UX guide. 

A UK Government blog page discusses accessible flood maps. There’s also Mapping Standards for interactive maps. Maps for emergency situations also need to be accessible. 

Another resource for digital applications is Gregg Vanderheiden’s Accessibility Masterlist. It covers everything you can think of. Each feature is coded for either blindness and low vision, language and learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and Deaf and hard of hearing. Some links take you to products, others to related research papers. Prepare to spend some time going over the lists and links. 

Accessibility Toolbar