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 come 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 child with blindness or low vision 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, depends on your travel direction. Compass directions are permanent; 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 used while traveling.

Basics for Young Children

  • North and south are opposite, as are east and west.
  • Standing in a box or a small space, touch the north and south sides of it.
  • Now touch the east and west sides.
  • Using braille labels or symbols will help make 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 is to the left, and east is to the right.
  • When I face east, west is behind, north is to the left, and south is to the right.
  • When I face south, north is behind, east is to the left, and west is to the right.
  • When I face west, east is behind, north is to the right, and south is to the left.

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

Describe Traveling to a Location

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, 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, has a water fountain that is usually on and is the only one with a revolving door.

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

Clue and Landmarks

The water fountain is a good clue for locating the building but only as long as it is on and a traveler can hear the water moving. Revolving doors are permanent and make an excellent landmark to confirm that you’ve reached the correct building. It is a good idea to become used to using both landmarks and clues. This will 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 enter 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 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 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.