Cognitive maps

February 24, 2009

So let’s say you are here

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you see this sign

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and you want to go the third floor.

Do you go up the stairs or or down? What does the sign indicate?

The sign indicates that the third floor is down from where you are standing. It may seem obvious to you that this isn’t right, but why?

The sign is an example of a symbolic convention that conflicts with reality. Floors are numbered down-to-up. We even refer to numbers as “ascending” or “descending” or “higher” and “lower” as they get larger or smaller.

But we also have a symbolic convention of reading being left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Progression in a sequence of numbers moves downward. The symbols conflict with the reality of the building.

We went UP the stairs but DOWN on the sign

We went UP the stairs but DOWN on the sign

Interestingly, the elevator in this same building maps it correctly.

This map reflects the reality.

This map reflects reality.

I hear you saying: what is your point, Adam?

Point the first: Accessibility means accommodations for all sorts of disabilities and abilities. If, through consistent design principles, we can make a space easier to navigate for people with cognitive impairments, why wouldn’t we? (The sign was clearly designed for accessibility. It has big, high-contrast sans-serif lettering and braille.)

The second point is that we need to be aware of the symbols that we use to represent reality. This has applicability to AAC with beginning communicators. How many picture symbols do we give to kids that have a symbolic vocabulary that we aren’t even aware of because we have internalized it? If the communicator has not yet internalized it, it becomes an element of confusion or an obstacle to communication rather than a tool for communication.

I realize that all symbols are learned through experience, but kids with disabilties who require AAC have few enough resources as it is without us adding more obstacles. Making communication harder for the sake of making it harder isn’t facilitating learning, it is just slowing down the rate of learning progress.

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