Accessibility tip: Making maps accessible

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 18 Mar 2015

Maps. We’re lost without them. Here’s how to make sure people with vision impairments can continue to find their way with accessible maps.

For everything from finding our way on public transport, getting around museums or cultural events, to finding our seats at sports and music events, we rely on maps more than we realise.

In the world of business and government, maps are used more than you might think: in building evacuation plans, electoral and property boundary information, development applications, construction and site plans, shopping centres and campuses, to name a few.

However, these same maps are often inaccessible to people with a disability because accessibility either hasn’t been considered at all, or it is only considered after the fact when someone makes a discrimination complaint.

In practice what we’re talking about here is not considering colour choice when creating a map, so that people with colour blindness or low vision can’t access the information a map contains. That applies to both online maps, those found in mobile device apps, and printed hardcopy maps.

For people with very low vision or blindness, we’re talking about making sure that online maps or those in smartphone apps have been created with the appropriate tagging so that assistive technology—such as screen reading software–can pick up the different elements in a map and literally read out the information a map contains.

Making maps accessible for people with low vision

Colour contrast

For colour contrast accessibility issues, a good approach is for designers—when creating a map in an application such as Adobe’s Illustrator—to use a colour contrast analyser [link is external], such as the free one available from the Paciello Group. This tool will tell you if there is sufficient contrast between a given background colour and the text (whether large or small) on top of it.

Colour blindness

For colour blindness where reds and greens may be indistinguishable, a colour contrast analyser like the Paciello Group’s will also give pass or fail levels for your colour choice for the different types of colour blindness (just make sure to tick the ‘Show result for colour blindness’ box).

 If the colour you use is conveying important information on your map, make sure you use a secondary method of conveying that information, such as an alternative text for the object (if possible, depending on the design format) or using different patterns for borders or lines, such as dots, dashes and solid.

Consistency and simplicity

As much as possible, keep maps consistent and simple in their styling. For example, if you are creating maps for a three-storey shopping centre and use blue dots to show where public amenities are on level 1, use that same blue dot across the levels, don’t change it to a red square on level 2. 

If you are trying to represent many different things on a single map, consider the possibility of ‘divide and conquer’. As an example, you’re designing a map of a festival event where there are food stalls, stages, camping areas, bathrooms, ticket offices, merchandise stalls, chill out zones and entrances and exits. You may wish to have a general layout map that you use as a base, and show one or two representations per map. 

Scaling and images of text

Note that some of your map readers will enlarge a map by up to 800 per cent in order to view the content. If there is text as part of the map image, this will become pixelated and illegible as the image is enlarged. It is understandable that text on a map is most often necessary but this concern highlights the need to make map information accessible in other ways. 

Making maps accessible for people who are blind

Screen readers

It’s fair to suggest that maps and screen readers will never be a match made in heaven, unless your map is so simple that an alternative text can sum up and convey its purpose in no more than 70 characters!

But here are some tips that can help with preventing screen reader problems as well as solving them:

If using the popular Illustrator software to create your map, ensure that any text elements are created as Outlines. Find out a little more on this topic in our article Illustrator files in PDF.

  • Analyse the map’s purpose and provide it in plain text format.
  • Create an audio version of the map’s purpose.
  • Provide an alternative text to the map image that directs the end user to locations where alternative formats (plain text, audio) can be found.

What’s your experience with making maps accessible? Share your advice in the comments section below.

Professional Document Services

If you are looking for professional document remediation services for your organisation you can also contact Media Access Australia’s web accessibility service, Access iQ.

Access iQ, a service of Media Access Australia, provides document remediation expertise to make digital publications and other document types accessible for people with disabilities and compliant with accessibility guidelines and standards.

Further reading

If you’d like to read more on PDF and document accessibility you might like to check out the following stories on Access iQ: