World Sight Day: Making Te Taiao More Accessible

Mary Fisher navigates the world differently. She has aniridia, a degenerative genetic condition primarily affecting her sight. With a little help from friends at the Department of Conservation (DOC), she’s been able to experience nature and the environment in a new, more engaging way.

Mary and friend reading braille map of Remutaka Forest Park, near a bridge and a DOC sign, surrounded by trees.  Mary is wearing a black Blind Foundation jacket, both wearing colourful face masks.

Mary is 28 years old, and she is many things: a world record-setting Paralympic swimmer; a member of the Wellington rainbow choir the Glamaphones; a supporter of cleaner wai Māori (freshwater); a Massey University graduate; and a member of the team at Blind Low Vision NZ.

She grew up with parents – science technicians – who were keenly aware of their impact on the environment, and they instilled this value in Mary and her brother Simon. Mary says she inherited their interest in the native fauna and flora of our motu, and that she finds solace in surroundings free from electronics and car noise. Her first overnight trip was to Jans Hut, in Remutaka Forest Park, and her whānau completed the Abel Tasman Great Walk together in 2020.

Being blind or low vision can be a barrier to enjoying the outdoors. Mary says that she just needs someone to guide her.

Kepler Great Walk

"We take difficult terrain slowly, and have good cane skills which I've built up over time. Everything is doable, we just have to factor in the time."

In 2018, Mary completed the Kepler Great Walk and recalls the experience fondly.

"It was a little while ago, so some of the challenges have melted away – except sandflies, definitely the sandflies!

"Getting to hear how others visually experienced the ginormous scenery and views from Luxmore Hut was a highlight, and I loved how much time and care the hut wardens and rangers spent talking us through the typical vegetation in the rohe. Most of the track was well-graded and we could use 'towing technique' with my cane – it's less energy than having it on the ground, which I do to feel more bumpy or unstable ground."

Following the walk, Mary gave a talk at Whare Kaupapa Atawhai/Conservation House and was introduced to Geraldine Moore, a geospatial information analyst in the GIS team.

"It was neat to meet someone so enthusiastic and dedicated to figuring out the best ways to convey the most information to blind, low vision and deafblind people."

Tactile Maps

Geraldine, in partnership with Blind Low Vision NZ, created as a pilot two volumes of tactile maps, a Braille one and a large print edition. The maps of the Braille version are mostly black and white, and printed on swell paper which aids the dark areas to have a raised surface. Through careful lines and textures, over several large pages, Geraldine has portrayed the park, its rivers, roads, tracks, huts and features in a way fingers can interpret, including Braille labels and explanations. Diminutive regular text and intuitive recreation symbols enable sighted users to read the map alongside. A track elevation profile highlights the climbs and dips of the main track.

Mary in Remutaka Forest Park using large print version of track elevation profile, running fingers over it.  Map on a bench surrounded by leaf litter and fern fronds.

Mary says the maps help her to picture the areas better.

"In the past when a group of us has rocked up [to the Catchpool Valley carpark], everyone else looks at the printed board with the map, and a friend might help me trace my finger over where we intend to walk. The accessible map is really special. I gain a sense of scale and the different textures are engaging and fun to follow and learn."

Asked what this means for New Zealanders with low vision or who are blind, or have other disabilities (and Mary notes that 24% of New Zealanders self-identify as having a disability or impairment) she says that having accessible information in more formats is valuable.

"For many people with low vision, content created with high contrast and large print can make a world of difference. To couple this – as Geraldine has – with Braille and tactile symbols to reflect what you'll encounter in a space you're going to visit (or are in the midst of), makes you feel like you can understand and connect to it more deeply.

"I think people with other disabilities who see Te Papa Atawhai Department of Conservation leading a pilot like this will take hope that accessibility overall is becoming more commonplace."

Ōrongorongo Track

On a recent excursion to the Midway Bridge on the Ōrongorongo Track, Mary reflected on the opportunity our Department has to get more people with disabilities into the mix. Our vision is to get 90% of New Zealanders' lives enriched through connection to our nature, and Mary says that having people with disabilities in decision-making roles is crucial.

"Many disabled people (and other groups with different access needs like taking a stroller or needing a baby change area) can't be spontaneous when they go to the wilderness. Before I do things, I need to consider my transport, technology, medication...

"Everyone needs to be educated on safety, the track relative to their experience, weather, and taking the right gear. As a first step, accessible online information that's high contrast, screen readable, and available in multiple languages, which covers what is and what is not available at a location, is great. That would entice more people into scoping out our big backyard.

"Championing events like tactile identification of native plants for blind and low vision people, sharing stories of diverse communities – this can lead to people feeling more belonging in the wilderness of Aotearoa."

Editor's note: We acknowledge the energy and resource that Blind Low Vision NZ contributed to this pilot.

Photography by Miriam Jenkins

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