For visitors with low vision, public lands offer more than meets the eye

BLM’s commitment to increasing access to public lands isn’t just about expanding roads, trails, and other infrastructure. It also includes improving access for people with other challenges, such as by augmenting a trail with interpretive audio or Braille signs. Or adding physical aids, like a guide rope, for visitors with low vision to explore areas without assistance.  

Alt Text: The photo shows a large metal sign with four braille panels interpreting the Superior Mail Arrow site on BLM land.
Braille sign at Superior Mail Arrow, Wyoming.
Photo credit: Courtesy, BLM Wyoming

An estimated 6 million Americans experience vision loss and 1 million experience blindness. More than 1.6 million Americans with vision loss or blindness are younger than age 40. February is Low Vision Awareness Month, the perfect time to get out on public lands and experience them with all your senses.

When asked about improving accessibility in ways that benefit those with visual impairments, Kirstin Heins, National Conservation Land Program Lead for BLM California offered, “That sounds like a great partnership opportunity, and we are super into creating or supporting something like this!”

BLM is working to identify additional opportunities to provide visitors with low vision a memorable experience on public lands. In 2022, the Anchorage School District reached out to Brian Janson, Education Technician at the Campbell Creek Science Center, to see if BLM wanted to work together to develop a field trip for a group of high school students with vision impairments. They met a few times, planning several activities that would be fun, educational, and boost everyone’s confidence. 

“I wanted these kids, who rarely went out in nature, to see themselves as the kind of people who could use and enjoy these lands,” Janson said. “That’s the real reward.” 

Here are a few other engaging opportunities and activities on public lands for our friends with low vision – and many others looking to expand their horizons – to enjoy:

  • Two remote historic sites in Wyoming’s Rock Springs Field OfficeSuperior Mail Arrow and the Overland School Interpretive Site—have Braille interpretive signs. One tells the story of concrete arrows serving as early navigation for pilots transporting mail. The other describes a stagecoach and wagon trail providing an alternate route off the Oregon Trail in the late 1800s.
  • A 20-minute audio tour describes three sites on the Yuha Desert portion of Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail in California’s El Centro Field Office. The audio tour paints a picture of the area and its people, while describing Anza’s expeditions in 1775-1776. 
  • The Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area in California uses touch activities to enhance sensory experiences for their visitors. While the activity targets 4th grade students, all visitors can put their senses to work and experience something unique. They can pet animal pelts to feel the difference between otter and elephant seal fur; reach into a box to guess if it’s a starfish, urchin, or seashell by touch; or listen to audio demonstrations of sounds of different fog signals.
Photo shows 4 wooden boxes with holes cut in the front so visitors can put their hand in the box to feel what’s inside.
One of the many touch activities for visitors to the Piedras Blancas Light Station in California.
Photo credit: Ryan Cooper, BLM
  • Another activity from the Campbell Creek Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska, is a listening activity, called Tuning into Birds. By teaming up with an experienced birder or downloading a birding app, visitors can learn to recognize birds by sound.

In addition to participating in activities involving touch and sound, visitors with low vision – and everyone else – can engage other senses while exploring public lands, including these ideas:

  • Taste – Research a local area’s First People and bring a picnic lunch with foods that Indigenous peoples traditionally ate such as corn, squash, and beans in the Southwest, or salmon and huckleberries in the Northwest.
  • Smell – Differentiate between different types of trees or between bark and needles. Describe the smells in an area – can you smell the plants, the soil, the weather, is there any water nearby?

 As the photo of Stevie Wonder in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico demonstrates, the world is more than what we see. Listen to the wind, feel the sand beneath your feet, touch the rock formations, and smell the crisp desert air. 


Alt Text: Photo shows black and white image of Stevie Wonder sitting on the ground touching a round rock.
Stevie Wonder enjoying weathered rocks in New Mexico’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness.
Photo credit: Courtesy, BLM New Mexico

“So many inspiring things are happening in the BLM now,” said Daniella Barraza, Interpretive Park Ranger in Alaska. “What improvements can we look forward to in the future?”  


Sources and Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prevalence Estimates – Vision Loss and Blindness (2017)

What is a Braille Trail?

What is a Sensory Trail?

Map of Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, including the three sites featured in the audio tour

Campbell Creek Science Center’s Nature Learning Resources, which could be modified for visitors with vision impairments

Cathy Humphrey, Project Manager, Experienced Services Program

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