How To Use A Compass As An Aid To Orientation

When we think of using a compass, (if we think of it at all), we may think of boy or girl scouts on hikes, sailors on a vast expanse of ocean, or explorers trying to map an uncharted wilderness. Few people would think of using a compass in order to find a room in a hotel or the entrance to the hotel itself. Yet, tasks such as these, orienting oneself to a meeting room or exhibit hall, finding the direction in which to turn when going from elevator to dining room or dining room to elevator often can be made easier with the help of a compass.

There are several compasses on the market that can be read by a blind person. Some can be read by touch while others have speech and/or braille readout. Because of its basic simplicity I like the Silva Compass. Made in Sweden, it is offered by several vendors of vision products. It is physically small, about 2 by 3 inches and just under an inch thick. It feels like a small makeup compact with a flange that extends toward you when you hold the compass in the operating position.

To operate it, hold the compass flat with the flange toward you and the hinge of the case away from you. Hold it level and wait a few seconds to allow the magnetic dial to stabilize itself. Gently open the lid of the case. This forces a platform in the bottom of the case upward, locking the dial in position so it can be read by touch. When the lid of the case is open, you will be able to feel a raised mark on the bezel (rim) of the compass. This mark consists of two raised dots like the braille letter "b". The dial has raised letters e, s and w at three main directions. The direction NORTH is indicated by a smooth line. When this line is pointing toward the marking on the bezel, you are facing north. There also are raised dots at 30 degree intervals around the dial--like the hour markings on a clock or watch.

When you open the lid of the case, if the raised mark on the bezel is lined up with the letter w, it means that you are facing west. If the raised mark lines up with a point about halfway between the two single dots between w and s, it means that you are facing southwest. Actually, it is easier (after some practice) to think in terms of numbers of degrees instead of direction names. North is zero (or 360) degrees. East is 90, south is 180 and west is 270 degrees. In the case of our example of facing southwest, the direction south (6 o'clock) is 180 degrees. The first single dot on the way toward west is 30 degrees more or 210 degrees. The second single dot is at 240 degrees. Our halfway point between these marks is at 225 degrees.

Suppose we want to go from point a to point b. We begin by facing southwest (225 degrees). When we make our return trip, assuming it is a straight line course, we will want to turn halfway around, or 180 degrees from our original heading. Subtract 180 degrees from 225 and you get 45 degrees. That is halfway between the two single dots between north and east, or northeast. If a course has many turns it is useful to know your heading at point of departure (your room, the elevator, the front desk) and your heading at point of arrival, your table in the dining room, the elevator, the front entrance, etc. With these two headings in mind, it becomes relatively easy at least to start out in the right direction when heading for a goal.

In many buildings, elevators are along more than one row. They may be in banks facing each other. Some buildings are designed like tennis ball cans and elevators might be in a horseshoe bank. When you arrive at your floor, if there are no other cues to give you position, a compass can be a valuable tool.

I do not mean to imply that the use of a compass is limited to hotels and convention centers. In farm land where there may be significant distances between main house and out buildings, a compass can be useful in at least getting you started in the right direction. In areas of cities where checkerboard square layouts have been replaced by winding, twisting lanes, a compass again can be a useful ally in keeping you on course.

Contributor: Fred Gissoni

Click this link to purchase a English or Spanish speaking Digital Talking Compass from
Click here if you'd rather have a Braille Compass from


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