My Navigation Disability is a “Real Thing”

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Busy city sidewalk

By Jen Mullins, BS, CTRS, MATP Staff

When I present about Assistive Technology (AT), I usually talk about some of AT that I personally use.  One of my most used (and loved) AT is Global Positioning System or GPS . I have a disability that impacts my ability to navigate.  When I walk, bike, drive, etc., on my own (without my GPS, without another person with me) I can’t work out where I am currently and/or how I need to get where I need to go.  I could be inside of a mall, during my commute to my workplace, inside of a parking garage, etc.; I just can’t work out where I am without outside assistance (even if I’ve been to the destination countless times).  It’s not because I’m “flighty” or “unorganized” or “not paying attention” (real things people have told me that I am when they hear me talk about my navigation disability); I just can’t find my way.

Aerial view of a busy highway

Currently my disability is unnamed and what little information I find when I research doesn’t really match up to my experiences. I know I’m not the only person who has this disability; my mom and my best friend’s husband experience the same thing as I do when needing to navigate.

After a recent presentation, I talked with a friend who has the same disability.  I said to her that I didn’t know why our disability doesn’t have a name, but it’s frustrating that it doesn’t and I can’t find helpful information or research about it.  She said something along the lines of: if it had a name, it would be considered a “real thing”; it could be more easily described and would likely be taken more seriously. As it is now, when I share about my navigation disability, people have to take my word for it; I’ve found that the majority of people I talk to are still skeptics about it whether or not they think I actually have this disability.  I feel gaslighted and shamed by people because they just don’t believe me.

A Dead End sign against a cloudy sky

When I was learning to drive (early 2000’s), I didn’t have access to the GPS I use today.  I had to rely on asking my dad or sister or someone else who could navigate on their own, writing down the steps, and hoping I didn’t get lost.  Or I had to drive with someone who would tell me where to go.  I was very nervous to travel anywhere because I knew I would get lost (it was a bummer to finally earn my drivers license and then be anxious & scared to really use it fully or drive by myself!) When I was in college, we used MapQuest to get & print written directions & maps. These were more helpful than just steps from family, but if there was a road closure or something unexpected and I had to re-route myself, I would get completely lost.  There were many times that I would pull out my emergency cell phone (no unlimited cellphone minutes back then) and call my friends who would tell me over the phone how to get where I needed to go.I remember during my out of state internship I was asked to attend an event.  I quickly found someone else who was going and asked to ride with her (I just knew I’d get lost if I tried to go by myself). Once we were in her car, I told her about my navigation disability.  She told me that the same thing happened to her when she traveled! GPS unit But then, she pulled out a small electronic screen and said “we’ll just use GPS and it will tell us how to get there.”  Using GPS for the first time was like magic! The voice told us where to turn and the map showed us the steps in real time.  We got to the event in time and home just fine! I remember calling my mom that night to tell her about GPS and we both cried at the possibility of being able to drive by ourselves without getting lost! That December we both bought our first GPS units and have been using that AT everyday ever since!  Both of us still get lost regularly when navigating, but our GPS’ get us back on track.

As technology has improved and cell phones have gotten better & better, I use the Apple Maps or the Google Maps app on my phone more than my GPS unit (though, I still keep it in my car-just in case!).  I am thankful that GPS isn’t just for driving anymore.  Recently I went to my local mall (remember I said I get lost in those?) by myself and used the Apple Maps

Do you or someone you know have a disability that impacts your navigation?  You’re in good company!  Did life change when you started using GPS or a map app on your smart device?  Share about it in the comments?