Groundbreaking Project Opens National Park to the Blind

Dana Herra, '01
blind, prairie, gps

Craig Phillips

When he arrived at Northern Illinois University in 1993, Craig Phillips didn’t plan on changing the lives of the visually impaired. But today Phillips, M.S.Ed. ’95, is doing just that as he completes a groundbreaking project with the National Park Service.

Phillips, a certified orientation and mobility specialist and teacher of the blind and visually impaired, has led a project to make all 40-plus miles of trails in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas accessible to those without sight. By October 1, visitors of the national park will be able to check out a Trekker Breeze+ handheld GPS device that provides audio cues to guide them along the park’s trails.

“Just like the story of Hansel and Gretel, we went out in the park and laid down electronic breadcrumbs,” Phillips said. “The device picks up those breadcrumbs and announces that information as you walk by on the trail. For example, as you walk by Fox Creek, the device will tell you that this is Fox Creek, what kind of stream it is, that these streams are mostly fed by springs, how many springs are on the property, et cetera.”

Those working on the project visited each point where the electronic breadcrumbs are located, recorded the latitude and longitude, and attached information about the site to the spot on a map, Phillips said. The device makes it possible for a person without sight to walk the preserve’s trails without a sighted guide.

“It’s the information a sighted person might find if they took out the brochure and read about that spot on the trail,” Phillips said. “Someone can take the device and access a route, and it will guide them out and back to their point of origin. … It can also be used by people with sight, and they can get the same audio tour.”

bison, prairie, accessible

Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service

Heather Brown, chief of interpretation at Tallgrass Prairie, said the idea for the project was born several years ago when she met Phillips at the Kansas State School for the Blind, where he was teaching at the time.

“We’re really excited. This is pretty cutting edge,” Brown said, noting she is not aware of such an extensive project at other national parks. “We’re lucky to have sourced [Phillips]. It was an easy justification because of his background and his expertise.”

Phillips, a former high school teacher, came to NIU when he decided to pursue his master’s degree. He met Gaylen Kapperman, coordinator of NIU’s renowned Visual Disabilities Program, and the rest is history.

“When you meet Gaylen, your life tends to change, and he changed mine,” Phillips said. “I went out and became a teacher to the blind and visually impaired. Then I went back to school to become a certified orientation and mobility specialist. [Kapperman] is one of the most influential people in our field, as well as one of the most well-known and well-respected.”

When Brown first approached Phillips about the project, he was still teaching, he said. By the time the funding was approved, Phillips had retired, but couldn’t resist coming out of retirement for the challenge.

“It was such a dynamic opportunity; I couldn’t let it pass me by,” he said. “It’s a historic undertaking, and it’s been a labor of love.”


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