Future Reflections                                                                                                 Fall, 2003

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Books, Maps, and Other Touching Experiences

by Robert S. Jaquiss, Jr.

Editor’s Note: Robert Jaquiss, Jr., is one of several technology experts working in the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, located at the national headquarters of the NFB. Mr. Jaquiss is especially interested in technology that produces tactile maps and graphics, and has developed some special expertise in this area. In the following article, we discover the critical role his parents—especially his father—played in providing him with a foundation of experiences and skills in using tactile materials throughout his schooling. Despite the many changes in education since Robert Jaquiss entered school in the late 50’s (not the least of which was the 1975 enactment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, which mandates that public schools receiving federal funds provide a “free and appropriate education” to all children with disabilities), one thing has not changed: the central importance of the family in all aspects of a child’s education. Here is Mr. Jaquiss’s narrative about his early exposure to “Books, Maps, and Other Touching Experiences”:

Robert Jaquiss examines one of his treasures - a home-made tactile map created by his father.
Robert Jaquiss examines one of his treasures—a home-made tactile map created by his father.

In 1956, when I was three-and-a-half, my parents determined that I should attend public school just like my sighted peers. My parents did some research and found that it was legal for a blind child to attend public school in the state of Oregon. (In later years, we would find out that the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon had played a major role in having this law enacted.) So my father found a job in Oregon and our family packed up and moved from Oklahoma to Silverton, Oregon. Silverton was a small town (population, 4,500) about sixteen miles from Salem, the state capitol. The school superintendent, Milt Baum, was interested in the innovative idea of having a blind child attend the public school. I started kindergarten in the fall of 1958.

Father taught science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics in the local high school across the street from our house in Silverton. Mother had been a public school music teacher, but elected to take private students and work part-time at the church as an organist and choir director so she would have time to assist if the school needed her. Which was a wise decision, but more about that later.

Both my parents did their best to show me all kinds of things, and how those things worked. A family friend, Mrs. Wright, raised turkeys and ran a hatchery. I visited the turkey farm many times. One time, I got to feel a live turkey and see how a conveyor chain delivered turkey food. Another time, I felt a hen lay an egg right in my hand. Father took me to other farms, too, where I felt the chickens, rabbits, goats, cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and a donkey. I discovered that real horses ride differently than the toy spring horsey I enjoyed bouncing on at home.

Going to the fair was an exciting event to anticipate every year. The farmers showed off their finest animals and crops. There were artwork displays and garden displays. I especially liked the mercantile building where all sorts of fascinating things were on display to be touched and explained. Father also showed me how houses and buildings were built and the machinery and tools used in the building trade.

The year before I entered first grade, a wonderful lady, Mrs. Summers learned Braille so she could become my Braille teacher. She had to travel to the very large city of Portland in order to receive the training. My parents helped her by driving her to and from Portland part of the time.

When it came time for the reading class, I walked from my first grade classroom to the other end of the building where Mrs. Summers was waiting to teach me Braille. When I got good enough to read aloud in a circle, I joined my sighted peers and took my turn just like everyone else.

None of the schoolbooks I needed were in Braille, so Mother decided to Braille them herself. Although she did not know Braille, she figured that all she really had to know was more Braille than I knew. The state of Oregon supplied her with a Perkins Braillewriter, a ream of Braille paper, and two codebooks. My family bought the schoolbooks from the Silverton school district so Mom could adjust them for my reading. The school system was using a series called The Alice and Jerry Series. The first books were simple. On one page was a picture of Alice, and at the bottom of the page Mother glued a piece of paper with the word “Alice” Brailled on it. This way, my sighted peers could see that I was reading the same book they were. Thirty pages of “look” introduced Alice, Jerry, and Jip the dog. By the time we finished the book—Mom Brailling it, and me reading it—Mother and I knew how to spell “look.” I thought it was kind of dumb to have only one word on each page. The next book had more words to learn to read. Soon I saw sentences that read “Look Alice,” “Look Jerry,” and then “Look at Jip run.”

Time progressed and Mother had to add an additional Braille page for each printed page. To do this, she took apart the books, added the Braille pages so they faced the corresponding print pages, rebound the book with notebook rings, or (later) with plastic comb binders. This way my teachers could see I was on the same page as everyone else.

Soon we ran into problems. The Braille paper was lightweight and did not hold the Braille dots very well. The print pages were fragile and tore easily. In order to strengthen the pages, my Father decided they should be coated with plastic. To accomplish this, Father went to the hospital and got some used x-ray films the radiologist no longer needed. Father brought the film home and boiled it to remove the emulsion and get to the base plastic. To liquefy the plastic, he took acetone (fingernail polish remover) and dissolved the plastic in it. Father improvised a dipping trough on an old bench in the basement. After Mother had Brailled the pages, he would dip each page in the plastic solution in the dipping trough, and then hang it up with clothespins to dry on an improvised clothesline above the trough. My father let me “watch” and listen while he described the process to me. These plastic-coated Braille pages (bound in a book with the printed pages) now stayed readable, and I continued to read more and more books. Eventually, the state provided heavier paper and we could stop dipping the Braille pages.

(Note: I must explain that acetone is very flammable and having a large open container in a basement is dangerous. My Father, because of his science background, took the proper precautions.)

In observing the dedication of my parents in doing whatever was necessary to provide me with Braille books, I became very much aware of the importance of reading.

When I was in the second grade, my reading speed increased, and Mother had trouble keeping up with me. She Brailled for at least four hours every day, and I came home and read all her work in a few minutes. Eventually, I began to receive some Braille books from other sources, such as the National Library Services for the Blind and Volunteer Braille Services. Sometimes the books had to be ordered six months in advance, and Mother still had a lot of Brailling to do. But it was worth the trouble. Today, I am a good Braille reader due to my Parents’ hours of assistance.

In the third grade, my peers began using maps to learn about the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Father understood I needed maps, so he invented a process for making tactile maps for me.

Making a map was a time consuming task. We didn’t have computers, plotters, and graphics software. All the work had to be done by hand. Father would start by making an enlarged copy of the map in the book with a pantograph. (A pantograph is a simple device that has a stylus on the tracing arm and a pen on the writing arm.) Father also placed carbon paper, face-up, under the paper onto which he was tracing the map. This way, when he was done tracing the map, he would have a large drawing on the front side of the paper and a reversed or mirror-image drawing on the back side of the paper. It was critical to have this carbon copy, mirror image because Father’s technique for making my tactile maps involved making negative molds in paraffin (wax). The reverse image of the map would be carved into the wax to make a mold. When the mold was ready, layers of liquid latex-rubber would be added. After a backing was added and the rubber was completely dried, the rubber map would be peeled off of the wax in a big sheet, turned over, and there would be my tactile map ready for my use. Here’s how we did it. (Yes, Father insisted that I help.)

Since the maps needed to be big, Father needed large sheets of wax to carve on. We did this by taking a half sheet of plywood and putting a frame of one- and one-half inches by one-fourth inch thick boards around it. My father taught me how to carefully melt the wax (about ten pounds per map) in a kettle on a hot plate in the basement. (I didn’t have a double boiler, just a single hot plate and a big kettle.) I was nine years old at the time. When the wax was melted, Father would pour it onto the framed plywood. (It always fascinated me that the hot wax sounded like water as it was poured.) When the wax cooled the surface would be almost flat, but still not smooth enough to carve. In order to smooth the surface, Father would take a propane torch and pass the flame near the surface of the wax. This process is called flame polishing. In a chemistry lab, flame polishing is used to smooth the cut edges of laboratory glassware. Flame polishing a three- by four-foot area of wax is difficult, and there was a risk that the wax would catch fire. I watched from a respectful distance and visited with Father as he did this.

Now, we were ready to trace the enlarged mirror-image map drawing onto the wax. My job was to make the Braille labels that were to be marked on the wax. Father would carve the lines and poke holes into the surface of the wax. This was an arduous task since mistakes were almost impossible to remove.

When all was ready, Father applied a thin coating of latex rubber to the wax. After the coat dried, Father would apply three more coats. The last coat was extra heavy because it would hold the backing. A rubber map had to have a backing otherwise the map would stretch. The best backing was muslin. When the muslin was laid on the last coat of fresh latex, the latex would soak into the muslin and bond it tightly. When the last coat with the backing dried, Father and I would peel the finished three- by four-foot rubber map off the wax mold.

Reading these homemade maps was interesting. At first, the maps were hard to read because my fingers would not slide on the rubber surface. The solution was to sprinkle and spread on baby powder. The rubber and baby powder combination had an interesting odor which remained a long time.

Father made several maps this way. Each map took at least three hundred hours to produce. The maps were great and I still have them. They are among my most cherished possessions. My schoolteachers liked the maps (I took them to school with me) and said it was interesting that my sighted classmates frequently used them, too.

Later on in high school, I made a giant vacuum-forming machine to copy the maps. This was for my senior physics project. Father helped me with the design, provided materials, sawed the wooden parts (which I put together), and helped me install a 220-volt circuit. The heater box was made of wood lined with some heavy aluminum foil. The box was heated with heating element wire taken from an old oven heating-element. The box would get about 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Since wood kindles at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, I had 100 degrees of safety margin. The finished vacuum-forming machine was about four-and-a-half feet by seven feet long so I couldn’t take it to school very easily. The teacher came to our house to inspect my project and watch it work. I received an “A” in physics. Better yet, the house was still standing. I made a number of plastic maps which I tried to sell under the name of the Fingertip Map Company. Unfortunately I did not know how to market them and apparently the people I contacted didn’t understand how important such maps were to the blind.

This little boy examines one of the many stuffed animals on display at the NFB Convenmtion Sensory Safari exhibit.
This little boy examines one of the many stuffed animals on display at the NFB Convention Sensory Safari exhibit.

Although my tactile maps were educational, my parents never stopped showing me real objects in the world around me. When on trips we would stop at all the historical markers. We would look at the old forts, museums, and other things to see on the road. I even rang the replica of the Liberty Bell on the Capitol grounds in Boise, Idaho. (The office workers were surprised because the clapper was supposed to have been wired down.) One time while on vacation, I got to feel a recently dead porcupine, a jackrabbit, and a crane. Some readers will think it gross that I felt a few dead animals, but it is safer to feel a dead porcupine than a live one. (I also learned to always, always wash your hands thoroughly after touching a dead animal.) I have ridden a live elephant and a live camel, stroked a live baby cheetah, fed herring to a dolphin, and felt a baby pilot whale. Even after all these experiences, I still enjoy inspecting the excellent display of stuffed animals the Safari Club International provides at the National Federation of the Blind National Convention each year.

Throughout my life I have looked at a wide variety of things. Some experiences are worth repeating and some are not. In any event, each touching was educational. I wish all of you many touching experiences.

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