Future Reflections Fall 1994, Vol. 13 No. 3
by Carolyn MilesEditor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Fall, 1992, issue of the NBA Bulletin, a publication of the National Braille Association, Inc.
By way of introduction, let me say that I currently proofread for the Division of Educational Testing all Regents and competency exams given in Braille to elementary and secondary school students in New York State. During the past twelve years I have had the opportunity to read exams in a wide range of subject areas including reading, history, English, science, mathematics, and languages. As you might imagine, history, the sciences, and mathematics exams contain the majority of the tactile graphics.
I have been blind all my life, but my exposure to drawings and books began very early. I loved to be read to by my mother and grandmother but also wanted to have my own books. My first books were musical ones. They were a great invention of the early 1950's. The books were actually cardboard boxes shaped like books. The front cover opened to a few pages which contained the words of a nursery rhyme or song. On the right side of the box was a crank which operated a music box inside the back part of the book. Unfortunately, my collection has been lost but the special memories of playing with them still remain.
My mother and father were actually very creative about finding interesting toys as well. I knew the shapes of some letters before I started learning Braille at the age of four. One of my baby rattles was shaped like the letter G. One day my father came back from a trip, and his surprise gift for me was a clock puzzle. All the numbers came out, and under each piece was a raised image of the number so I could match the numbered pieces to their positions on the clock face.
Although I could not see colors I was intensely curious about them. The textures of clothes were a good way for me to remember what colors would go well together. My understanding of color is still an ongoing process. During childhood I listened to what people said about what I was wearing or how they felt about the colors in their surroundings. I learned that I felt happy around certain colors and was always curious to know if they were in the environment. My early childhood favorite color was yellow.
In addition to touching objects, my mother also gave me the opportunity to create them with clay. That isn't so amazing but she also gave me crayons and the challenge of working in the two-dimensional plane. When I asked for an opinion, I did not receive much encouragement as to how I was perceiving and presenting my images on paper. I have vivid memories of sitting in the feeding table which had a washable surface using crayons and paper. These events occurred before I went to kindergarten. I even tried drawing simple things. One day I remember drawing things that were yellow like a stick of butter, a house shape (our house was yellow at the time), and a knife, fork, and spoon. If I had listened only to the feedback I was getting I would have closed the door on drawing forever. But the next books I received kept me engaged and still determined to keep trying.
At the age of four I received my first book of nursery rhymes and a set of cards with different kinds of buttons and cloth textures. These items and my kindergarten workbook were made by a friend of the family named Mrs. House. Later in cooperation with someone who knew Braille she illustrated "`Twas the Night Before Christmas." These handmade books were very special to me. The kindergarten book was all pictures, and some of them were quite complex. She did not have any of the tracing wheels of today. Instead, she used whatever materials she could find that would best represent the two-dimensional line drawings.
My kindergarten teacher was amazing. Many of her plans were intentional, but some things she did spontaneously were quite clever. My nursery school and kindergarten classes were held in a two-room schoolhouse. We sat at group tables. There were square, round, and rectangular tables. Each table had an animal planter in the middle. I remember a bird, a donkey, a monkey, a giraffe, and a dog. She changed the tables and planters around during the year so we could sit in different places which offered a unique opportunity to learn about the internal environment and its relation to the external environment.
In addition to the crayons and clay, finger-paints and a whole new collection of objects were added to my world. Mowers, plants, and animals also delighted me, and I was given many opportunities to enjoy nature.
Although public school had its challenges, I would not have missed it for anything. I know there are many who do not feel this way, but I thrived on the interaction with others who could see the world around them. That led to some pretty frustrating attempts to do what the others did, but there were also times of great pleasure in sharing what we were learning.
The first grade-school texts I had were reading and math workbooks and these workbooks contained some line drawings. I particularly remember drawings of clocks in the math workbooks.
Exposure to drawings during the rest of my elementary school years was fairly limited since I usually had very few of my textbooks in Braille. My attempts to draw or paint were limited to the required art class which provided little glimpses of possibility but no real outlets for creativity.
In junior high and high school many of my books were on tape. I studied earth science in eighth grade without a Braille text or tapes. My mother read the textbook as we went along in class. By that time I had developed my ability to visualize, and when I had to rely on someone else's description of weather patterns and rock layers it was quite a challenge to create them internally so that I could participate in class and pass the exams. I was fortunate that the person giving the exams was gifted at describing diagrams in such a way that I could assemble them internally and then work out the answer to the question. During that time I acquired a compass, a protractor, tracing wheels, a raised line drawing kit, a dot inverter, and a rubber mat. At long last, I could bisect lines and angles, draw shapes accurately (including circles), and create graphs with the best of them. My math teacher helped me by making a tracing wheel with some of the points taken out so I could make dashed lines. I will never forget the eight-page graph of P- and S-waves I made for earth science class. The pages had to be taped together and the lines had to match up. Thank goodness time was not of the essence and such projects were few and far between.
My favorite subject besides language in high school was geometry. I loved to explore the relationships among shapes, lines, and points.
Much of this background provided experience which allows me to read most diagrams easily.
When proofreading exams I try to look at diagrams as if someone were looking at the material for the first time. I have often wondered if others understand the diagrams we include in the exams. In order to achieve clarity some details must be left out. At other times detail in the form of texture must be added in order to create a form in two dimensions that conveys three-dimensional elements. For the sighted and blind person alike, the imagination must take over where the diagram leaves off. Those who lose their sight later in life can probably relate to a line drawing without texture more easily than someone who has never seen the printed page. However, there are ways of getting around this problem. Texture greatly enhances our chances of understanding a diagram no matter whether we have had an opportunity to use our eyes or not. For me, there are drawings that go far beyond reproduction. These noteworthy tactile images slide rather unobtrusively into the category of works of art.
Three-dimensional drawings and representations of layers are perhaps the most challenging for those who must render them in tactile form. When I look at a three-dimensional representation of a block sometimes it is hard to tell whether it is a rectangle or a cube. How is that block oriented in relation to the page? Once I can take that solid object into my mind, I can orient it any way I wish and forget about the diagram.
When I look at a diagram of the heart on a biology exam I must make sure that the layered effect of ventricles, oracles, veins, and arteries is clear enough for the student to answer the questions. Each year the diagrams look a little different depending on who has made the original drawing and what structures are being identified by the student.
There are times when a diagram is not practical to reproduce. Cartoons on history exams, for example, are described rather than drawn. Although the descriptions are excellent and the words will permit the student to answer the question, much of the humor is lost by using only words.
Because we include tactile graphics in our exams, it is very important that students have access to diagrams in their textbooks throughout the school years. The greater the variety in the tactile experience the greater will be the opportunity to assimilate new presentations of tactile information.
Bravo to all of you who include drawings in your transcriptions! Your work is very much needed and appreciated.