Braille Monitor                                             December 2014

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The Tactile Fluency Revolution: Year Two

by Al Maneki

Al ManekiFrom the Editor: Al Maneki has had a distinguished career and in his retirement has turned his focus to improving the education of blind children by addressing the issue of tactile drawings. His work with E.A.S.Y. is well-known to readers, and here is his latest update on their efforts:

Welcome to the second year of the tactile fluency revolution. The National Federation of the Blind proclaimed the start of this revolution at the tactile graphics workshop held at our 2013 convention in Orlando. As a cornerstone of this revolution, we adopted Resolution 2013-08, committing us to teaching Braille and tactile graphics simultaneously.

Despite a number of production delays, during the past year E.A.S.Y., LLC brought the inTACT Sketchpad and Eraser to market just in time for sale at the 2014 NFB Convention. E.A.S.Y. representatives spent the past year promoting the tactile fluency revolution to people in the field of work with the blind. Our case for the need for tactile graphics was met with nearly unanimous support. Under the sponsorship of this resolution, E.A.S.Y. participated in NFB state conventions in Illinois, Texas, Utah, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. They held exhibits and workshops, and they spoke in some of the general sessions. In the summer of 2014 E.A.S.Y. conducted tactile graphics sessions at the NFB BELL summer programs held in Ohio, Utah, Pennsylvania, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, and Texas. At the 2014 National Convention E.A.S.Y. conducted a tactile graphics workshop for NFBJI, and they spoke briefly at the NFB board meeting. They also spoke at the NOPBC and Science and Engineering annual meetings. For the second consecutive year E.A.S.Y. introduced tactile graphics to the youngsters in NFB Camp.

In the summer of 2014 I personally conducted tactile graphics sessions in three NFB BELL classes, two in Maryland and one in the District of Columbia. I found it most refreshing to work with NFB BELL-age students, roughly age five to ten. Unlike blind adults, who reacted to our Sketchpad with a degree of hesitation, blind youngsters took up the Sketchpad with glee. While we received comments from the adults such as “I’ve never done this before,” or, “I’m not going to be very good at this,” the youngsters took up the Sketchpad with enthusiasm. As soon as we showed them how it worked, they were off and running.

I developed a simple lesson plan for these three classes. When I arrived to teach the classes, students were already well drilled in the basic Federation classroom procedures, such as speaking out their names loudly and clearly in order to be recognized. Although there were a few complaints about using sleepshades, everyone complied with this requirement.

After the round of introductions, the students examined their Sketchpads. Each contained a simple tactile image that they were asked to identify. We showed them how to use the drawing stylus and had them practice drawing random designs on fresh sheets of plastic. We then showed them quarter-inch-thick foam sheets in which we had cut out various simple shapes. These sheets were trimmed to fit snugly over the plastic sheet inserted in the Sketchpad. They were asked to trace around the edge of each cutout. They then exchanged pads to practice tracing different shapes.

As a further exercise we handed out various geometric shapes: circles, triangles, etc, which students were asked to identify and trace. Unlike the foam sheets, these did not fit snugly over the Sketchpad. The students had to hold the shape firmly in place in order to trace around it. We had previously glued strips of rubber shelf liner on the back of each shape to help keep it in place as it was being traced.

If time permitted, we allowed students to finish the session by drawing anything they wished. While some of these drawings were not recognizable to us, we appreciated their unrestrained creativity. Students took home all of their drawings. In these NFB BELL classes we did not show the students how to use the thermal Eraser.

In the appendix we describe by brand name and manufacturers’ links all of the materials we used for the NFB BELL classes. We also tell you how we constructed or adapted these products for use with our Sketchpads. We are giving you this information in the hope that it will inspire you to develop other aids and tools to teach tactile graphics. Please tell us about your successes, and also don’t hesitate to share with us the things that didn’t work for you.

In the coming year we hope to participate in more NFB affiliate conventions to hold workshops and exhibits and speak in the general sessions. We plan to teach tactile graphics at as many NFB BELL classes around the nation as possible. We will develop augmented demonstrations of Braille and tactile graphics.

Also in the first year of the tactile fluency revolution, we began the development of an interactive workbook to teach tactile drawing to students of all ages. It is being written to be used by teachers in the classroom or by parents to teach their children at home or even by students for self-study. Both the print and Braille editions will include a set of tactile worksheets, some of which are meant to be read-only but also many with pre-drawn exercises to be completed by the student. The exercises will range from the elementary, teaching the drawing of basic lines, curves, and shapes, to the more advanced in which objects are drawn by combining the elementary lines and shapes into figures, such as houses and cars. From the beginning this book is intended as a truly multimedia effort. The book will incorporate templates or stencils to aid in learning shapes by feel and how to draw them.

Eventually we anticipate the development of other learning tools for the inTACT Sketchpad. As I am writing this article, the company is developing a set of plastic overlays to fit snugly over the top of the Sketchpad. To introduce blind students to the different types of triangles and quadrilaterals, each overlay contains cutouts of the different shapes. Each shape will have a Braille label to identify it. We will accompany these overlays with a study guide containing a set of definitions of each type of triangle or quadrilateral (e.g., equilateral, scalene, acute, rhombus, trapezoid, etc.) Students will learn to identify each form by examining the corresponding shape in the overlay. To reinforce learning, they may draw the border of each shape on the Sketchpad and shade in the area of that shape if they wish.

After mastering the definitions of the various shapes of triangles and quadrilaterals, we will provide students with an unlabeled set of overlays. The study guide will ask students, for example, to pick out a particular shape such as a scalene triangle or rhombus. They will mark their choice by tracing what they think is the right cutout in the unmarked overlay. For additional self-study students will be asked other questions such as: “Is it possible for an equilateral triangle to be a scalene triangle?” “What is the difference between a rhombus and a trapezoid?” etc. This workbook is intended for demonstration only and not for general classroom use. Our overlays may be used with any teaching units on triangles and quadrilaterals.

After students master these overlays, they will learn to construct triangles and quadrilaterals with the use of a ruler and protractor. Then they will be able to engage in activities of self-discovery, e.g., figuring out formulas for the areas of triangles and quadrilaterals and using triangles to build arbitrary polygonal shapes. These analytical efforts are in keeping with the goals of the common core state standards for mathematics.

We plan to develop other learning aids and tools to accompany our Sketchpad. I have found to my disappointment that I cannot draw a neat circle with a compass. I have since learned that using a compass requires dexterity that is beyond the abilities of many people. We at E.A.S.Y. are giving serious thought to building a tool for drawing circles on our Sketchpad. This tool will be extremely valuable, enabling blind students to perform geometric constructions requiring arcs and complete circles, as well as Venn diagrams. A Venn diagram, consisting of a set of intersecting circles drawn inside a rectangle, is used to display relationships between sets of objects such as intersections, unions, set-differences, and complements. Too often the best that a blind student can do in place of a Venn diagram or other geometric construction is to render a cumbersome verbal description.

With the superior design of our Sketchpad and the forthcoming digital functionality for it, it’s not surprising that E.A.S.Y. is currently getting the lion’s share of attention in tactile graphics. Yet, like other movements that apparently spring up overnight, the tactile fluency revolution has its share of progenitors. The Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit and the APH DRAFTSMAN Tactile Drawing Board have been around for a very long time. Although some vision teachers are using them, they have not had much impact on tactile fluency. In particular Susan Osterhaus at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has been a fierce advocate but gives us full credit for coming up with the term “Tactile Fluency.” Ann Cunningham at the Colorado Center for the Blind has been actively engaged in teaching tactile art to blind people since 2009 with her Sensational Blackboard. When I saw her in Orlando, Ann told me that she was writing a book to teach art to blind people of all ages. We eagerly anticipate the publication of her book. On the academic side, Dr. Paul Gabias, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Okanagan, has performed extensive research on tactile perception and its comparison with visual perception.

We are at an opportune moment for significant advances in tactile graphics. Several independent events highlight the need for a unified approach for Braille and tactile graphics. These events are exactly what we need to stimulate major advances in tactile fluency. For example, in Orlando we heard from Christopher Downey, an architect who lost his vision suddenly in 2008. However, he continues to work as an architect by using improvised tactile systems. As a blind person he served as an architectural consultant to designing a rapid transit bus system for the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District in California. He served as a contract architect to the design of a 170,000-square-foot Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center for the Veterans Administration in Palo Alto. He is currently starting to design new offices for the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco.

As we listened to Downey’s presentation, it became very clear to us that he would benefit immensely from the digital features that we plan to incorporate into our Sketchpad. Downey’s story further reminds me of successful blind scientists I heard of in my youth. I was told back then that these folks were successful because they lost their sight after attaining their scientific reputations. By implication there was no possible way to attain scientific stature when starting out blind. Today we know better. We accept Christopher Downey’s success story with the understanding and the belief that, if he made it, success in his field is possible for any of us.

In year two the tactile fluency revolution is alive and well. It has been an unqualified success. Our greatest impact can be seen in the successes we have had with our NFB BELL students. This is the generation that will have boundless opportunities as engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and designers of all types. I’m convinced that computer-aided design software will be as useful to them as text-based applications are to us today. Even more encouraging, as they grow into adulthood, these students will be well versed in all of the skills of blindness as well as in living the Federation philosophy. This will enable them to compete on terms of equality.

There is still much work to be done in reaching the goal of tactile fluency for everyone. We need all the help we can get. If you would like to join us, please get in touch with me: by email at <[email protected]>, or by phone at (443) 745-9274. See you on the barricades!

What Worked for Us

Here are the items we used in our NFB BELL classes and two sessions of NFB Camp. We have not tested other items. When we found something that worked, we stopped looking and used it. This list is just to help you get started in teaching tactile graphics. We encourage you to look for other items and develop other teaching techniques. If you find anything you would like to share with us, either good or bad, please contact me, <[email protected]>.

The quarter-inch foam sheets were purchased at Michaels Craft Store:
Although this link refers to black sheets, when ordering, the color may be changed to white. We chose white over black due to odor and texture differences.

The Craft Knife and extra blades:
Used to trim the cutouts on the foam sheets, was also purchased at Michael’s Craft Store.

Geometric Shape Templates are made by Learning Resources
> and were purchased from eNasco:

The Con-Tact Brand non-adhesive Shelf Liner, Grip Prints Liner, 12 in. x 10 ft. Almond
<> was purchased at Home Depot.

Tombow’s Xtreme Adhesive was purchased at Michaels Craft Store but is also available online through <

Animal Zoo Foam Play Puzzle was purchased at <> but is probably available elsewhere.

Geometric Shapes from Learning Resources
<> was purchased from

This is a set of ten three-dimensional shapes, inviting students to explore geometry. Shapes have a common three-inch dimension to illustrate relationships between area, volume, shape, form and size. Plastic shapes include cone, sphere, hemisphere, cube, cylinder, rectangular prism, hexagonal prism, triangular prism, square pyramid, and triangular pyramid. Although we did not use these shapes in our NFB BELL classes, they appear to be a useful way to teach blind children about three-dimensional objects.

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