Braille Monitor                                     October 2017

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Engineering Tools for Tactile Fluency: A Partnership with the Organized Blind Movement

by Josh Coffee

Josh CoffeeFrom the Editor: Drawing is one of the first things children old enough to be trusted with a pencil and paper do. Then they take those drawings to be admired. As they get older, what they draw is gently critiqued: “The dog needs a longer tail.” “The camel is missing his hump.” This feedback, along with what is gathered through observing other drawings, makes learning through pictures second nature, but until now this has not been so for the blind.

Josh Coffee is the president of E.A.S.Y. LLC. In his presentation he explains how his company and the National Federation of the Blind are making drawing and looking at pictures part of the life experience for young people. Here is what he says:

Hello, Federationists. Mark invited us here today to tell you guys our story, because I think that there are a lot of important takeaways from our story and from the work we've learned that we should be working in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind. Our story began, as Mark was alluding to, by a chance conversation between my colleague and fellow cofounder Dr. Mike Rosen at the University of Vermont and Dr. Al Maneki, a proud member of the Maryland division of the National Federation of the Blind. They got into a long conversation about what challenges blind students faced at the time, specifically in the pursuit of STEM education and opportunities in STEM career paths. What they kept coming back to was an inability to gain full access to graphical content in the STEM fields, and that was a severely limiting aspect of the pursuit of education in these areas.

Dr. Rosen suggested that Dr. Maneki bring a crazy idea to the National Federation of the Blind, which was that they sponsor a senior experience in engineering design course at the University of Vermont. Dr. Rosen, in partnership with our third cofounder Dr. Mike Coleman, would mentor teams of students at the University of Vermont in mechanical and electrical engineering to think about how we can innovate new technologies to bring access to digital graphical content to the blind community.

Al Maneki happened to be going to a bar-b-que at Dr. Marc Maurer's house the next day. So, in a matter of forty-eight hours, Mike Rosen got a call back, and it said, "Yes, we'll do it." I think a week later we had a check for $20,000 from the National Federation of the Blind to begin this pursuit of innovation.

Fast-forward three years: I was a student on the third consecutive student team at the University of Vermont. We brought to convention a prototype for the first embosser of tactile graphics on an interactive tactile drawing medium. This was the first embosser that involved read/write graphics, not just read-only graphics. The inspiration for that was the mentorship of the National Federation of the Blind leadership throughout the course of our academic project. We were taken aback at our first convention because these tools for tactile drawing, the idea that you can draw and feel what you're drawing, that has been around for about fifty years. But as we showed off our hot new scanner and embosser for tactile graphics, we quickly realized that about seven out of ten people who came by our booth had never tried tactile drawing. They were discouraged from it in school because their sighted teachers or even their parents, out of harmless ignorance, just didn't realize that blind people could draw and communicate graphically if they were given that opportunity at a young age. If they had the capacity to draw tactilely when their sighted peers had crayons, they could pursue graphical fluency, they could succeed in STEM fields, they could use that capacity to become architects and engineers and doctors. But the fundamental problem was that very few people were being exposed to it as a learning tool and as a communication method.

One year after starting our company, after graduating from academia, and after partnering with the National Federation of the Blind to incorporate and obtain seed funding and pursue this as a corporate endeavor, we realized that we had to totally change our business model and that we didn't need to release the next hot scanner/embosser for tactile graphics, but that we needed to partner with the National Federation of the Blind in advocating for tactile graphics fluency. We needed to create the most affordable and user-friendly version of a tactile drawing tool to date so that five-year-olds and six-year-olds could affordably begin scribbling next to their sighted peers [applause].

So the next year we came back to convention with a prototype for the inTACT Sketchpad. We released this product at 60 percent of the cost of the next closest competitor so that parents and teachers could afford it. We viewed this as a necessity because we knew that, not only for our brand to succeed, but in order for us to continue to innovate and to work toward the release of our high-tech digital products, we needed to get a user base of people who could show others in this community that if you had the right tools and the right experience, and if kids had the opportunity to have fun with drawing, that they could develop the capacity to compete graphically. And that's what we've done.

We released the inTACT Sketchpad four years ago. Now at conventions, it's very rare that we meet someone who hasn't tried tactile drawing before. We are seeing people four years later who bought inTACT Sketchpads as a young child, and now they're using it in their math class going into middle school [applause]. This has given us the opportunity to learn from the Federation and to also curve our pursuit of new technologies.

We have obtained over $1.2 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to further develop the technology we first demonstrated at this convention six years ago. We are in the process of executing a phase two STTR grant in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind, the Texas School for the Blind, the Perkins School for the Blind, Pearson Publishing, and the American Institutes for Research—all of whom are interested in integrating this interactive graphics curriculum into their programming. We are building partnerships through our connection with the National Federation of the Blind, partnerships we never could have made if we didn't listen to this great organization and its members, and if we weren't willing to learn from the perspectives of the people in this room and the people we have met over the last six years.

During the scope of this grant what we have done over the last year is we have introduced the first interactive tactile graphics worksheets into curricula at the Texas School for the Blind and the Perkins School for the Blind. These are the first embossed STEM exercises that are made accessible to blind and low-vision students, the equivalent to exercises that sighted students have been doing for years and years with ink and pencil [applause]. We have tested over one hundred exercises with over twenty-five TVIs through these programs, and we have found that these students not only are learning from them, but they are having fun while doing it. We are hoping to continue to expand this beta testing program throughout the next year at these institutions as well as partnering with publishers and online learning management system administrators to make sure that their digital graphical content is made accessible and that blind students are able to interact with digital content through their websites so that they have equal opportunity to pursue the same degrees and the same opportunities that their sighted peers have through drawing [applause].

As I wrap up I want to offer thanks to everyone in this room and to the community as a whole. We would not be here were it not for the faith of the National Federation of the Blind in our program. My colleagues—Mike Rosen, Mike Coleman, and I—are always humbled and appreciative of the outpouring of support and love we get from this community every time we come here. You have impassioned us; you have invigorated our passion for design as engineers, and it is unbelievably humbling and exciting to come here every year and report on our progress. On that note, we want to make some commitments to you. After six years of working on this project, we are totally invested in the pursuit of equality in STEM education for blind and low-vision students. We want to commit to you that we will continue to innovate to pursue that goal. We will continue to listen to the people of this community. We will continue to take your advice and commentary and try to use that to build products that enable opportunity in the pursuit of education. We will continue to work with parents and teachers and blind students and publishers and advocates to show that drawing is not a visual skill; it is a spacial skill, and if we give people the tools and opportunities they need, they can accomplish it.

So in closing, thank you, specifically to the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind for believing in us, to Dr. Marc Maurer who, at a casual picnic with Al Maneki, made the decision to believe in us as a university and as a research program, and to Mark Riccobono for continuing to be a champion of our cause and continuing to be a mentor to us every time we have the chance to meet with him. I thank you guys for your time, and that's it [applause].

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