Future Reflections        Convention Issue 2013

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The Dawn of the Age of Tactile Fluency: Let the Revolution Begin!

by Al Maneki

From the Editor: Dr. Al Maneki retired in 2007 after serving as a mathematician with the US Department of Defense for thirty-three years. This article is an expanded version of the presentation he gave during the NOPBC conference on July 1, 2013.

Up to now, parents of every blind child have inevitably run up against this vexing problem: "My blind child will be taking geometry next year. How will we handle all of those drawings?" Back in my student days, that question didn't arise until the second or third year of high school. Today this question is more likely to come up in middle school. In my day, from the administrator's point of view, the answer was simple: "We will exempt your child from this required course." As simple as this answer is, it is never the right answer. Yet, most parents, including mine, accepted that answer because they knew of no other alternative. We all knew that it wasn't right, but we accepted it anyway.

A girl at NFB Camp works on a tactile drawing.When I studied at the University of Hawai'i, I figured out a way to handle the diagrams in a standard geometry class. I discovered the Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit. Although I lacked the motor skills to draw diagrams on this drawing board, my professors or fellow students drew the diagrams for me. When the time came for me to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter, I verbally described the pictures that other students were drawing. If my descriptions were satisfactory, my professors accepted my answers to their test questions.

Fortunately, today there are better solutions, and fewer parents are saying "yes" to exemptions from required courses. The blind children of today cannot afford to wait until the start of their geometry classes or the start of their college studies to learn graphic skills. It is beginning to be understood that just as Braille is best mastered if it is taught at an early age, we must also begin teaching graphic skills to blind children at an early age. Braille and tactile graphics are inseparable. They belong to the same tactile medium. To describe competence in the tactile medium, whether it is in the form of Braille dots or raised lines, my colleagues and I have coined the term tactile fluency.

In a real sense, Braille and raised-line graphics are part of the same medium for learning and self-expression. In the sighted world, written language and pictorial representations exist because some ideas are better communicated in words and others in pictures. The two complement each other. Sighted people can be equally at ease expressing their thoughts in words or in pictures, depending on which is most suitable to the situation. Likewise, blind people should be equally at home reaching for a slate and stylus or reaching for a raised-line sketchpad.

We blind people are too accustomed to the idea of expressing in words what is best described in pictures. Often it is time-consuming and inefficient to express in words what is best conveyed with diagrams or drawings. This inefficiency must cease! If blind persons are to be tactilely fluent, we must be proficient in drawing and interpreting diagrams as well as in Braille reading and writing. We encourage our sighted children to start reading and drawing before kindergarten; we must encourage our blind children to do likewise. Their first efforts at drawing the simplest objects may appear crude. Yet, with encouragement and more practice, their skills will improve.

A girl explains her picture to E.A.S.Y.'s Mike Coleman as he examines it with his fingers.Tactile-graphics technology has advanced to the point where we can produce satisfactory diagrams with embossing devices and incorporate these diagrams into Braille textbooks. However, the ability of blind people to draw their own diagrams lags far behind. The Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit, the APH Draftsman, and other devices still exist. However, the potential to teach blind people to sketch on these boards or to use them as a medium of self-expression has been given minimal emphasis. Furthermore, there has never been an effective way to perform erasures and make changes to tactile sketches.

When future historians examine the records, I think they will conclude that the revolution in tactile fluency began in 2008. In other articles, I've described my first meeting with Mike Rosen and Mike Coleman, two professors in the School of Engineering at the University of Vermont. In the freewheeling way that scholars, scientists, artists, and engineers can let their imaginations roam, we conjured up the inspiration for developing an eraser for the raised-line drawing board. After all, who can imagine using pencils without erasers? In this light, the idea of creating an eraser for the drawing board was compelling. To Rosen and Coleman, the design of an eraser was a perfect fit for the School of Engineering's required course, the Senior Experience in Engineering Design, or SEED.

The National Federation of the Blind is an organization that never hesitates to take bold action when it can support a good idea. When I explained the SEED project and the minimal funding it would require to President Marc Maurer, he immediately said "yes!" The payoff from our SEED investment was immediate. At the 2009 convention in Detroit, we showed the first prototype of our thermal eraser. This was only the beginning. Today, not only do we have a sleek battery-powered thermal eraser, but we now have the beginnings of an entire line of products that allow for the creation, editing, reproduction, and digital transmission of raised-line drawings.

By the spring of 2011 our work in tactile graphics had outgrown the scope of the SEED course. At this point Mike Rosen, Mike Coleman, SEED graduate Joshua Coffee, and I decided that tactile graphics had matured to the point where its work should be organized as a separate corporate venture. With support from NFB and the University of Vermont, we founded E.A.S.Y. LLC, Engineering to Assist and Support You, early in 2012.

I want to say a few words about our company and its four principals: Rosen, Coleman, Coffee, and me. We are deeply committed to the revolution in tactile fluency. Since I have written much about myself elsewhere, I will say here only that I serve without compensation as the chairman of E.A.S.Y. LLC's board of advisors. Rosen and Coleman have given up most of their teaching duties and a good part of their secure university salaries to devote more of their time to our company. Joshua Coffee could have accepted a much better paying position with a well-established company, but chose instead to cast his lot with us. E.A.S.Y. has been organized as a for-profit company. Its mission statement (available at <easytactilegraphics.com>), however, commits us to providing remarkable functionality at affordable prices.

Josh Coffee of E.A.S.Y. LLC shows a picture to a young girl.We couldn't have chosen a finer group of people to join us in the tactile fluency revolution. Both Mikes cut their eye teeth on our movement, not only by exhibiting the first prototype in 2009, but also by enthusiastically taking part in our March for Independence in Detroit that year. Mike, Mike, and Josh understand the benefits of an NFB partnership in product development. They are working with us in the best traditions established by our historical relationships with Ray Kurzweil and Deane Blazie.

At the NFB national convention in Orlando this past summer, the E.A.S.Y. staff presented sessions for parents, teachers, and children to show the line of products, collectively known as inTACT, which are either available for sale or under development. We demonstrated how easy it is to use our drawing board and how effortlessly blind persons of all ages can construct many images, some simple, others more complex. With inTACT, there will be no excuse for exempting blind students from geometry and other classes requiring the construction of graphic images. There will be no excuse for not requiring blind students to submit the same drawings that are required of their sighted peers. Classroom teachers and teachers of blind students will be able to grade and return corrected drawings to blind students.

At the NOPBC session for parents and teachers entitled "Making and Understanding Raised-Line Drawings," I used the inTACT digitized sketchpad to construct the Feuerbach Circle for an acute triangle. The purpose of this construction was not to delve into the intricacies of the Feuerbach Circle, but to show how our sketchpad could be used efficiently in a classroom or in a staff briefing. With our digitized sketchpad and software, the triangle and circle not only appeared on my sketchpad as I drew them, but also simultaneously appeared on the projection screen so the audience could view what I was drawing. At that very moment, I could not help but experience sadness and satisfaction about now having the capacity to perform a task I could never do during my student days and working career. I also thought about my early teachers who said that a blind person could never do mathematics because of the drawing and the writing of equations that the discipline entailed. The memory of the many who might have scoffed inwardly at the thought of a blind person doing mathematics is bittersweet.

At the convention, E.A.S.Y. was also invited to hold a session at NFB Camp to teach tactile graphics to blind and sighted children. Ten youngsters took part in our session. Since we did not know what to expect, we were most surprised when all of the students started to draw their own pictures as soon as we explained how the sketchpad works. Although we adults were not always able to know what the drawings represented, all of the youngsters could tell us what they were drawing when we asked them. What we intended as a one-hour session lasted well over two hours. It became very clear to us from our NFB Camp experience that tactile graphics skills can be taken up very easily by blind or sighted children if we afford them the opportunity. Not only will tactile graphics tools be valuable to blind children, they will also be valuable to sighted children with blind parents.

Holding her daughter in her lap, a mother draws a raised-line picture.I am convinced that the inTACT line of graphics products is just the beginning of tactile graphics tools. The early successes of the revolution in tactile fluency may spawn competing products. We at E.A.S.Y. welcome the competition, and we will do our best to stay ahead of it. One idea that E.A.S.Y. looks forward to developing, for example, is a way to integrate Braille labeling and raised-line drawings on a single board. But we will not wait for the arrival of the ultimate tools to start the tactile fluency revolution. We will take the tools we have now and use them to the benefit of our blind students.

All of us--E.A.S.Y. staff, families, teachers, and students--are vital participants in the revolution in tactile fluency. We must inform teachers of blind students and school administrators about the new products in tactile graphics and how important it is for our schools to teach tactile fluency. Along with ensuring that our blind children learn Braille, parents must place drawing boards in their hands at the earliest possible age. Just as we encourage sighted children to draw what they see, the mantra for our blind children will be, "Draw what you feel." With these early beginnings, it will become natural for parents to insist that their blind children receive appropriate graphics instruction throughout their school years. We must insist that this instruction be specifically included in every IEP. We are currently in discussions with the NFB Jernigan Institute to include graphics units in all of our BELL summer programs beginning in 2014. Our NFB training centers should incorporate graphics training into their programs as well.

I deeply regret that the revolution in tactile fluency did not arrive over sixty years ago when I was in my formative years and could have benefited from it. I'm sorry that I couldn't integrate text and graphics to deepen my comprehension of many technical subjects. Above all, I know that my career as a mathematician would have been much more rewarding if I had both Braille and graphics tools at my command. However, I am optimistic about the prospects for blind students today. Because of the dual facility in Braille and graphics that they will be able to develop, career prospects for them, especially in STEM areas, will far exceed what we think is possible today. Without further delay, let the tactile fluency revolution begin!

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