Future Reflections

Volume 38 Number 2                          Special Issue on Tactile Fluency

A magazine for parents and teachers of blind children published by
the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults in partnership
with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.

Deborah Kent Stein, Editor


Copyright © 2019 American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults

For more information about blindness and children contact:
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
200 East Wells Street at Jernigan Place, Baltimore, MD 21230 • 410-659-9314
https://nfb.org/nopbc[email protected][email protected]


Las Vegas Site of 2019 NFB Convention

The 2019 convention of the National Federation of the Blind will take place July 7 to July 12, at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, 3950 South Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, Nevada 89119. Make your room reservation as soon as possible with the Mandalay Bay Resort staff only. Call 877-632-9001.

The 2019 room rate of $99 per night applies to singles and doubles as well as triples and quads. Hotel and sales taxes are 13.38 percent and 8.25 percent, respectively. The resort fee (normally $37 a night) will be waived for NFB convention attendees. However, fees for internet access, local and toll-free calls, and fitness center access may apply. The hotel will take a deposit of the first night's room rate for each room and will require a credit card or a personal check. If you use a credit card, the deposit will be charged against your card immediately. If a reservation is cancelled before Friday, June 1, 2019, half of the deposit will be returned. Otherwise refunds will not be made.

Rooms will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations may be made before June 1, 2019, assuming that rooms are still available. After that time the hotel will not hold our room block for the convention. In other words, you should get your reservation in soon.

Among the hotel's features is an aquatic playground called Mandalay Bay Beach, which has real sand, a wave pool, and a lazy river. The hotel is also home to an aquarium with more than two thousand animals, including sharks, green sea turtles, and a Komodo dragon. Plus, it offers top-notch entertainment, including Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil.

The schedule for the 2019 convention is:

Sunday, July 7                          Seminar Day
Monday, July 8                        Registration and Resolutions Day
Tuesday, July 9                        Board Meeting and Division Day
Wednesday, July 10               Opening Session
Thursday, July 11                    Business Session
Friday, July 12                          Banquet Day and Adjournment



The Gift of Touch
by Deborah Kent Stein


Encouraging Exploration
by Carol Castellano


"Dad, Where's the Plunger?"
by Richard Holloway

Tactile Fluency: Expanding the Concept
by Barbara Shalit


Emergent Literacy: Picture Books for Babies
by Ann Cunningham

Lessons from the Tactile Art Kit
compiled by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults

Teaching Blind Kids to Draw: What Have We Learned So Far?
by Al Maneki

The Hungry Fingers Way to Tactile Graphics
by Boguslaw ("Bob") Marek


Tactile Graphics in Education and Careers
by Stacie Dubnow

Tactile Fluency through Interactive Tactile Graphics Worksheets
by Michael J. Coleman and Michael J. Rosen

Touch Graphics Turns Twenty
by Steve Landau

Semiconductors, Streetscapes, and Learning through Touch
A Conversation with Josh Miele


From Pickles and Papyrus to Bats and Brains
by Lindsay Yazallino

Teaching Exploration: Correcting a Glaring Flaw in the Education of Blind Children
by Geerat J. Vermeij


More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art
by Georgina Kleege, Reviewed by Deborah Kent Stein


Blindness Skills: The Only Sure Bet in Vegas
by Carlton Walker



Why Join the NOPBC?

Are you the parent of a blind or visually impaired child? Don’t know where to turn? 

Founded in 1983, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) is a membership organization of parents, educators, and friends of blind children reaching out to give each other vital support, encouragement, and information. We have thousands of members in all fifty states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.

The NOPBC offers hope, encouragement, information, and resources for parents of blind or visually impaired children. NOPBC provides emotional support and a network of other families dealing with the same challenges you are facing. We also provide information, training, and resources to empower you to take an active role in guiding your child’s development and education. We can provide information on your child’s rights and on the laws and legislative issues that will enable you and your child to become strong and effective advocates. 

Have you ever wondered what your blind or visually impaired child will be capable of when he or she grows up? The answer to that question is that blindness/visual impairment does not have to stop your child from doing anything he or she wants to do. We can connect you with other families and blind adults who can serve as positive mentors and role models. They can teach you the attitudes and techniques that will enable your child to become independent and to succeed in life.  

What is different about the NOPBC?

Our status as a division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest and most influential organization of blind people in the world, provides many benefits. Our members are well informed about the societal, legislative, and technological issues that affect blind people. We also enjoy the resources, support, and expertise of fifty thousand blind people who can serve as mentors and role models for us and our children. Finally, as our children grow up, they have the Federation to belong to.

No other organization for parents of blind/visually impaired children offers more programs, activities, and training to families, children, and youth. One of our most exciting activities is our annual conference. Every year since it was established, the NOPBC has conducted an annual conference for parents and teachers of blind children as part of the national convention of the NFB. The program has grown to include five exciting days of workshops, training sessions, activities for all family members, including sighted siblings, and countless opportunities to meet blind adults and other families and children from around the country.

What is the mission of the NOPBC?

The purpose of the NOPBC is to:

Most states have an NOPBC affiliate chapter. You can find your state chapter at http://www.nopbc.org. If your state does not have a chapter and you would like to start one, please contact us. We may be able to offer training and other assistance to start a state NOPBC chapter.

What are the programs, activities, publications, and resources of the NOPBC?

Contact Us:
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children
[email protected]

The Gift of Touch

by Deborah Kent Stein

Growing up as a blind child, I was blessed with parents who understood that I would gather most of my knowledge about the world around me through touch. Nearly every day Mom took me on walks in our suburban neighborhood, showing me telephone poles, mailboxes, fire hydrants, and the toadstools that popped up in the grass after a rain. I remember her hoisting me high to touch the icicles that hung above the front door, and Dad showing me the bags of peat moss he was spreading on the garden. I even remember Dad lifting me up to examine the bald head of a family friend at a party, to everyone's vast amusement.

My parents modeled the concept of tactile access, and our neighbors and relatives followed their lead. My uncle brought me a lizard, racing in circles at the bottom of a metal wastebasket. A neighbor up the street showed me the body of a mourning dove that had crashed into her picture window. Through all these opportunities to examine and explore, I built a vast storehouse of tactile memories, mental images that have served me throughout my life. I also learned to use my hands efficiently for gathering information. Although the term was unfamiliar in those days, I gained a high degree of tactile fluency.

The critical importance of touch in the lives of blind children might seem intuitive, but many barriers, literal and figurative, can prevent our blind children from learning to explore with their hands. Our society places a host of prohibitions against touching things, and "Don't touch!" is one of the first rules that sighted children learn. "Don't touch that! It's fragile.” “That's sharp; it will hurt you.” “That isn't yours; leave it alone!” “Don't touch!" Raised in this touch-phobic atmosphere, parents of blind children may feel uncomfortable about letting their kids have a hands-on view of the world. People may stare and frown. But then again, others will understand, smile, and say, "And come over here! Check this out!” I believe that my parents understood that saying "Don't touch!" to a blind child is the same as saying, "Don't look!" to a child with eyesight.

Tactile fluency in its many facets is the theme of this issue of Future Reflections. Carol Castellano explains that tactile fluency can help blind children achieve independence. Ann Cunningham and Al Maneki write about introducing young blind children to pictures and drawing. Stacie Dubnow, Steve Landau, and Mike Coleman and Mike Rosen discuss technological innovations that give blind people greater access to graphics, and Lindsay Yazallino shares some of her adventures with tactile exploration and discovery.

With the advent of 3D printing and other new technologies, the field of tactile fluency has awakened the interest of scientists, educators, and the blind community. The articles in this issue of Future Reflections only graze the surface, but I hope they will lead readers to question assumptions and reach out for new possibilities.

Encouraging Exploration

by Carol Castellano

From the Editor: Carol Castellano has dedicated her career to breaking down barriers for blind children and their families. She founded and is the past president of the Parents of Blind Children of New Jersey (POBC-NJ), and she is a past president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Her books include Making It Work and Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade.

We have so many hopes and dreams for our blind children. We want them to develop to their full potential. We want them to be able to do things for themselves and become contributing members of the household. We hope they will learn to play and get along with others. We want them to learn well in school and eventually to do fulfilling work. We wish for a satisfying life for them, complete with friends, family, and fun. As we guide our blind children toward exploration of the world, we lead them closer to the achievement of all these goals.

Exploration is the key to learning for all babies, so it is critical to make sure that our blind babies move out into the world. Through exploration babies discover the world, finding out about all the fascinating things that are out there. As the baby comes into contact with objects in the environment, he/she begins to learn what things look like, how they work, and what to expect. Curiosity awakens, and the baby becomes motivated to learn even more. Concept development begins, and with it come problem solving and the ability to make choices and decisions. The ability to gain information about the world through touch and the other senses is a foundational skill for a blind child to master.

Interesting, stimulating contact with objects "out there" helps the baby perceive himself or herself as an active agent in the world. Blind children are very vulnerable to being acted upon by others. People constantly try to guide them, moving them and turning them and inadvertently teaching them to become passive. In the words of Joe Cutter, the renowned early childhood mobility specialist, blind children need to be doers, not just done-to-ers. We adults in the blind baby's life can provide a stimulating environment that encourages joyful, active, independent, self-initiated movement. The movement will lead to contact with objects in the world. The exploration of those objects will lead to an understanding of the world and the things in it and to a self-image as an active person. 

A general knowledge of child development helps parents of blind babies determine where their child is in terms of milestones and figure out the next logical steps. Add to this a familiarity with the alternative skills of blindness (the skills that will enable the blind child to do everyday tasks without or with limited eyesight) and parents will be able to intervene if the child seems stuck. Joe Cutter refers to these interventions as "the alternative techniques of blindness for babies." For example, if blind children do not seem interested in moving and exploring, try enticing them with music or their favorite toys. We got our blind daughter to begin crawling by crinkling a bag with her favorite snack from across the room. She knew that sound well. She may not have been able to see the bag, but she sure could hear it, and that motivated her to go get it!

Parents can observe the activities other children enjoy—and from which they learn—and encourage the blind child to try the same things. One day when my sighted son was two, he crawled into one of our kitchen cabinets and began banging on the pots and pans. It occurred to me that our five-year-old daughter, our blind child, had never done this. I nudged her right into that cabinet with him so she could enjoy the fun and have that developmental experience, too. 

As our children move and explore, we parents supply them with words. We name the objects they touch and the actions they perform. We talk with them about people and places, sensations and emotions. These words help children name and organize the information they take in through exploration. As development progresses, children move from the concrete world of sensations to the conceptual world of thought, ideas, imagination, and reasoning. They begin to ask WHY, to wonder HOW, and ponder WHAT IF . . . The combination of exploration, discovery, and language development enables so many other aspects of development—intellectual growth, social ability, even behavior and emotional development.

In order for the process of development to continue, we need to provide lots of opportunities for exploration, learning, and practicing new skills. We must be careful not to let our fears hold the blind child back from movement and activity. Instead, we must learn about the safe, effective methods that blind people use to accomplish various tasks and make sure that our children learn those skills.
As our blind children get older, their exploration moves out into the larger world. They move about more independently and interact with more people outside the family group. Take them with you into the community. Give them firsthand experience with the supermarket, the post office, and the bank. Take them to the park, to a farm, and to town hall. Introduce them to plays and concerts. Read them the newspaper; it has lots of interesting features, plus the sports pages, and of course the comics. All these activities will help your children develop a wide body of knowledge that will spark intellectual curiosity. This knowledge base will enable your children to achieve reading and school success and will facilitate normal social relationships with peers.

At home, continued exploration for the school-age child might take the form of chores and other household tasks. Let the child fully explore the kitchen, the basement, and the toolshed. Encourage all the "how" questions. How does an omelet get made? How does the lawnmower cut the grass? How does the garbage get out to the curb every few days? Remember that the blind child needs to know everything that other children know. If others are learning about something through sight, the blind child needs to learn about it through touch and the other senses, along with words. By building a solid foundation of knowledge the child will grow up to become a fully functioning, fully competent adult.

At school, especially in the early grades, make sure the child is allowed ample time to explore the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, the restrooms, and the playground. If our children are given the opportunity to gain an understanding of the school environment, they will not have to rely on someone guiding them, either physically or through a constant stream of information. We want our children to learn to gather information for themselves and to self-orient. Insist that your child have the freedom to move around in the school environment with an increasing level of independence.

Make sure that the child's teachers and classroom aides encourage age-appropriate independent movement. Teach them not to help too much and not to restrict the child's movement on the playground or during class activities. You may have to help school staff put aside assumptions about what is or is not safe for a blind child. At the same time, make sure the child learns the skills necessary for keeping safe. Invite the teachers to be on the team that has as its goal a child who is independent, self-motivated, self-directed, and responsible.

If our blind children are able to discover information for themselves, tap into a knowledge base formed by many life experiences, and perform the alternative skills of blindness, they will have the foundation for self-reliance and good decision-making. They will grow up with confidence, excitement in trying new things, and a lifelong love of learning. This is the future we seek for all children, blind and sighted alike.

"Dad, Where’s the Plunger?"

by Richard Holloway

From the Editor: Since its original publication in Future Reflections, this article has been reprinted in at least four other publications, quoted in articles within and outside the Federation, and even translated into Hungarian. Clearly it speaks in a unique way to an extremely important issue in the lives of blind children. Blind children may have serious gaps in the incidental knowledge that their sighted peers acquire through vision. Most of the information that sighted children glean visually can be gathered through tactile exploration, given plenty of opportunities for hands-on exploration. In this article, Richard Holloway describes how he helped his blind daughter, Kendra, fill in some important information gaps.

"Dad, do we have a plunger?" my daughter asked one afternoon. "Where's the plunger?"

I was a little concerned. Why would my eight-year-old daughter possibly need a plunger, after all? This just couldn't be good!

"I want to know what a plunger feels like!" she explained.

Wow! I had done it again. I pride myself on describing the visual world to my blind daughter, but there it was—another little hole in her understanding. Did we have a plunger? Sure. Was I going to let her explore it with her hands? Well, no, that didn't seem the best plan. You might find ours to be as well-washed as any slightly used plunger anywhere, but I'm not going to put it into a child's hands for tactile exploration.

"I'm sorry," I said, "we don't have a plunger that you can touch. It isn't clean enough. But what if I take you to the store and let you explore a new, clean plunger?"

Kendra was delighted with the idea. That's how I came to take her on her first Home Depot expedition.

Adventures at Home Depot

There was nothing I needed to buy. This was an outing of exploration, a true quest for knowledge. We made our way to Home Depot's plumbing aisle. Not only did Kendra get to look at a plunger, but she soon learned that there are different styles of plungers, made from different materials, and that they come in various sizes. She was fascinated and full of questions.

After a while we moved on. I had blocked several hours of the day for this outing, just in case. Where should we head next?

Toilet seats! There was an entire wall of them only a few feet away. Standard length, elongated, with lids, without lids, plastic, wooden, hard, padded, even some with a cutout in front—which prompted another whole discussion! The greatest fascination for my daughter was why the seats were arranged vertically on the wall that way. I began to realize how much information she was missing, information that most kids pick up without any special effort on anyone's part.

What about whole toilets? We have never encouraged Kendra to explore toilets with her hands, but brand-new ones are as clean as anything else in a store. We checked out the toilets, then moved on to tubs and showers. Next we found sinks for both the bathroom and the kitchen.

Before long, we had examined all the plumbing supplies we could find. We began to roam the store's other aisles. Appliances, Carpet and Flooring, Lumber, Fencing, Landscape. Kendra hates the noise of lawnmowers and other loud machines. In the store she understood that they were turned off and would make no frightening sounds, so she explored them freely.

Kendra seemed to enjoy hardware a lot, too. She was fascinated to learn how small and how large nuts and bolts can be. Tools were also fun. The many shapes and sizes of hand tools and power tools were quite new to her.

Shoes, Balls, Motors

The Home Depot outing left me exhausted. It involved several hours of intense describing and explaining, but the effort was well worthwhile. Not long after that Kendra had a question about shoes for sports. The concept of cleats seemed bizarre to her. We headed to Sports Authority and went straight to the shoe racks. I showed her baseball cleats, soccer cleats, football cleats, turf shoes, golf shoes, and any other unusual shoes I could find. I also let her explore more conventional tennis shoes so she could compare them to basketball shoes and running shoes.

Many questions followed, and ideas started popping into my head. Did Kendra have any idea that a baseball glove is a giant oversized thing nothing like the gloves she'd seen before? Did she know that there are different kinds of gloves for baseball and softball? Had she ever heard of a catcher's mitt? Did she know what a wooden bat was like compared to an aluminum bat?

We explored baseballs, softballs, and footballs. Kendra was surprised to learn that some balls aren't even round! She wondered why some balls have laces or seams. How many kinds of balls were there? We found tennis balls, soccer balls, golf balls, and bowling balls.

We compared inline skates with roller skates. We noticed that skateboard wheels felt a lot like skate wheels. We compared different kinds of life preservers and various wet suits. We found the weights department and felt weights from one pound up to twenty pounds or more, one pound at a time. We compared the shapes of the weights and how hard they were to lift. We examined barbells, dumbbells, ankle weights, and free weights. Who knew there were so many kinds of weights to choose from? I could sense the wheels turning in Kendra's mind. Pieces were coming together for her about a lot of things.

Since then, we've made trips to a lot of different stores. Bass Pro Shops was especially interesting, with row after row of boating and camping supplies. In the boating area Kendra learned what an anchor is like. She discovered that anchors come in assorted designs and sizes. Outboard motors, too, come in a wide range of sizes. We examined little electric motors and gas engines from two horsepower up to 350. My five-year-old son could just about lift the smallest engines, but the big ones are over seven feet tall and weigh over 800 pounds.

Fortunately, the store had a rack with at least a dozen engines of various sizes for Kendra to touch and compare. I took her to the back of a boat with a 350-HP engine. She studied it from the ground up. It was taller than she could reach, so I lifted her on my shoulders until she could touch the very top.

We've searched the auto parts store for all things automotive. We've compared many wheels and tires at a tire store. They come in lots of sizes, but the different tread patterns on tires seem to be the most interesting feature. We've explored all sorts of electronics at stores such as Best Buy and Fry's, though feeling the internal parts of an old junk computer at home seemed to be more interesting than exploring new machines on display.

It may be easier and faster to get through the supermarket if we don't discuss every item on each shelf. However, when time allows, grocery shopping certainly can be a fascinating opportunity. We've found a lot to explore in the produce section—that's one part of the store where most of the products are out in the open, not encased in plastic wrappings or cardboard boxes.

Up on the Roof

When Kendra was six years old, we took her with us to pick out a Christmas tree. Kendra helped us make our selection, so she knew what the tree looked like. As we drove home, Kendra wondered aloud where we had put the tree; she knew there was no room for it inside our van. Where did the tree go? How did it fit?

"We put the tree on the roof of the van," I explained. I showed her the roof from the inside and said the tree was on top of that.

My answer didn't seem to help much. "How can it be outside the car?" Kendra asked.

As soon as we got home, I grabbed a ladder. I invited Kendra to climb up as I stood behind her. Standing on the top rung didn't help a lot either. A sighted person can easily see the entire roof of a van from a ladder, but only a small portion was within Kendra's reach.

Finally, I guided Kendra to move from the ladder onto the roof of the van. She sat and explored all she wanted. The tree was still tied to the roof rack, so she could find out how it stayed on in the wind. I remembered the little pocket camera on my belt and snapped a quick photo. I still smile when I see that picture, thinking of that day and that moment of learning.

Perhaps my daughter is not quite old enough yet, but I think we're not far from a walk on the roof of our house. A model of a house would be a great learning tool, of course. But if she can explore the roof safely, there's nothing like firsthand experience!

Closer to the ground, we've examined a lot of plants over the years. As a gardening enthusiast, I've maintained a sensory garden with interesting plants that have distinctive textures and scents. When she was quite young, Kendra enjoyed having a number of interesting (and relatively safe) plants to explore. They were all within reach from one location that she thought of as hers.

Surprises from Santa

Since Kendra came into our lives, Santa seems to bring us more things to explore, such as extra musical instruments. We have acquired a variety of ukuleles, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, a small harp, and even a drum set. We also have some unusual pieces, such as a Native American flute; a jaw harp; and a kalimba, or African thumb piano. We even have a Theremin, the only electronic instrument you play without touching it. You vary the sounds by moving your hands closer or further from a pair of antennae. I've bought these instruments because nothing beats unlimited exploration time.

We've also taken quite a few trips to large music stores such as Guitar Center, where we can roam the aisles for free. In a music store you can explore hundreds of instruments under one roof. They also have plenty of recording gear and PA equipment, always a great fascination to my child. She especially loves all the faders and knobs on audio consoles.

On the way to the NFB convention in Dallas, we stopped overnight in Vicksburg, Mississippi. As we headed out in the morning, I saw some Civil War cannons in front of the hotel. Kendra was curious. We didn't hesitate to delay our departure. She got out of the car and felt all the parts of a cannon or two.

Close to Home

Chances to supply missing information are almost everywhere. We've found many of them close to home. Not long ago Kendra's cane bumped into a guy wire at the edge of our front yard. We had passed within inches of that wire hundreds of times. Actually, we made a pointed effort to avoid it. It was a trip hazard, after all. Kendra had no idea that the wire was there, but one day she found it with her cane. What was it for?

"It helps hold up the phone pole," I explained. I anticipated the next question, "What's a phone pole?" There it was again, information that Kendra's sighted peers took for granted. My explanation led to details about how electricity and cable TV, phone service, and the Internet get into our home.

"What about water?" No, water comes through pipes underground. In some places, power and phone lines also run underground, and there are no poles.

On a drive soon after this discussion, I spent several minutes telling Kendra every time we passed a phone pole. She couldn't believe there were so many of them. I realized how many other things we passed while she was unaware. From time to time I'd pick something else to tell her about in quantity as well as specific detail—houses and traffic lights, for example. Some things, such as traffic lights, are hard to explore hands-on. I've bought some decommissioned traffic lights for a playhouse I built, so they were available for Kendra to touch.

As parents we've had to be creative and proactive to provide Kendra with opportunities to examine things tactually. Still, hands-on exploration is so valuable that it is truly worth the effort. We have learned a lot together, but a great deal remains for us to explore. This learning process is never really finished.

What, you may ask, does Kendra consider the most meaningful of all these adventures? Home Depot, she will say, without a doubt. At the end of that first adventure she talked me into buying her—you guessed it—her very own plunger! It is a joy to watch our daughter discover the world in her own unique style!

Tactile Fluency: Expanding the Concept

by Barbara Shalit

From the Editor: Barbara Shalit became interested in drawing opportunities for blind students in the 1970s, when she read an article on the subject by John M. Kennedy of the University of Toronto. She worked for many years with the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, and she has served as the lead teacher for New Jersey's NFB BELL Academy.

In the past, training programs for teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) described tactile fluency almost exclusively in terms of preparation for Braille reading. They focused on smooth hand and finger mechanics and, of course, on effective tracking—no scrubbing up and down a letter or contraction, no getting lost looking for the next line.

More recently, however, the definition of tactile fluency has expanded to embrace the comprehensive use of touch for an understanding of both 2- and 3-dimensional objects. Research shows that blind children have inherent abilities to understand raised-line drawings, and we are increasingly aware that students need to develop these abilities for success in the classroom and beyond. Tactile fluency has come to include not only the ability to read and write, but also the ability to interpret and create tactile graphics. We're not just talking about maps and geometry diagrams, either. Starting in pre-kindergarten we're introducing children to raised lines, simple drawings, and a variety of textures. We're encouraging children to express themselves through their own drawings on tactile-sensitive surfaces (not the dining room table!). In short, tactile fluency is now understood to be a necessary component in the self-expression of blind children and a basis for lifelong learning.

Parents and TVIs play a large role in developing tactile fluency in children. Generally TVIs have had limited room in their schedules for activities in this area, needing most of their time for Braille instruction, materials preparation, and consultations with classroom teachers. More time may be allocated for tactile fluency as it becomes incorporated into early-intervention activities and joins other goals in students' Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). 

Building Background

I can't emphasize too strongly that direct experience with the world is the basis for a child's understanding of representations of real objects. Blind children need plenty of opportunities for hands-on exploration of the environment. They need to discover that a car is not simply a couch that carries them from place to place! They need to become thoroughly acquainted with trees and bushes, the corners of rooms, door locks and hinges, tricycle parts, the dog's leash or harness, the cat's condo, and live animals at the petting zoo. This real-life experience will become the foundation for the child's understanding of representations of these and other items as line drawings (most easily understood), possibly with varying textures.

Countless opportunities exist for the child to practice turning direct experience into tactile representation. You're limited only by your imagination, so go for it! Depending on the child's developmental age, the teacher or parent might make a raised-line drawing (RLD) of something very familiar, e.g., the child's bed, a clothing hanger, or a pair of socks. First encourage the child to explore the actual item with hands and fingers. Maybe the sock is striped or ridged. Use a texture for the stripes within the outline of the sock. Talk with the child about the different textures. The child or parent can use a pencil to poke a hole in the drawing of the sock where a toe might poke out. A finger can slip through the hole, and you have a wiggling toe! You're having fun and moving from the real object to its representation.

Has the child ever hugged a tree? Been placed on a tree branch? Ridden in a wagon before reading about one in a story? Does the child really know about the parts of a swing? Have you attached playing cards with clothespins to the spokes of bike wheels for an auditory cue? What's a spoke, anyway? Remember "The Bear Climbed Over the Mountain"? Make and trace a curved line, perhaps first with Wikki Stix, then with a raised-line drawing tool or crayon. Be the bear and track its journey over the hill. Sing the song. Take a toy car for a drive over the mountain, or let a doll climb it.

Research has shown that line drawings are the most readily understood representations in the early stages of developing tactile fluency. If you run out of ideas for illustrations to turn into RLDs, download and print free clip art (umbrella, dog, cake). On the paper's reverse side, use a drawing tool — a hard, sharp pen or pencil, or a tracing wheel — to trace the object, which will produce a raised-line drawing on the flip side. You can also use one of the drawing kits now available, such as the Sensational Blackboard or the inTACT Sketchpad. With these tools there is no need to draw on the reverse side of the page to produce a positive image.

If you have a Braillewriter, you can make a variety of pictures:

As parents and TVIs read this article, they probably will recall other fun activities they've used successfully to develop tactile skills. The creativity is out there to be shared.

A number of raised-line activity books are available commercially or through organizations such as National Braille Press. Use simple mazes to practice tracing and direction-changing. Remember to use directional terminology such as top, bottom, corner, left, right, middle, beside, and between, even with very young children. Eventually (and why not now?) begin to use terms such as north, east, south, and west, especially when taking walks. It may not be the developmental time to delve into compasses and magnetic north, but when that time does come, the vocabulary will sound familiar. This background will prove advantageous during orientation and mobility training.

So far, this approach uses a top-down, adult-to-child, instructional method. It's critical for children to realize that they themselves can create images. They can draw and assemble by themselves, discovering the pleasure and meaning of their own creations. All humans, including children, have an innate drive for self-expression. An important part of tactile fluency includes making one's own art and illustrations. Maybe your child will develop a personal logo well in advance of learning his or her signature. It's conceivable that drawing skills will enable the blind student to hand in a worksheet with his or her own hand-drawn illustrations.

Approaching the Page

Let's skip ahead to fourth grade and a child's first exposure to a bar graph. Approach the page in a sequential, logical way. Initially, have the student get an overview of the page. Are there bumpy parts? Smooth parts? Where's the action, the information? Where is there no information? Using directional terms, have the child place the hands together in the "top middle" of the page and slide the hands down and around. If this approach is difficult, just moving one's hands over the page will help reveal where the content lies.

Next, have the child place the hands together at the top middle of the page and draw them apart and down along each side. Feel the empty margins. Oops, what's that? Oh, a page number. But where's the content information?

Back to the top, and line by line, left to right, encourage the child to explore the page, touching everything there is to touch. The child will come across the graph bars of different lengths to be compared. Then the child will encounter the y-axis and the x-axis and their noted measurements. Wouldn't it be fun if the bar graph related to the child's personal experience, such as who's the tallest family member? Who's next in height?

Homemade Early Drawing Kit

You can make a simple drawing kit by using a framed sheet of window screening. Place the drawing paper on top of the screen. Use thick crayons to draw and drag lines across the page; the crayon lines will leave little pieces of crayon wax on the paper in the shape of the lines. The lines are now tactile. Just drawing strokes and counting them is a simple, satisfying activity. Another activity, requiring a bit more dexterity, involves tracing within shape stencils. Once this skill has been mastered, the child can try drawing the shape freehand. The screen device is commercially available. Other, more sophisticated, devices allow drawn lines to be erased through physical pressure or with an electronic eraser.

Future Opportunities

As your child develops tactile fluency, he or she develops new neural pathways. As the child explores actual 3-dimensional objects, he or she learns to relate them to their 2-dimensional versions. Our goal is to help the child comprehend illustrations that grow more complicated with every school grade. Ultimately these young people will need to read maps and diagrams professionally or in higher education (a car mechanic's schematic, an organic chemist's diagram of a molecule).

In addition to understanding raised-line illustrations, perhaps with differing textures, blind students are likely to encounter 3D printed objects. These objects can be extremely useful, but careful tactile exploration is essential. Students need plenty of experience with thorough tactile exploration in order to benefit from the opportunities that 3D printing can provide. Such exploration, too, falls within the skills of tactile fluency and tactile literacy.

The timing is right for a basic, primary curriculum combining ready-made, raised-line drawings with opportunities for the child to create art and diagrams. This standardized foundation would support both teachers and parents in their efforts to expand the concept of tactile fluency. We have widened our thinking about what constitutes tactile fluency as we share ideas and have fun putting them into practice.

Emergent Literacy: Picture Books for Babies

by Ann Cunningham

From the Editor: Ann Cunningham is a co-owner of Sensational Books! a company that creates tactile access by manufacturing books, materials, and tools that provide information through pictures. Currently she is focused on publishing a Little Library, a collection of books that are designed to introduce young children to tactile graphics.

According to UNESCO, "Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world."

Reading with tactile media is an important part of a tactile reader's literacy development. Unfortunately, many blind readers have not had access to tactile pictures. Pictures help stories come alive and help to develop readers' literacy practices. In this article, I present an overview of strategies to support tactile readers as they develop tactile literacy skills. The information I provide is based upon my years of experience teaching art and graphic design to students at the Colorado Center for the Blind and on my own practice as a tactile sculptor and illustrator.

Literacy begins to develop at an early age and is continuously enhanced throughout adulthood. I believe a child who is blind, if given the chance and presented with well-designed tactile picture books, can learn to interpret pictures right along with children who are sighted. I have come to believe that it is appropriate to introduce pictures to children when they are infants. 

How Does a Person Start Learning Tactile Literacy?

Throughout my teaching experience, I have found that it is helpful to understand the difference between the senses of vision and touch. Vision is essentially a two-dimensional sense. Our brains add depth to the objects we look at by calculating the difference between the two images our eyes simultaneously see and then estimate the depth differential from these images. Our eyes can see only the width and height of an object. We teach ourselves to anticipate depth from what we know about the world and from clues we take from the arrangement of objects within an environment.

In contrast, touch is inherently a three-dimensional sense. It can be taught to interpret 2.1-dimensional information contained in raised-line drawings or sculpted low-relief images that can function as 2D pictures.

Suggestions for Developing 3D to 2D Tactile Literacy

Whether the baby is sighted or blind, the first books should contain "spot pictures." Spot pictures represent simple objects on the page with a plain background. With these simple pictures it is very clear when a child is touching the object. For instance, here is a photo of an illustration from Sadie Can Count. It is a string of ten beads, labeled as “10 beads.”

As you cuddle in to read together, you will begin the story. You will also want to hold the book in a way that makes it inevitable that your child will touch the page. I recommend that you move your finger across the Braille lines as you read to model reading for your child. Even if your child is not touching your hand to find out what your fingers are doing, he or she will register that when you read your body moves in a specific way, just as your voice changes when you read the story.

Each time your child accidentally touches the picture on the page, be sure to confirm this by saying, "That is the ball!" or "You found the ball!" or "Do you feel the Braille dots?"

Begin to collect actual objects and models of the objects pictured in the book you select. When your child is a little older and begins to play on the floor with toys, connect real objects with the images. Name the real objects, such as basketball and toy basketball, and connect them with the image of a basketball. When your child actually makes the connection between the circular shape on the page and the ball itself, the child will have taken the first step toward literacy.

Through my teaching I have discovered that it is not a large step for a student to make the connection between 3D objects and their 2D representations. When I teach this distinction to adult students, I line up a cube, a sphere, and a three-sided pyramid in front of them. Then I give them three cut-out shapes: a circle, a square, and a triangle. After we examine the 3D objects and the 2D cutouts, I ask them, "What shape would you use to represent the sphere?" Without exception, everyone selects the circle.

Key Characteristics and Categories

Another tactile literacy skill that is important to teach and learn is to recognize representations of objects. For all early readers this skill begins with simple, common objects. My book Sadie Can Count introduces new objects in groups of 2, 3, and 4. This is a counting book, and it adds new information such as key characteristics, categories, directionality of the object, rhythm, patterns, texture differences, and tracking. These concepts don't even need to be taught. They are examples of the many opportunities for incidental learning that are contained within pictures. For instance, the beads illustrated in the book don't need to be identical to the string of beads your child has, as long as they have characteristics common to a string of beads.

Max the Mouse Goes on an Adventure is a satisfying story illustrated as a map, another important concept. When you work with a map it is helpful to reinforce the idea that it is a top view, a view from above. Place the map flat on a tabletop while you trace along the path. Unlike "spot pictures," which have no environment indicated, a map is read from above. Putting it on the table will support that idea nonverbally. Of course you can talk about it as well.

Tracking Content

Max the Mouse introduces map concepts, the relationship between 3D and 2D forms, and identification of objects and their key characteristics. It also helps tactile readers to learn about tracking. Tracking involves moving the hands from left to right along the path and anticipating the action from one page to the next. This is done through the position of the path as it leaves one page and starts on the next one. If it ends at the upper righthand corner of the page, children will learn to anticipate that it will continue on the upper lefthand corner of the next page.

Sadie Goes to the Lost and Found Pound is almost ready to go to print. It introduces perspective picture concepts. A book like this is better held up at an angle to indicate that we are now reaching out to objects around us. It is very helpful, though not essential, for your child to have had the opportunity to interact with a dog or a cat. When they get the chance, more parts of the puzzle will fall into place.

If you are able to make a tactile picture book, include uncluttered objects positioned within an environment. Your child will learn how separate objects can be arranged within an image and indicate their relationship to each other through scale. Such simple pictures can show the ground-line, where an object connects with the ground. In the Lost and Found Pound the dogs are attached to the ground at their feet. The relationship to a line where the wall meets the floor can also be shown. Most people aren't familiar with these definitions, so don't worry if they are new to you. Most people who use pictures are sighted, and they learned these codes as infants, so they aren't conscious of the concepts.

In addition to scale and relationship, children can experience textures and understand how they can indicate qualities and key characteristics. Sadie Can Count also includes an extra object in each picture, something that is not talked about in the text. This is one of the greatest strengths of a picture. It can add complexity that is hard to describe adequately in more complicated diagrams. By discovering extra information independently in a simple, low-stakes picture, children will learn to take the lead on examining the picture completely.

In the final picture in the Lost and Found Pound, the animals that were introduced earlier are now in different positions. The picture requires finding the key characteristics that identify each animal. This calls for much more advanced skill, but the child's caregiver can help if the child is too young or inexperienced to decipher this puzzle independently. Some children may welcome the challenge.

Pedro and the Octopus

Pedro and the Octopus is a new book published by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. The book is a big step into complexity. The illustrations in this book present many more picture perspective concepts. Pedro, a young blind child, and Lena, his sister, discover all sorts of things along the beach as they search for an octopus. In addition to the objects they find, these pictures contain perspective concepts such as picture plane, on and off the picture plane, up and down, and the direction of the picture frame. Readers will also learn to decipher proximity, what is near and what is far away. Readers will be able to answer questions such as, "What role does texture play in these images?" "What relationship does the reader have to the objects illustrated in the picture?" "What relationship do the objects in the picture have to each other?"

My sights are set on filling in the gaps between my concepts in these first three books and those presented in Pedro and the Octopus. Then I would like to teach more advanced perspective concepts in subsequent books.

My goal is to create a little library of tactually illustrated books available for families with children who are blind. With exposure to these books, blind children will be able to enter school with the skills to read tactile pictures. Their skills will be commensurate with the abilities of their sighted peers to read visual graphics.

I understand that this is a big dream, but I know we can do it. If you would like to hear about the progress of this project, and if you would like to learn when there are opportunities to field test the prototypes and make this collection a reality, please contact me at [email protected]. Let's talk about how we can all join together to make this happen!

Lessons from the Tactile Art Kit

Compiled by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults

In July 2017, artist and teacher Ann Cunningham addressed the general session of the National Federation of the Blind Convention. Her talk was entitled "Touching Imagination: Unlocking the Creativity of Blind Artists." "Just as verbal literacy is broken into two parts, reading and writing, I see picture interpretation as one part of art literacy and picture creation as the other," she explained. "There is no reason that blind people should not be the creators of tactile images as well as the consumers. It takes skill and education to create tactile images, but it does not take sight. Tactile images need to be formatted differently from visual images, but who knows that better than a tactile picture consumer? We need to discover the best way to tactile literacy, and the American Action Fund's initiative is taking an amazing step by distributing tactile art kits."

Later that year the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults launched its pilot project on tactile art. It distributed one hundred tactile art kits, free of charge, to families of blind children between the ages of two and eight. "Blind people are often told that they cannot participate in art," the Action Fund explained in its welcome packet. "The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults works to dispel this and other misconceptions and encourages blind people to live independent lives. Comprehending tactile representations is a learned process for blind children, as it is for all children and adults. We believe starting that learning process as early as possible will significantly help develop a child's creativity and imagination. This learning process gives [blind children] the skills to begin interpretation of tactile drawings, printings, 3D renderings, and maps. Tactile comprehension can help blind children in learning subjects beyond art. It can be critical to geography, chemistry, physics, architecture, gardening, and dozens of other topics."

Each tactile art kit contained a variety of materials. As listed in the welcome packet, the kit included:

Substrate materials: sandpaper, animal skin rubbing plates, embossed grid paper, plastic canvas, and a Sensational Blackboard [a rubberized board for creating raised-line drawings]
Drawing materials: ink pen, jumbo crayons, tracing wheel, chopsticks, and a slate and stylus
Tools: print/Braille ruler, rounded scissors, basic shapes templates, French curve templates, and a glue stick
Papers: Braille paper, parchment paper, copy paper, tracing paper, thermoform paper, tactile drawing film, and tactile pictures
Sculpture material: Model Magic

Parents were encouraged to visit the tactile art page on the American Action Fund website. The page contained links to a series of videos that showed parents ways for their children to use and enjoy the tools and materials in the art kit. Although the pilot program has ended, you can still see these videos by visiting https://actionfund.org/tactile-art-program.

Parents who participated in the pilot program were encouraged to complete questionnaires every two months for six months. The questionnaires sought information about how often blind children used the art kits, which materials and tools they most enjoyed, and whether they seemed to be more interested in exploring and creating pictures since using the kit. Open-ended questions invited parents to share personal experiences and reflections.

According to the questionnaires, families used the art kit two or three times a week on average. The Model Magic, the Sensational Blackboard, and the textured rubbing plates ranked as the most popular items in the kit.

Many of the parents took the time to add comments about their children's responses to the tactile art kit. "It's extremely exciting to think that our blind daughter will be creating art," one parent wrote. "It's even more exciting to see it actually happening! She's holding the big crayons and coloring over the shapes and sandpaper. The videos were very helpful to show us how to introduce these new experiences to her. Her cousin also loves to watch her and be able to color with her." Another parent wrote that she sent some of the materials from the kit to school with her son so that he could participate in art class with his classmates.

"Christina has started to hold crayons and scribble," one parent wrote when asked whether the child was taking part in art activities in new ways. "Before, she would just throw or drop the pens and crayons." Another parent wrote, "[My son] is transferring what he learns through creating art to other objects. He is taking his time exploring the shape of things and is interested in recreating them in his artwork."

Some parents shared that the art kit helped their children feel more fully included in family activities. "We are a creative family," one parent wrote, "and this has made her feel like she can join in!" Other parents explained that the art kit showed them possibilities they had not imagined. "Items in the box are things I didn't think of giving him," one parent wrote. Another stated, "It's given me a good starting point. I felt kind of lost before, and now I have better ideas of what to use."

In her convention presentation Ann Cunningham spoke of the untapped potential of blind artists and the possibility that new forms of art might be created, art that is meant to be enjoyed through touch. "I am a sighted artist, but I know there is something powerful here," she declared. "There is so much more to our experience of the world than visual input. I know far more is attributed to vision than it actually deserves credit for. . . We know that we can feel 360 degrees at once; no one can see that. What else is possible? I am sighted, but by spending time exploring my world through my other senses, I realize that when I close my eyes, I suddenly expand my world in whole new ways that are unexpected, enlightening, and exciting." She concluded, "Thanks to creative initiatives like the tactile art box by the American Action Fund, I look forward to the day—and I hope it's soon—when I hear a young blind child saying, 'What do you mean that in the old days we didn't have pictures?'"

Teaching Blind Kids to Draw: What Have We Learned So Far?

by Al Maneki
From the Editor: Al Maneki is a blind mathematician who serves as STEM adviser to the NFB Jernigan Institute. He is passionate about opening opportunities in the STEM fields for blind youth.

Most blind adults will tell you that even though they are excellent Braille readers, they are incompetent at tactile drawing. They feel that they cannot draw a picture or diagram, nor can they interpret one. Such people may be successfully employed, and they have gotten along very well in their lives without cultivating the ability to draw.
The inability to draw that is so widespread among blind people differs radically from the experience of most people who are sighted. When sighted people are asked to describe a particular event or concept, they may choose to describe it verbally or pictorially, depending on which mode of description seems most appropriate. In many situations a combination of both will be used. On the other hand, blind people are forced to rely on verbal or written description because the graphical mode is not at their command. Even a crude drawing may be more convincing and easier to comprehend than a verbal description. If we believe that the average blind person, possibly using alternative techniques, can perform as competently as the average sighted person, then it stands to reason that every blind adult should have acquired basic drawing skills, using tactile methods.

Opportunities through the NFB BELL Academies

The summer NFB BELL Academies, held in states throughout the country, provide an excellent opportunity for teaching the skills of blindness, including tactile graphics, to blind students. In Maryland, NFB BELL Academies have included units on tactile graphics for the past six summers. We have used the E.A.S.Y. inTACT Sketchpad exclusively, but other tactile drawing devices can also be used. We have focused entirely on using the Sketchpad to trace templates cut out from foam sheets that fit snugly over the drawing surface. The inTACT Sketchpad is designed with a raised border that nicely accommodates the use of foam sheet templates. Of the many choices of available materials, we have found foam sheets to be the easiest from which to construct templates. We have not yet attempted to introduce our students to freehand drawing. Given the enthusiastic responses from our students, it's reasonable to believe that lessons on freehand drawing would go over quite well.

In our early programs we only attempted to teach drawings of simple geometric shapes such as squares, triangles, diamonds, and stars. Circles have posed more of a problem, because it is harder to cut out a smooth circle in a foam template.

As our confidence grew in teaching the drawing of simple shapes, we began to offer more challenging exercises, such as drawing houses, Christmas trees, menorahs, and various animals. We further developed the idea of using multiple templates on the same drawing. For example, after drawing the outline of a house, students inserted a second template over the outline to add the windows and doors. Our drawing of Santa Claus requires four templates. I have written an article providing details about constructing and using templates from foam sheets to be used with the inTACT sketchpad. To request a copy of my unpublished article, "Constructing Foam Sheet Templates for the E.A.S.Y. inTACT Sketchpads," please contact me, [email protected].

By using multiple template overlays, NFB BELL students have learned to draw complex figures without initially learning to draw simple geometric shapes. In Maryland's 2018 NFB BELL programs we went a step further by combining our tactile drawing activities with the activities of constructing 3-dimensional models of the things the students had drawn. Our aim was to teach students that every 3-dimensional object has a 2-dimensional representation. We prepared templates of an airplane and a sandcastle which students were first asked to draw. Next we had the students assemble models of airplanes with balsa wood and models of kinetic sandcastles that were poured into molds. These items, as well as the foam sheets themselves, may be purchased inexpensively from several sources, including Amazon.com and Michaels.com.

The comparison of the 3-dimensional objects and their 2-dimensional counterparts left students with a profound sense of amazement. They were thrilled that they actually had constructed airplanes that flew for a short distance. As an added bonus, students were permitted to take home their drawings, their planes, and their sandcastles. The possibilities are endless for BELL activities relating to constructing 3-dimensional models and their 2-dimensional counterparts. Since many of our students attend our NFB BELL programs for consecutive years, we must plan for new activities each summer. We are very confident from our experiences that we can expose our students to a wide range of new activities.

Additional Projects

One new idea is the use of directional shadings or crosshatches to represent colors in our diagrams. For example, the color white may be represented by no shading, black by horizontal shading, red by vertical shading, blue by diagonal shading (bottom left to top right), and green by opposite diagonal shading (top left to bottom right). The shading used to represent a particular color will depend on the color that is required in each diagram. For example, an outdoor scene may require blue, green, brown and yellow.

What lessons have we learned so far? Ideally, blind students should have tactile drawing tools and lots of drawing sheets available to them at all times. They should be encouraged to draw whenever they are inspired to do so. They should be taught from the very beginning that they are not dependent on templates to help them with their drawing; rather, the templates they used during BELL were just the means to an end.

Two additional activities come to mind to encourage students to think beyond foam sheet templates:

First, give students a 3-dimensional object, not necessarily the same one, and ask them to draw it freehand. Encourage them to draw what they consider to be the most important features of the object. They should be challenged to attempt something that they have not done before. Remind them that many aspects of artistic work are not accurate representations, but only are suggestive of what is being represented.

Second, present students with an idea or concept. You may present several possibilities and have each student choose one of them. The assignment is to represent their selected topic only in words (Braille), only pictorially (tactile graphics), or in a combination of the two. For example, students might be asked to describe the layout of a baseball field, directional compass points, the face of a clock, types of triangles (acute, right, isosceles, obtuse), etc.

Early Exposure

At a more fundamental level, even before NFB BELL Academy, how do we teach graphics, drawing, and the representation of objects? My early education in these matters was next to nil. My parents did not know what to do, and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), the parents' division of the NFB, did not yet exist. Most disappointing, my teachers of the blind were of no help.

I realize now that blind kids should experiment with tactile drawing tools at the same age when sighted kids are given crayons and pencils. It doesn't matter what they draw. They can scribble just as sighted children do.

As they get older, blind kids can produce images of objects that they encounter frequently. For sighted kids this process occurs naturally. Their minds are filled with visual stimuli. For blind kids, the equivalent stimuli come through the sense of touch.

Blind kids should be encouraged to explore the objects around them tactually, and they should learn to distinguish the finest details of the things they touch. For blind children the admonition "Don't touch!" is psychologically destructive.

As blind kids explore objects in their surroundings, they should be encouraged to draw what they have encountered. Blind kids who come to NFB BELL with this type of background will derive the greatest benefits from their BELL experiences.

Learning Curves

Blind adults who have had minimal experience with tactile drawings often complain that lines and curves are too close together. They find it difficult to separate the component parts of a diagram. They may struggle to recognize a square or rectangle within a complex pattern of shapes and contend that the entire diagram needs to be enlarged.

Newly blind adults who are learning Braille make similar requests. They find standard Braille dots too small and closely packed. However, those of us who learned Braille as children find the standard size and spacing of Braille dots to be ideal. Perhaps if blind children were exposed to tactile diagrams at an early age, the size of tactile drawings might not be a significant problem.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of graphics in the vast majority of academic endeavors today. Textbooks and journal articles include heavy doses of graphical content in all fields of study, ranging from the social sciences to chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and engineering. Braille materials in these subjects, if they exist at all, almost uniformly exclude the graphical content that is included in the print originals. In part this omission is due to the present shortcomings of technology to render print graphics readily into tactile form. In addition, I think that the producers of Braille content are unwilling to create tactile graphics because they are convinced that blind readers are unable to interpret graphic materials.

I know that graphics are a great aid to improving one's comprehension of many technical matters. Even with the Nemeth Braille Code to represent mathematical notation accurately, drawings and pictures contribute immensely to improving comprehension of many esoteric subjects. We must train blind students as rigorously in graphics as we train them in Braille. The challenge remains to develop inexpensive methods to produce Braille content, including Nemeth and graphics, to meet the needs of today's students and professionals.

Every NFB affiliate should make BELL Academy programs a priority, and all BELL Academies should include units on tactile graphics. Our NFB BELL programs will have a profound influence on today's blind kids. Not only will their skills of blindness be strengthened, but their interactions with successful blind adult role models will enhance their future opportunities. Most importantly, by sharpening their skills in tactile graphics, blind kids of today will be better prepared for tomorrow's career opportunities, opportunities in careers that have yet to be conceived. Although I missed out on becoming competent in tactile graphics, I take pleasure in helping the next generation to acquire a skill that I do not possess.

If you have questions or wish to share ideas about this article, please contact me at [email protected].

The Hungry Fingers Way to Tactile Graphics

by Boguslaw ("Bob") Marek

Reprinted from Future Reflections, Volume 37, Number 1, Winter 2018

From the Editor: Boguslaw ("Bob") Marek, a retired professor of English, is director of KUL KAN, the center for students with special needs at the John Paul II Catholic University in Lublin, Poland. He founded Hungry Fingers, a small organization that develops resources for children with visual impairments. For the past twenty years he has focused on teaching English and on introducing tactile graphics to totally blind learners. He has conducted workshops in Europe, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, India, Nepal, Samoa, Singapore, Palau, and Japan. In 2002 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II honored him with the Order of the British Empire.

Few educators today question the importance of tactile graphics for blind children and adults. However, two conflicting attitudes and approaches come into play. On one hand it is often assumed that blind persons who have little or no memory of vision cannot understand raised-line drawings and diagrams. On the other hand, tactile adaptations of highly complex visual illustrations such as drawings, photographs, and paintings sometimes are offered to blind persons on the assumption that they will be able to interpret them effectively, simply by exploring with their sensitive fingertips. In the first of these two approaches, the use of tactile graphics is limited to highly simplified maps and drawings of basic geometric shapes. The second approach, in which very complex graphics are presented with little explanation, may discourage unprepared blind persons from exploring raised images.

Sighted Conventions

Drawings and other kinds of visual graphics employ a range of "sighted conventions" that must be explained to blind learners. Only with a knowledge of these conventions can blind learners be expected to make sense of two-dimensional combinations of lines and textures that represent three-dimensional objects and the spatial relations between them. Due to insufficient explanation and training, tactile graphics remains one of the most difficult areas in the education of blind students. The difficulty persists even when high quality, professionally designed raised diagrams are available.

A heartbreaking comment from a congenitally blind adult contributor to a tactile graphics discussion list summarizes the problem. "I remember being told that some set of lines was supposed to represent a 3D box," she wrote, "and that the reason I didn't understand this is because I wasn't trying. So I tried and tried to come up with a set of transformations that would take me from the real object to that flattened thing. I've memorized a few of the simplest objects, but that's not the same as understanding them."

The quotation refers to a situation from the writer's school days, but the problem still exists for her. "Is there a blind beginner's guide to understanding 3D drawings?" she wrote. "I'm serious."

In this article I will introduce a "tactile graphics primer" developed in Poland. I hope that the solutions it offers will inspire parents and teachers to engage children with visual impairments in educational and leisure activities involving tactile graphics.

The Hungry Fingers Tactile Graphics Primer

Made up of several sets of tactile publications and resources, the Hungry Fingers Tactile Graphics Primer was presented as a step-by-step course and was tested in Poland over a period of several years. It proved highly effective in raising the confidence of blind children with tactile drawings and diagrams. As an ultimate test the primer was tried out in Nepal with a group of totally blind children and teenagers. These children and teens had never before been given a chance to explore or to make tactile drawings.

Introducing all of the components of the course would exceed the scope of this short article. Therefore, I will limit myself to the essentials. I will discuss the first steps in teaching about tactile graphics—geometric shapes, drawings of 3D objects, drawing people, and introducing blind learners to the concept of a map.

First Things First

Understanding the relationship between actual objects and drawings that represent them is one of the greatest challenges facing blind students as they learn to "read" tactile drawings and diagrams. The student must build confidence through simpler, introductory tasks before this relationship can be understood. Straight, curved, and zigzag lines made with a stylus on paper or a thin sheet of plastic are the first steps in building a tactile vocabulary. This vocabulary is necessary for understanding new concepts and more complex drawings.

Given the opportunity, most blind children eagerly engage in drawing, often with surprisingly good results. Starting with meaningless doodles, children soon learn that the tactile lines they produce can represent rain, grass, or a fence. One child commented that his maze of lines going in all directions represented an afternoon at a shopping center.

Responsibility for tactile education must not be delegated exclusively to the schools. Blind children need as many chances as possible to explore and make tactile drawings at home. Drawing can enhance orientation and mobility and daily living skills, and it can be a leisure activity for the whole family.

When a child slides her hand up the door frame and then along the threshold, she may easily grasp the concepts of "vertical" and "horizontal." However, she still may struggle to understand these concepts in a tactile drawing. If raised vertical and horizontal lines are drawn on a sheet of paper and taped to the wall, the child will have no problem understanding them. Once the drawing is placed on the table, the vertical line is the one that "runs away" from the child, while the line parallel to her body is horizontal.

Such basic exercises are an effective introduction to other concepts, such as "diagonal" and "parallel." They can help the child discover that three lines can make a triangle, or that a square can be divided into, or built from, other geometric shapes—triangles, rectangles, or smaller squares. The "Shape Detective" series presents activities involving tactile drawings of lines and shapes. It is accompanied by the "Space Organizer," a wooden frame and a set of magnetic wooden geometric shapes. These materials make the introduction of tactile graphics to blind learners entertaining and stress free.

This simple resource, along with a supply of embossable plastic and non-slip silicon mats, made a tremendous difference for blind university students in Pokhara, Nepal, and for a group of blind children in Humla, a remote village in northwest Nepal. They opened access to subjects that had been available only to a limited extent or absent from the students' education altogether. The following comments made by Nepali students are probably the best description of their reaction to their first encounter with tactile graphics:

"All I was taught at school about geometry was that it was a branch of mathematics."

"I have heard the word drawing before, but only now [do] I understand what it means."

From Objects to Drawings of Objects

Understanding that lines and shapes can represent things is a necessary prerequisite to understanding drawings. Drawings are defined as two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects. A sighted person probably will not have problems recognizing a drawing of a table represented by a horizontal line and two vertical lines extending from it toward the bottom edge of the page. For one blind child, however, the drawing meant nothing more than three lines. Asked to draw a table, this child produced a rectangle (representing the tabletop) and four legs, represented by short lines extending from the corners. It was a perfect reconstruction of the way he explored a real table.

To help explain the concept of a projection, we developed a Hungry Fingers "Transfograph." It consisted of a simple resource transforming a set of objects into simple outlines. Six wooden models of various pieces of furniture slide into slots cut out in exchangeable box lids. Only a front or side view of a table, chair, bed, desk, refrigerator, or chest of drawers is revealed. The Transfograph helps the child understand why it is possible to draw a table with only three lines, one for the edge of the tabletop and two for the front legs. The child can recognize why the other two legs are "invisible," and therefore need not be drawn.

The usefulness of the Transfograph as a tool for explaining the relation between objects and drawings was confirmed by users in several countries. Its effectiveness with totally blind Nepali learners, complete beginners with tactile graphics, is particularly promising. After just one session, all of the students were able to draw a table and a chair, the two models of furniture used during training. They also provided evidence that they understood the concept of an outline by producing drawings of a bed (not used in the training) and of a chair viewed from the back. After a training session with the remaining models, all of the students made successful drawings of new objects of their choice. One of these drawings, a rectangle with a small square in each corner, initially was not recognized by the trainer. It turned out to be a drawing of a table viewed from underneath!

Drawing a Person

"I can only draw and recognize a drawing of a person standing, but not when someone is doing something." These words from a congenitally blind Polish child gave us the idea of adding "Fleximan" to the set of resources used with the tactile graphics primer. This flat stick figure can be arranged on a magnetic board to represent a person who is standing, running, kneeling, or bending down. It serves as an effective prompt to help blind students understand drawings of someone performing these actions. Fleximan also has proved useful in raising blind learners' awareness of their own bodies.

One Nepali boy had no problem copying a fairly complex pose taken by Fleximan. Later photos confirmed his impressive progress in drawing a person before and after a session with Fleximan. He moved from drawing a small circle (the head) and a few lines scattered around it (arms, legs, and hair) to an easily recognizable drawing of a man.

When working with younger children, we preceded our Fleximan sessions with a tactile activity book in which a drawing of a teddy bear appears one step at a time. A wooden magnetic puzzle gives the child a chance to assemble pieces into the flat image of a teddy bear. This puzzle image works as an intermediate stage between a real teddy bear and a drawing. It was very encouraging to watch the joy of the Nepali children as they drew teddy bears and people in all kinds of situations.

Getting Ready for Maps

Understanding that spatial relations between objects can be represented graphically is a necessary step to understanding the concept of a map. Without this understanding borders, rivers, and cities will remain mere lines and dots, with no relation to cardinal directions or parts of the world.

An approach that has proved extremely effective in introducing blind children to maps was developed at the Laski Special School in Poland. It starts by building the child's confidence with spatial relations between objects within an easily manageable space, such as a placemat. A plate, cup, spoon, fork, and knife are presented to the child. Next the child is introduced to tactile drawings of these objects in various configurations. This system provides an irreplaceable opportunity for introducing a wide range of spatial concepts and allows the child to draw his first "maps."

Next the child moves from the drawing of a breakfast set for one person to creating tactile representations of a table ready for dinner for two, three, or more persons. These drawings prepare the child for floor plans of rooms and buildings, from which they can make a painless, stress-free move to maps of larger areas—the area around the school or the child's home, maps of cities, countries, and the world. "Getting Ready for Maps 1" and "Getting Ready for Maps 2" are the two tactile publications that close the set of resources in The Tactile Graphics Primer mentioned earlier in this article.

The Value of Tactile Graphics

There is no time or space here to enumerate all of the benefits of raising blind learners' confidence with tactile drawings and diagrams. I would like to mention just a few important points.

For more information about the Tactile Graphics Primer, please consult the website www.hungryfingers.com

Tactile Graphics in Education and Careers

by Stacie Dubnow

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 62, Number 3, March 2019

From the Editor: Since 2016 the National Federation of the Blind has sponsored a series of symposia on art and tactile graphics. In this article Stacie Dubnow reports on some new pieces of technology that were featured at the symposium on tactile graphics in October 2018.

On October 11 through 12, 2018, the National Federation of the Blind hosted a symposium on the use of tactile graphics by blind and low-vision individuals in education and careers. Experts from across the United States, the Netherlands, Canada, and Italy gathered in Baltimore at the Jernigan Institute to share their knowledge, innovative products and technology, and ideas for future development on the tactile graphics frontier. The educators, scientists, museum professionals, artists, and others who presented and facilitated workshops during the symposium demonstrated creativity and exciting innovation in the field of tactile graphics. This article discusses five cutting-edge products either in existence or in development that have the potential to significantly improve the everyday lives of blind and low-vision people in travel, education, careers, and their enjoyment of the arts.

Sighted people typically do not recognize the importance of tactile graphics because vision is their primary means for consuming information. The sighted are able to access most information through their eyes—paintings and sculptures in a museum, the pages of a book on a Kindle device, graphs and diagrams on a computer or the page of a textbook, or a map on their phone. However, when tactile art or graphics are added to the visual representations, the multimodal experience enhances their ability to interpret the information. For the blind tactile graphics are the primary means for consuming information. Tactile graphics allow the blind to access the same information as the sighted, experience arts and culture, travel independently, learn independently in school, and otherwise live their lives fully.

Brian MacDonald, president of the National Braille Press (NBP), aptly explains:
"In the digital world that we are living in today, there is still a significant gap to solving accessible needs for digital Braille and digital, refreshable tactile graphics. Having a high-quality, low-cost, full-page Braille and tactile graphic display would revolutionize the world by providing blind and low-vision people instant access to digital tactile content at an affordable price. This would be extremely helpful for adults in the workplace and for students needing accessible STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) materials. Often multiple lines of Braille are needed to present complex equations or problems more effectively, and tactile graphics are needed to supplement the information." *1

During the 2018 Tactile Graphics in Education and Careers Symposium, Mr. MacDonald previewed exciting research in which he is engaged with the National Braille Press to develop a full-page Braille/tactile graphic tablet—a Kindle-like device with a tactile surface that can be read by a blind person using Braille. NewHaptics, a company with connections to the University of Michigan, reports it is working toward the first truly affordable technology that can display multiple lines of Braille and/or high-quality tactile graphics in a single format. Current refreshable Braille displays limit access only to a single line of Braille at a time. This limitation makes it impossible to use these devices to show relationships such as columns and indentation, which are particularly important in mathematics. Think about adding two four-digit numbers if you couldn't read them a column at a time. The new display under development will be a full-page tablet that allows for tactile graphs, diagrams, spreadsheets, and other spatially displayed information. Unlike the traditional refreshable Braille displays now on the market—which rely on piezoelectronics to raise Braille pins—this new Braille tablet is driven by microfluidics, which uses air or liquid to inflate small bubbles that in turn push tactile pins up and down. This approach leverages unique manufacturing techniques that will be considerably more affordable than existing technologies and, once available, useful in school and the workplace.

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and Orbit Research have collaborated to develop an additional groundbreaking technology. The Graphiti is a dynamic tactile display that consists of an array of moving pins of varying heights that can be touched with the user's fingers to access graphics such as diagrams, bar charts, floor plans, and topographical maps. Dr. Gina Spagnoli, the founder of Orbit Research, explains: "The variable-height capability [of] our Tactuator technology will allow blind users to experience and interact with graphics like never before—live and in three dimensions. For the first time, a blind user will be able to create graphics in digital form, enter them into a computing device, review and edit them, and exchange such graphics with others." *2

During the National Federation of the Blind's 2018 symposium, Ken Perry, a software engineer with APH, and Venkatesh Chari, president and CTO of Orbit Research, demonstrated the Graphiti software and hardware features that enable users to view and edit graphics by touch, scroll and zoom images, and use the touch interface to draw and erase graphics. By connecting the Graphiti to a laptop, they showed how it was possible to create 3D objects using the laptop's software. Not only can the Graphiti be connected to computers, tablets, smartphones, and the Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator, but an HDMI port lets the user connect the Graphiti to any device that has a video display output, which then identifies the Graphiti as a display monitor.

This means that a blind student can connect a tactile monitor—the Graphiti—into instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, computers, or talking calculators and see in real time whatever is at the other end of that device, whether it is a planet in an astronomy class, a specimen in a biology class, or a graph in a math class. The product provides blind and low-vision individuals with access to the same information their sighted peers have in real time. With "real time depiction of dynamic content . . . students will be able to immediately see the graph on the tactile screen. Textbooks in math and science contain thousands of graphics. Graphiti provides a path toward delivering textbooks with graphics, electronically." *3 Other valuable features include a haptic, or vibrating, feedback interface, an SD-card slot, and the ability by the user to "draw" on the display of pins using fingertips, which raise the pins along the path traced, as well as push an object created by raised pins on the display to physically move it.

Dr. Luca Brayda, a researcher at the Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department of the Italian Institute of Technology, is also investigating the use of tactile feedback using an array of movable pins to display spatial information to blind and low-vision individuals. Dr. Brayda presented research at the 2018 symposium on a product in development called a BlindPad, a portable tablet that translates visual information into tactile representations using a grid of magnetically controlled bumps that lock in an up or down position and can vibrate or animate. The tactile display becomes a bas relief that can be understood using the hands and that allows for both static and moving patterns. Not only can it display spatial information such as the layout of a room, neighborhood, or intersection, but it also makes accessible through touch information such as in-class diagrams, graphs, or geometry problems.

During the symposium, Dr. Brayda described recent research investigating the effectiveness of the BlindPad for blind and low-vision participants for orientation and mobility tasks. Study participants haptically explored a pin-array map that marked a target destination in a room. A control group and an experimental group then entered the room on three consecutive occasions and attempted to reach the target destination. The control group used a static map (the original tactile map), and the experimental group used a changing tactile map that not only showed the original map and target destination, but also the position the participant reached on each prior occasion. The group using the animated map significantly outperformed the group using a static map, demonstrating "that learning spatial layouts through updated tactile feedback on programmable displays outperforms conventional procedures on static tactile maps. This could represent a powerful tool for navigation, both in rehabilitation and everyday life contexts, improving spatial abilities and promoting independent living for visually-impaired people." *4 Although the BlindPad is still in development, it represents an exciting breakthrough in the creation of an affordable, portable tactile tablet for the blind.

Ultraviolet (or UV) printing is another technological innovation that rapidly is improving the accessibility of spatial information to blind and low-vision individuals. The raised nature of UV print is making possible low-cost museum and gallery signage, descriptive labels, and illustrations in Braille books. During the NFB Tactile Graphics in Education and Careers symposium, Steve Landau, president and founder of Touch Graphics Inc., a company that produces tactile graphics and touchable 3D models, explained how large-format flatbed UV printers are replacing vacuum thermoforming as the most efficient way to produce high-quality tactile graphics such as raised-line and textured maps and diagrams to explain spatial concepts to blind and low-vision students. UV printers create tactile signage, Braille, and other raised or textured images by dispensing ink that cures immediately when exposed to bright ultraviolet light, producing precise three-dimensional effects.

Steve Landau expounds:

"These printers can produce precise, consistent, and durable raised lines, textures, and Braille directly on paper or plastic substrates, rigid boards, and flexible sheets. Most importantly, these printers make it possible to print over the tactile image with high-resolution visuals that are perfectly aligned and registered with the raised lines, textures, and Braille. Since the new generation of UV printers can produce both tactile and visual images on the same machine, the difficult problem of lining up vacuum-formed and in-print images is now solved."

As a result of the newest UV printers, Mr. Landau reports that universally accessible floor plans, signs, and tactile interpretations of visual art are being produced that can be used by everyone. By way of example, using UV technology, Touch Graphics has produced two new tactile map units installed at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, a ledger-sized foldable tactile map for the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a tactile museum guide for the recently opened New York Transit Museum. Some of these tactile maps, as well as various museum exhibits, also include audio in tactile-bas relief, speaking when touched. A tactile replica of a painting at the San Diego Museum of Art, interpreted by Touch Graphics with the assistance of tactile artist Ann Cunningham, describes the still life "Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber" by artist Sanchez Cotan; the audio captures in words what is visually depicted in vivid detail as the visitor's hands move across the raised and textured surfaces. As a result of innovations such as these, blind and low-vision individuals not only are able to orient themselves and travel independently through museums and other venues, but also they can experience art and culture on an equal basis with all other visitors.

Similar to the paintings and sculptures that are becoming more accessible to blind and low-vision visitors at museums, techniques are being developed to increase access to archaeological artifacts in museums. Advances in 3D printing (additive manufacturing technology) *5 are making it easier to produce replicas of artifacts that can be experienced through touch as well as vision.

New digital technologies are profoundly changing the way people interact with ancient treasures… 3D scanning, printing, and carving technology has made it possible to recreate objects and architecture with a high degree of precision, but in a form that allows visitors to have a tactile experience with these materials. While useful and interesting to everyone, these technologies are especially significant for sight-impaired visitors. For the first time, artifacts from archaeological sites, large and small, can be encountered directly through the sense of touch. *6

During the 2018 symposium, archaeologist and independent museum professional Dr. Cheryl Fogle-Hatch described a recent case study involving the creation of high-quality 3D printed replicas of stone spear tips that are part of the collections of the Maryland Archaeological and Conservation Laboratory. Among other topics, she discussed design considerations relating to scanning original artifacts to obtain accurate information about them to produce high-quality replicas, as well as the importance of attaching a QR (quick response) code to replicas, which allows visitors to scan the code on their smartphones to obtain electronic Braille, audio, and text descriptions about the original artifacts. This case study provides promise for future applications of 3D scanning and printing, which already is successfully being used to create human tissue and organs in design and manufacturing, and—as discussed here—in the arts. The application of 3D printing in the field of education is particularly exciting since both sighted and blind students now should be able to learn subjects such as chemistry and biology through the use of tactile representations (printed molecule models and organs such as the human heart).

The field of tactile graphics is rapidly evolving in an effort to keep pace with emerging technology and society's increased dependence on that technology in virtually every facet of our lives. Although technological advances sometimes create accessibility barriers for blind and low-vision people, such advances also sometimes hold the solutions for breaking down accessibility barriers. As the overview of the above-described products demonstrates, innovations in software and hardware, digitization, pneumatics, UV printing, and 3D printing are enabling blind and low-vision people to meaningfully experience art and culture in museums, travel more independently, and access the same learning as sighted students in school. Although significant progress has been made on the tactile graphics front, we must continue to work together to promote not only the further development of tactile graphics materials and production methods, but tactile fluency by our young blind and low-vision children so that they learn at an early age how to interpret and use tactile graphics effectively, both in the classroom and in the world at large.


1. During the symposium, Michael Kolitsky of NextGen New Media LLC described yet another innovative technology to enhance learning opportunities for blind and low-vision students—talking tactile templates. Audio-enriched products can be created by combining 3D printed, 3D laser-cut, and raised-line graphics templates with paint.

2. American Printing House for the Blind. (2016) "American Printing House for the Blind and Orbit Research Announce the World's First Affordable Refreshable Tactile Graphics Display" (press release), https://www.aph.org/pr/aph-and-orbit-research-announce-the-worlds-first-affordable-refreshable-tactile-graphics-display

3. Ibid.

4. Brayda, L., Leo, F., Baccelliere, C., Ferrari, E., and Pigini, C. (2018) "Updated Tactile Feedback with a Pin Array Matrix Helps Blind to Reduce Self-Location Errors." Micromachines, 9 (351), people. 1.

5. "3D printers print objects from a digital template to a physical 3-dimensional physical object. The printing is done layer by layer (additive manufacturing) using plastic, metal, nylon, and over a hundred other materials." Mpofu, T., Mawere, C., and Mukosera, M. (2014) "The Impact and Application of 3D Printing Technology." International Journal of Science and Research 3 (6)

6. "Accessible Archaeology for the Blind and Partially Sighted." (n.d.) Retrieved January 3, 2019, http://digitalarchaeology.org.uk/accessible-archaeology

Tactile Fluency Through Interactive Tactile Graphics Worksheets

by Michael J. Coleman and Michael J. Rosen

From the Editor: Michael J. Coleman and Michael J. Rosen are cofounders and vice presidents of E.A.S.Y. LLC, a company based in Vermont. The company's mission is the production of affordable tactile drawing solutions for the blind and visually impaired.

One area of tactile fluency is having a facility with creating and reading tactile graphics. A skill central to tactile graphics fluency is freehand raised-line drawing using tools such as the E.A.S.Y. inTACT Sketchpad (http://www.easytactilegraphics.com), the APH Draftsman, or the Sensational Blackboard. With each of these tools, raised-line drawings are created on thin plastic sheets or sheets of ordinary paper. Raised lines are drawn on the sheets with a stylus or pen, analogous to drawing with a pencil on paper. (For a video of an eight-year-old child making a raised-line drawing and adding color with crayon pencils using a Sketchpad, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SRCz-IUcno.)

Figure 1: Making a raised-line drawing of a house with the sun in the sky.

Figure 1: Making a raised-line drawing of a house with the sun in the sky.In this article, we make the case for the importance to blind people of developing manual freehand drawing or sketching skills. We discuss the work E.A.S.Y. has been doing to create tools and learning materials to help increase opportunities and raise expectations for the blind and visually impaired in developing such skills. In particular, E.A.S.Y. has developed interactive tactile graphics worksheets, or iTWs), which also could be called "read-write" tactile graphics. In addition, E.A.S.Y. has developed a special printer to produce these materials.

iTW's are school exercises or just-for-fun activities containing pre-printed raised-line graphical or pictorial information; freehand drawing is required to complete them. For example, think of connect-the-dots and mazes for young kids or plotting points on graph paper and geometry constructions for students in middle and high school.

It is important to distinguish between iTW's and "read-only" tactile graphics. You can touch and interpret the read-only drawings, but you cannot add to them or modify them in any way. Mass-produced ink-print worksheets for sighted students are ubiquitous in today's classrooms. Students are required to complete these worksheets by drawing, connecting dots, circling correct answers, or filling in squares. To date, none of these materials are accessible to blind and visually impaired students in a tactile format. No publicly available mass-produced accessible workbooks exist for blind and visually impaired (BVI) students.

E.A.S.Y. has been working closely with the National Federation of the Blind and other tactile-graphics advocates to develop the first tactile workbooks for BVI students. The work on iTW's and the printer was funded by NIH STTR Phase I and Phase II grants, the results of which are also described below.

Some Important Themes and Messages

Before we discuss the value of freehand drawing skills, here are some important take-away ideas to keep in mind. These ideas are central to E.A.S.Y.'s thinking and efforts to develop freehand drawing technology and learning materials to support the tactile fluency movement.

Drawing is a perceptual skill, not merely a visual skill. That is, we can develop a perception of the world around us through using all of our senses, and we can communicate that perception through drawing.

Anyone can learn to draw well and can make good use of this skill in school, at play, and at work.

Draw early and draw often! It's important for kids to learn to draw at a very young age.
It's not okay for kids to be told to skip graphics and drawing in school. Drawing is fun and useful!

We need "read-write" tactile graphics, not just "read-only" pre-prepared tactile graphics.

The Case for Freehand Raised-Line Drawing

Being able to express oneself graphically or pictorially—in the fundamental sense of using purposefully organized lines on paper to communicate information without words—is empowering. Freehand drawing is an ancient and ubiquitous form of nonverbal communication. It is nearly essential for expressing ideas, from the simplest to the most complicated, in any activity. In everyday life and in science, math, design, engineering, and art, drawing is for:

Depiction of what one perceives or imagines
Communication of ideas and information
Understanding a problem
Analysis and interpretation of data
Enhancement of the creative process

A tremendous wellspring of support for freehand drawing exists, including teachers and TVI's, parents, BVI educational leaders, the NFB, the Common Core (CC), and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). In 2013 the NFB passed Resolution 2013-08 "Regarding Tactile Fluency" (see https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm13/bm1308/bm130813.htm). One of the clauses states: "WHEREAS, competence in tactile graphics refers collectively to the techniques of drawing raised lines, circles, and other curves; developing the ability to feel and interpret a tactile image efficiently; developing an understanding of three-dimensional objects drawn in two dimensions; and, finally, appreciating inherently visual ideas of perspective and scale." Also, in NGSS, for example, in a section on engineering design, students are expected to be able to "develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem."

Examples of Interactive Graphics Worksheets

See Figure 2 for different types of Interactive Tactile Graphics Worksheets, from generics, to the STEM specific, to the recreational, to those designed for use with stencils.

Figure 2: Different Types of Interactive Tactile Graphics Worksheets: generics, STEM specific, recreational, and stencil-oriented.

Figure 2: Different Types of Interactive Tactile Graphics Worksheets: generics, STEM specific, recreational, and stencil-oriented.

See Figure 3 for a specific example of an Interactive Tactile Graphics Worksheet that was developed in collaboration with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). It is a test question involving shapes and stencils. The question asks the students to feel the shape printed on the sheet, circle the correct shape name in the list printed below the shape, find the stencil of the same shape, and use the stencil to draw a copy to the right.

See Figure 4 for a student solution to the question depicted in Figure 3. It also shows one of the special stencils E.A.S.Y. developed for TSBVI at the request of the question TSBVI creator — the inside shape should match the outside shape and the width of the stencil should be at least 3/4" wide to make them easy for second-graders to hold on to.

Figure 3: Interactive Tactile Graphics Exercise developed in collaboration with TSBVI; Susan Osterhaus, Margaret Edwards (creator), John Rose.

Figure 4: Student solution to the question in Figure 3. Also shown is one of the special stencils E.A.S.Y. developed for use with the exercise.

Figure 4: Student solution to the question in Figure 3. Also shown is one of the special stencils E.A.S.Y. developed for use with the exercise.

E.A.S.Y. has also developed a booklet for teaching kids how to draw entitled "Learn to Draw, Draw to Learn: How to Draw by Feel with Lines and Shapes! A Book about Learning to Make Raised-Line Drawings." (Henceforth, we refer to the booklet as LDDL.) See some sample pages from the booklet in Figure 5. It uses interactive tactile graphics exercises and stencils. The method we have chosen to introduce drawing starts with the typical basic building blocks of drawing, which are lines and shapes (such as circles, rectangles, and triangles).

Figure 5: Learn to draw using lines and shapes.

Figure 5: Learn to draw using lines and shapes.

Once children learn what lines and shapes are and how to draw them, they can combine them in a variety of ways to create recognizable images of everyday things. A simple drawing of the front of a house, for example, can be composed of a triangle for the roof and rectangles of different sizes for the windows and door, as in the examples of Figure 6, which also show a simple drawing of a car.
Figure 6: Simple drawings of a house and car using rectangles, circles, and triangles.

Figure 6: Simple drawings of a house and car using rectangles, circles, and triangles.

E.A.S.Y. R&D Grant Activities and Accomplishments

From August 2016 through December 2018, E.A.S.Y. LLC, funded by a Phase II small-business grant from NIH, undertook a project with two goals: developing the inTACT Printer and evaluating the interactive tactile graphics (iTWs) it produces in cooperation with instructors at several educational sites for use by their blind and low-vision students.

inTACT Printer features and performance:

The beta prototype Printer developed under the grant is a desktop device with an 18-inch by 28-inch footprint. It weighs approximately twenty pounds. Blank tactile drawing sheets are manually inserted and retrieved once printed. Within the device, Brailling, sheet feed, and drawing processes are all automatic. The Printer's built-in Brailler provides tactile annotation. Lines are "scratch-embossed" by a stylus transported by an x-y mechanism in much the same manner as a human "draw-er" makes a graphic manually on an E.A.S.Y. Sketchpad, APH Draftsman, Sensational Blackboard, or related products. It produces an iTW from a selected digital graphics file prepared for this purpose.

To date, the time required to produce a completed iTW has ranged from twenty seconds to two minutes. The total time depends heavily on the amount of Braille that is involved. Brailling is noisier than scratch embossing, but the Printer is noticeably quieter than commercial Braillers. Raised lines up to 2mm in height and width can be produced. This line "prominence" is controlled from the computer file by adjustment of stylus down force.

Figure 7. Printer with blank sheet being inserted into Brailler stage

Figure 7. Printer with blank sheet being inserted into Brailler stage

Figure 8. Printing of an iTW in progress

Figure 8. Printing of an iTW in progress

Figure 9. Detail of mechanism for raising and lowering the stylus and changing the down force.

Figure 9. Detail of mechanism for raising and lowering the stylus and changing the down force.

iTW Evaluation

Working with TVI's and O&M specialists at collaborating schools and programs, the E.A.S.Y. team developed an initial library of 152 distinct iTW files. Survey data was gathered, gauging the reactions, difficulties, and successes of 116 students ranging in age from five to twenty-five years. The students' diversity of age, type, and history and extent of vision losses made statistical inference impossible.

Table 1 lists the sites and the curricular content of the iTWs evaluated at each location.


Number of iTWs


LA Center


“Generics”, i.e. mixed content useful for multiple topics




Texas School


STEM, with 6 professionals and 37 students

Perkins School


Math and signature practice, with 4 professionals and 8 students

LA Center


Math and geometry, with 3 professionals and 3 students

VT Assoc. for BVI


STEM, with 5 professionals and 11 students

LEAP (Learn, Earn and Prosper) Burlington, VT


Dormitory map and stylized face, with 5 professionals and 8 students

Four NFB BELL programs


LDDL exercises, with 12 professionals and 49 students

Unique Activity sheets


Extra-curricular exercises developed during the grant project but not formally evaluated.












The evaluating professionals at the sites listed above collaborated with the E.A.S.Y. team to develop iTW files related to their particular needs. At the NFB BELL sites (Louisiana, Providence, Springfield, and Phoenix), the content consisted of the LDDL exercises. As iTWs were developed and sent to professionals for use and assessment, surveys were sent as Google Forms to profile these evaluators and collect their reactions.

Selected survey findings

Certain generalizations were possible from visual examination of iTWs completed by students, in particular these:

Regarding the evaluating professionals themselves, it was notable that, despite their affiliation with prominent institutions, prior experience teaching tactile drawing was rare. This is consistent with our observations outside the context of the grant project.

Summary Findings from Survey Responses

In conclusion, E.A.S.Y. is considering various models for making interactive tactile graphics content available through means such as "do-it-yourself interactive graphics worksheets" (create and edit digital graphics and print on site); "subscription services" (provide access to a digital library of worksheet files); and "student-ready hard copy" (provide packages of printed interactive tactile graphics worksheets coordinated with various curricula).

To learn more about the work of E.A.S.Y. LLC, visit the company's website at www.easytactilegraphics.com.

Touch Graphics Turns Twenty

by Steve Landau

From the Editor: Steve Landau runs Touch Graphics, a five-person firm focused on the design and fabrication of tactile graphics and 3D touchable models. He studied design in the late 1980s and worked as an architect in New York City before he started Touch Graphics twenty years ago.

In 1998 I was working on a historical restoration project in a New York City architecture office. Karen Gourgey, a blind educator at nearby Baruch College, called me based on the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance. She needed my help on a project to create raised-line and Braille maps of New York City's labyrinthine subway system, to be made available to visually impaired New York transit riders. The maps would help blind riders plan efficient travel routes through a better understanding of the relationship between the city's physical layout and the subway system. 

Intrigued, I wanted to know more, so I walked over to Karen's office. That meeting, and our subsequent collaboration, eventually led me to change my career path. As we worked on this project, I became more and more engrossed in solving the technical and design challenges Karen had posed. I quit being an architect and founded Touch Graphics, a company devoted to everything tactile.

Now, twenty years later, Touch Graphics, Inc. designs and fabricates all manner of maps, signs, and building directories, as well as tactile graphics and models that are used as classroom learning aids and museum exhibits. Our main focus is on the development of new methods for producing precise, consistent, and information-rich graphics that communicate through multiple senses for universal access.

A Short History of Tactile Graphics

Tactile graphics have been around since the formal inception of education for the blind in the early 1800s. Today, museums at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia display examples of early tactile teaching aids, often handcrafted by the teachers themselves. These teaching tools helped explain concepts in math, geography, chemistry, physics, and more, all through the sense of touch. Though producing these creative and often beautiful objects must have been time-consuming, these early educators understood that blind students need hands-on experiences to understand concepts that defy description through words alone. Tactile experiences provide crucial pathways to understanding for learners who can't access print graphics.

Methods for Tactile Graphic Production

In the late 1990s, Karen Gourgey's group at Baruch developed a new, multistep process for creating tactile graphics that was a big step forward. To make the subway maps, we started with a computer drawing. We used the drawing to drive a robotic router that carved each tactile element we wanted to produce into a thick plastic sheet. The carving created a reverse-reading (negative) image of the eventual raised-line map. Then we poured a thick liquid plastic onto the surface of the carved plate. When the liquid hardened, we ended up with a right-reading (positive) flexible rubber mat. We perforated this map with tiny air holes to create a mold for vacuum thermoforming the form of the subway map onto a sheet of clear vinyl plastic. The transparent tactile maps were bound into books, interleaved with sheets of paper printed with the visual map that could be seen through the clear plastic map pages. While the results were visually crude, the tactile lines and textures were consistent and legible. We had achieved a new level of clarity and reproducibility, important characteristics of good tactile graphics.

The Need for a Better Way

The New York Subway maps were a big step forward compared with what had been possible until that time. However, we knew that our process involved too many steps and potential failure points. It was too expensive and way too slow. To succeed commercially we needed a better tactile printing process, and since one didn't yet exist, we needed to invent it.

The solution was UV (ultraviolet) printing, a recent technology that has led to dramatic improvement in the quality of our products. UV printing uses bright UV light to cure liquid inks instantaneously as they are jetted onto any substrate, or printing surface. The process allows us to control the relief (height above the substrate) of each tactile line or texture.

UV printing is superior to vacuum thermoforming. We now can produce tactile graphics on many rigid surfaces including plastic, stone, and glass. Materials printed in this way are very durable, with improved tactile sharpness, precision, and consistency. UV-printed signs are durable enough to survive outdoors without fading or deteriorating.

UV printing makes it easy to achieve a perfect alignment of visual and tactile images. This was always a big challenge in thermo vacuum forming, since visual printing and tactile forming were done on two different pieces of equipment.

The Next Twenty Years: A Golden Age for Tactile Graphics?

UV printing could lead to a proliferation of tactile products. At Touch Graphics, Inc., we are ready to show the world how to build a more inclusive, universally accessible environment through the thoughtful deployment of multisensory design.

Twenty years from now I hope that tactile graphic signs will be everywhere. We have to work hard in the present to introduce this simple but powerful idea. Only when tactile information is ubiquitous will it reach its maximum impact. I am grateful to Karen Gourgey for introducing me to this fascinating field, and to all of my past, present, and future collaborators, who share my enthusiasm for this work.

Projects now underway include:

Semiconductors, Streetscapes, and Learning Through Touch

A Conversation with Josh Miele

From the Editor: Josh Miele is a longtime advocate of tactile access for the blind, and he has channeled his energy and creativity into a variety of innovative projects. In this interview he discussed his work and his ideas about the importance of tactile exploration.

Deborah Kent Stein: When I started to plan a special issue of Future Reflections around the theme of tactile fluency, you are one of the first people I decided to contact. I know that this is an important area for you and one where you seem to be very comfortable.

Josh Miele: A lot of my work has been around using tactile perception to present information, especially spatial information that is very hard to convey auditorially. As a designer and appreciator of art, I also think a lot about the aesthetics of tactile design—quite literally, the feel of things. My work has had tactile aspects from the very beginning.

One of my very first projects involved developing a program called Outspoken for Windows for a company called Berkeley Systems. I was in charge of documentation, and I developed a set of tactile graphics to represent Windows concepts. At that time hardly anybody in the blind community knew what Windows was. Menus, dialog boxes, buttons, combo boxes—they were completely new ideas for the blind world. I developed a set of tactile graphics that went along with our documentation. They illustrated what it means when a window is on top of another window, or when there are elements in a dialog box. They showed what it looks like when a menu pops down from the menu bar. The response was amazing! We had people calling up who didn't want to buy the software, they just wanted the tactile graphics for Windows.

DKS: Did your parents and teachers encourage you to explore through touch? Did they help you develop an interest in the tactile world?

JM: Absolutely! From very early on! My mother was an artist, and her main medium was collage. It's a very tactile medium. We had tons of materials around—different textures of paper, and scissors and razor blades everywhere. It was completely routine to cut things out and glue them on top of each other to create tactile representations.

My father is an architect, and I would go and play in his office. When you're a little kid and your dad is an architect, you play at drafting floor plans. In his office there were rolls of tape called layout tape. It came in different widths and different colors. I would make floor plans with this tape. I could feel the lines I was making, and because the tape had different colors, it was perceivable to the sighted people around me, too. I remember playing that way when I was six or seven.

I could see until I was almost five. I wasn't very interested in art when I had sight, and I wasn't especially skilled. But later, after I became blind, I got interested in drawing things for other people so that they could see what I was talking about.

When I was eight or nine I had an amazing art teacher who really got it. While the other kids were busy making drawings, she gave me tools for cutting linoleum. They were sharp tools—maybe the school administration didn't know about it! She gave me scratch paper, which is a heavy black oaktag with a white veneer. When you scratch the paper, you create black lines that can be felt as well as seen. She gave me lots of different types of sandpaper to use for making collages. It was great! It's amazing what you can do with high expectations! Her name was Pat Gazer, and she really was a remarkable teacher. It wasn't because she knew anything about blindness; she just accommodated the student that I was. I am forever grateful to her!

Another person who was a very important influence was my itinerant TVI (teacher of the visually impaired), Joan Smith. She was my TVI from the time I was in third grade until I graduated from high school. She did all of my Braille transcription, including tactile graphics that went along with my books. She did a great job! She hadn't studied higher math, but she transcribed all of my books for geometry and trigonometry and calculus. Can you imagine having to learn geometry without tactile graphics? She was very conscientious about making sure I had all the graphics I needed! Through her I learned how important tactile graphics are.

From the time I was in third grade, there was a bookshelf in my classroom filled with Braille books. In middle school I had the Webster Dictionary; it took up an entire wall! That 72-volume dictionary was part of the furniture of the classroom, and I could browse through it whenever I had free time.

Another book that was on my shelves in middle school was a basic primer on tactile maps. It was full of maps of imaginary places that illustrated map concepts. For instance, there was a map about a family vacation. It showed where the cabin was, where the pine trees were, where the stream was. It showed the road that went across the bridge. I spent a lot of time with that little book of maps! I loved it! But I wished I had access to real maps. Imaginary maps were cool, but I sure wished I had a map of the area around my school or a map of the area around my house. That longing led me to develop the TMAP Project later on.

DKS: Explain a bit about the TMAP Project. What is it? How does it work?

JM: TMAP is a website that takes geographical information from a database of streets and roads and walking paths and buildings. It turns that information into formatted tactile street maps with Braille labels. It's a very simple concept. It's an automated way of making a tactile street map of any place you want, any place in the world. It uses free street map data from openstreetmap.org. It's a way for blind people to get street maps of any place they want.

You can't really describe a street network and hold the whole thing in your mind. A street map is a unique and irreplaceable experience. To follow routes on a tactile street map is like wandering around in the real world. You can build in your mind a cognitive map of the physical world that you can't build from a description.

I had always envied sighted people their ability to look at a street map and learn the layout of an area where they had never been. I wanted that for myself and for my blind friends. I developed TMAP at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute as part of my early postdoc work in about 2005.

Most of the maps that were available were visual maps. Visual maps are very different from tactile maps. On a tactile map you want very different kinds of information. To make a tactile map, you can't go directly from a visual map to a tactile one. You want to go from the underlying data. You need to avoid a lot of extra clutter, a lot of extraneous features. The map should be very clean. The more dense the features are on the map, the harder it is to interpret. Tactile graphics need to be designed so you can extract the important information. In designing a good tactile street map, all you want are streets. You can add a few other things such as particular buildings that you want to represent, but you can't put all of the buildings on there.

DKS: Can you show more if you make the map bigger?

JM: Yes, but if you make it bigger, you lose the sense of an overview. When you zoom in you can include a lot more detail. What you include depends on the scale and the size of the paper.

I have designed maps for the BART system, Bay Area Rapid Transit in California. Those maps work with a Smart Pen, and they include much more information. There's a set of maps for each of the forty-three BART stations. There are three views of each station. One is the streetscape around the station, showing the entrances and exits. One is the concourse, the area where the faregates and the ticket machines are. Then there's a map of the platform level. On the map of the street level we include much more than the streets. But you need to keep the feature density below a certain threshold or it becomes too confusing, even for a very good map reader. It's not so much about skill, it's about the fundamental aspects of tactile discrimination.

DKS: How does the Smart Pen work?

JM: The Smart Pen is a mainstream product that was developed as a tool for college students and reporters. The pen has a little computer inside it and a camera in the tip. It also has the ability to do audio recording. You take notes or draw on special paper in a special notebook. You can record at the same time you're taking written notes with the pen. Embedded in the background of each page in the notebook, sort of like a watermark, is a very high-density pattern of dots. Every square millimeter of every page is unique. There is a different dot pattern at every spot on every page. The camera sees those dots as you're writing. So when the pen touches the top righthand corner on page 52, it knows that that is different from any other spot. It knows you're at page 52 on the top righthand corner.

The pen was designed to let students take notes while they recorded a lecture or an interview. When you go back and review your notes, you can tap that part of the notebook with the pen and it jumps to the spot in the recording where you were when you took that note. The pen is a way of instantly connecting your visual notes to an audio recording. As I said, it's a mainstream product that you can buy at Target or on Amazon.

We designed a bunch of tactile graphics and programmed the pen. When you touch the pen to a page with a tactile graphic on it, the pen will give you information about the part of the tactile graphic you're touching. It's a portable, inexpensive way of creating audio/tactile graphics.

My research looked at ways to use the Smart Pen as a platform for audio/tactile graphics. Other organizations such as Touch Graphics and the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and the San Francisco LightHouse collaborated with me to use this idea and created audio/tactile materials of various types.

DKS: Did you have to work out any copyright issues with the developers of the Smart Pen?

JM: There were some, but they were fairly straightforward. We were buying the pen and using it, and they were happy to have a little secondary market.

Incidentally, a set of the BART maps of the forty-three stations is at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. It's an example of universal design accessibility. So I have a piece in the Cooper-Hewitt! It makes me happy.

DKS: Where can someone get the BART maps? Can you buy them? Do you have to look for them at a BART station?

JM: You can buy them from the San Francisco LightHouse, along with the pen.

DKS: To go back a little bit, what did you study as an undergrad student?

JM: I studied physics as an undergrad. In grad school I studied something called psychoacoustics, which is about how hearing works.

DKS: Those were areas that must have used a lot of charts and diagrams.

JM: Yes, and I no longer had a dedicated TVI. I taught my readers to create graphics for me using Sewell paper [light plastic sheets used with the Sewell Raised Line Drawing Kit available from APH). It's a nice quick way of doing drawings. As an undergraduate I found that there wasn't a lot of variety to the diagrams I needed. Once you figure out the general pattern, it's just a matter of labeling. For tests I would draw diagrams on the Sewell paper, and my reader would copy my drawing into the bluebook. When I worked on semiconductor circuits, I had my reader draw circuit diagrams on Sewell paper.

Sewell paper is awful stuff to keep long-term. I would have to tape each sheet to a sheet of regular paper. Nowadays I would probably use swell paper instead. Sewell paper is nice, though, because you can draw on it with a regular pen.

Once I started working with experiments and data in grad school, I needed ways to do my data analysis and data representation. I had to create software to handle my graphics. My colleagues were using a program called Matlab from a company called Mathworks. Basically Matlab is like Excel on steroids for scientists and engineers. It allows you to visualize lots of numbers at once by putting them into graphs and images. There was no way for me to see the graphs that I was making, so I created a program that would take the data from Matlab and turn it into tactile graphics that I could print out on my Braille embosser. It became really easy for me to create scatter plots or bar graphs or other sorts of data representations. I used that same software when I created TMAP. Instead of plotting perception characteristics from my research data, I was plotting street coordinates.

DKS: After you got your PhD in psychoacoustics, what did you do for your postdoc work?

JM: Once I started working with circuits and semiconductors I started looking for information about how blind people did such things. All roads led to Smith-Kettlewell. I met the folks there and acquired enough knowhow from them to complete my undergraduate semiconductors course. I reconnected with them in grad school because it seemed like a good thing to do. They were very excited about the work I was doing. I got a fellowship there while I was still in grad school, and when I finished my PhD, I immediately started a postdoc there. Eventually I transitioned to being a scientist there. It was a very lucky situation.

DKS: How long were you there?

JM: I finished my degree in 2003, and I stayed at Smith-Kettlewell until the beginning of this year, so I was there for about sixteen years altogether.

DKS: Did you work on any projects that had to do with tactile learning and creating tactile access?

JM: I did the Smart Pen stuff while I was at Smith-Kettlewell, and also the TMAPs. I also worked on some basic research about tactile exploration, one hand vs. two hands, one finger vs. multiple fingers. I did that research with a brilliant young scientist named Val Morash. I've always been most interested in applied science, but she was more interested in the fundamentals of tactile perception.

There's an awful lot of bad science in the history of blindness research. One of the myths that has been around for a long time is that blind people really can't understand tactile graphics.

DKS: I've always thought a lot of that has to do with lack of exposure.

JM: It does. It also has to do with the poor design of a lot of tactile graphics. It has to do with the fact that blind people are actually discouraged from touching things a lot of the time, so they come to feel uncomfortable about tactile exploration, which is an absolute crime!

One of the pieces of bad science in the blindness literature says that you don't get any increased benefit from using more than one finger or from using both hands instead of one hand for tactile exploration. This bad research would have you believe that using one finger is just as good as all the fingers of both hands.

DKS: Really! That's ridiculous!

JM: So Val and I set out to destroy that myth!

DKS: Is Val a blind person?

JM: No, she was a sighted doctoral candidate at Berkeley, and this was part of her dissertation. I was a collaborator and adviser. She did extraordinary work.

One of the problems with a lot of the research that has been done in this area is a lack of rigor. Val was an incredibly brilliant young person, but she very tragically passed away. She would have done some incredibly cool stuff if she had lived.

Val and I set out to debunk the notion that one finger is just as good as multiple fingers for exploration, and she brought her mathematical modeling skill to the project. I brought my knowledge of tactile design and my ideas about the practicalities of tactile exploration. We published two articles in Perception, which is a very well-respected journal. Our research showed that two fingers are better than one finger, and two hands are better than one hand. The first two fingers of both hands add significantly as you bring them into the exploration process. We used a very rigorous mathematical finger tracking model, and we had lots of subjects. Interestingly, when we did the experiments with both blind subjects and sighted subjects under blindfolds, both groups showed the same trends. More fingers and both hands were better for both groups. Our findings not only showed that the blind subjects were better at tactile exploration, but that they were qualitatively different from the sighted subjects in the way they used their hands. They tended to use both hands in parallel, while sighted people tended to use one hand. One of the important lessons from this research is that you can't generalize about blind people based on studies of blindfolded sighted people. That's a mistake that researchers make over and over again.

DKS: One of the things I hear a lot from parents and teachers is, "I'd love to show him things, but he doesn't like to touch things." Do you have any ideas for helping kids get past a reluctance to explore?

JM: I've worked with a lot of kids through the Blind Arduino Project, using computers to design and build things. I notice that sometimes you hand something to a kid and say, "Here, check this out!" and they just hold onto it limply. They don't touch it all over. I think it's a general passivity that kids acquire. They get a lot of messages like, "Stop feeling around, it makes you look blind!" and "Don't touch that! It's not yours!" or "Don't reach over there, you're going to get hurt!" All these messages extinguish the urge to explore and check things out. It's terribly detrimental to the child's capacity to learn about the world.

When I show something to someone, often the first thing I have to teach is not about the object itself, but about how to look at it tactually. I have to say, "Nobody is watching you. Nobody is going to tell you to stop touching. We want you to use your hands to find out as much as you can about this thing." You have to do exercises like that with individuals or groups before you can do anything else. You have to scaffold up. You might start by asking, "What are some of the things you notice about this object?" You'll always have a few kids who are all over it, who find out everything about it in the first three seconds. But half of the kids will just sit there, holding onto it, not exploring at all.

DKS: Do they explore more effectively once you start to build that scaffold?

JM: A lot of them do. But you can't fix everything in a couple of hours or even in a few days. I think it's extremely important to give young blind kids the clear message that they have a right to feel around. There's nothing wrong with touching things, and it's the only way they're going to find stuff out.

Tactile graphics are a great way to teach exploration. You can start building expectations. When you hand the kid a drawing on a piece of paper, you can say, "Nobody's going to yell at you for touching everywhere on this page. You need to feel every square inch of it to know what's on it."

DKS: Do you think a lot of kids' reluctance to explore has to do with our society's negative attitudes about touch? People get very strong lifelong messages that you shouldn't touch things. Things might be dirty, they might hurt you, they aren't yours. I think sighted adults may unconsciously inculcate blind kids with those attitudes. To get blind kids more opportunities to touch things, maybe we have to change the way sighted people feel about touch.

JM: The idea of destigmatizing touch is really complicated! I'm not saying we shouldn't try—but wow! it's a big problem!

I was always given the message that I was entitled to touch pretty much anything I wanted to feel. There were some moments when I was embarrassed to touch things because nobody else was doing it—at museums, for example, when I was the only one allowed to touch things. But the message got through. Having access to all those tactile art materials and tactile graphics, and being encouraged by my family and friends to use touch as a means of expressing myself and learning about the world, that was very powerful. I feel so lucky to have had that kind of upbringing! Spatial information and tactile representations are important to being able to do so many of the things that I love—studying maps, representing scientific data, drawing, creating and enjoying sculpture. I derive so much pleasure from those things, and they give me independence. All of that is missing from the lives of many blind kids. That's one of the places where I hope I can make a difference.

From Pickles and Papyrus to Bats and Brains

by Lindsay Yazallino

From the Editor: Lindsay Yazallino is a tactile design specialist who works with others to create "hand-catching" experiences. She is also an air travel enthusiast who loves adventures, especially when they involve airports, sushi, and connecting with new and interesting people. In 2007 she was awarded a national scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind.

It was October 1995, I was in first grade, and I knew exactly what I wanted to be for Halloween. A pumpkin? A ghost? Boring! I decided to dress up as my favorite food—a dill pickle.

Fortunately for me, my family got totally onboard with my plan. My highly creative aunt and grandma set to work designing the perfect pickle outfit. Once it was finished, I tried it on and examined every detail with my fingertips. I admired the felt hat with a curved stem on top, the plastic Vlasic label across my chest, and the half-spherical pickle bumps glued onto my pickle-green felt suit. I loved experiencing my unique outfit through touch just as others enjoyed looking at the pint-sized pickle girl. As I marched with the rest of my classmates in my school's Halloween parade and heard the admiring reactions of the people around me, I couldn't have been happier to be—literally—in a pickle.

My life has been enriched by tactile experiences—and pickles—ever since I can remember. From the time I was a totally blind baby, my parents and the other adults in my life encouraged me to explore the world through my four senses. Many of my earliest memories are vividly tactile. I loved to go fishing with my dad, and I can still picture with my mind's fingers the slimy skin, tiny teeth, and ridged tail and fins of a wriggling rainbow trout that would soon become our dinner. I used to collect seashells, and I marveled at their multi-textured surfaces and naturally smooth, polished interiors. Even the display rack by the drugstore check-out register, filled with packages of gum and mints, was a tactile treasure trove, and it did not escape my inquisitive finger pads. My parents would step back and let me discover my environment for myself, even when it would have been faster or easier for them to intervene. I am grateful that they gave me that gift, enabling me to develop such strong sensory awareness during those early years.

Of course, my tactile astuteness sometimes worked to my parents' disadvantage, as when I immediately figured out the contents of my birthday and Christmas packages by feeling them through the wrapping paper. But my mom can be crafty, and she found clever ways to disguise my gifts. Sometimes she wrapped them in extra-large boxes full of rattling popcorn kernels. So, to everyone reading this, especially parents, never underestimate a devious child with well-trained fingers!

In addition to seashells, I collected everything from bells to music boxes to—yes, I'll admit it—SpongeBob SquarePants characters! (Plankton and Squidward are still my favorites!) I found myself especially drawn to 3D replicas of actual objects, and I delighted in admiring their exquisite tactile resemblance to the real things.

I was incredibly fortunate to spend elementary school working with my exceptionally whimsical and creative TVI, Maggie Ritchie, who was as big a fan of tactile exploration as I was. She had an uncanny knack for finding the most hand-catching goodies to show me. During our years together she came to school with an anatomically correct skull model, a roll of papyrus from Egypt, and even a live rooster from her farm! She always used fun, tangible items to spark my often unconventional interests.

If you had asked six-year-old me what my favorite animal was, my answer would not have been a dog or a cat, but a bat. I was intrigued by bats' remarkable abilities to fly silently through the night, hang upside down by their feet, and use echolocation to build pictures of their environments through sound. However, I had no idea what a bat looked like until Maggie brought in several plastic bat models, a bat necklace, and even a bat house—a wooden box where real bats could take up residence in one's backyard. After exploring the replicas, with their distinctively flexible, hand-like wings and large ears, I was convinced that bats were the coolest-looking animals ever, and I couldn't understand why most people find them so ugly. Little did I know that bats would fly back into my life more than two decades later. But I'll get back to that in a bit.

Even while I was playing with bats and skulls, I was also doing actual classwork. I began to learn Braille at age three, and I quickly became a voracious tactile reader. I learned math and science—my favorite subjects—through a combination of excellent teachers, the Nemeth Braille Code, and plenty of tactile graphics and 3D models. I also learned to interpret tactile maps proficiently, although I admit that geography was never my favorite subject.

Throughout middle and high school, I loaded up on advanced math and science courses, which meant that I needed tons of ever more complex tactile materials, including graphs, diagrams, and images. My TVI at the time, Kay Adamson, was up to the task, ensuring that I had everything I needed. She spent countless hours creating pages upon pages of calculus graphs and trigonometric figures, certainly not a task for the faint of heart! Despite the often Herculean effort required to produce them, nobody ever questioned my need for tactile course materials. We all understood that tactile graphics enabled me to capture in seconds concepts that would have taken far longer to convey through written or verbal descriptions—if they could be conveyed at all through mere words. I took it as a given that I could construct vivid mental pictures through touch, and that "visuals" are not just for the eyes.

Fast-forward to college. I was a student at Brown University, taking an introductory neuroscience course as part of my cognitive science concentration. To my delight, my professor brought in a few preserved human brains for the class to look at—and touch. Some of my classmates were totally grossed out, but of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I examined the tightly packed folds that make up the spongy yet firm cortical surface of a typical brain, as well as the noticeably altered texture and consistency of a brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

After graduation, with these vivid images still in my own brain, I spent several years as a cognitive neuroscience researcher. My colleagues and I investigated fascinating questions about the relationship between blindness, brain development, and cognition. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on scientific studies of Braille reading, touch perception, and many other nonvisual abilities that had always enriched my life. To top it all off, I had the opportunity to get my brain scanned for research, and I am now the proud owner of a 3D-printed model of my very own brain! I can hold my brain in my hand and still have one in my head at the same time!

Investigating tactile perception often meant that my hands spent more time typing on a computer keyboard than on touching anything new and interesting. Eventually I decided that it was time for me to return to the concrete, tangible world that I love. I realized that, in our sight-centric environment full of "DO NOT TOUCH!" signs, I wanted to help create more tactile experiences designed to enrich all our lives, not just the lives of blind people. Meanwhile, I met several new friends who were experts in 3D printing, and I was enamored with the possibility of transforming digital images into physical objects that I could hold in my hands.
Nothing could have been more fortuitous than crossing paths with Steve Landau, who immediately impressed me with his ingenious ideas and his passion for tactile design. I was inspired by the creative ways in which his company, Touch Graphics, was cleverly using technology to transform tactile maps, images, and 3D models into interactive multisensory experiences. When Steve asked me to work with the Touch Graphics team to create touch-responsive museum exhibits and other public installations, I was excited to contribute my expertise. Most of these tactile objects are designed so that exploring them through touch triggers engaging audio and visual descriptions, and some even include fun sound effects. In a world where visual images usually take precedence over all else, I feel fortunate to have found like-minded colleagues who value excellent tactile design, and who appreciate my nitpicky attention to tactile detail. There is nothing quite like dreaming up ideas and achieving literally tangible results, which, to my delight, have included both brains and bats!

Speaking of bats, last year I attended a conference in Austin, Texas. Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America, living under its famous Congress Avenue Bridge. My visit inspired me to begin working with a team of bat researchers back home in Boston. We spent several late nights watching bats in a local cemetery and listening to their calls, using a special acoustic detector. (I know—it's not exactly everyone's idea of a fun night out!) Naturally, the images from my childhood remained clear in my mind; still, I wanted to learn more about bat anatomy. As it turned out, I was in luck. I had just met Crispin Weinberg, an expert in biomedical 3D printing, and he graciously volunteered to print several exquisitely detailed bat skeletons for me.

Meanwhile, Halloween was drawing near, and I knew it was time for me to do the obvious. With the help of my Touch Graphics colleagues, I selected a wonderfully cozy, fuzzy bat costume, complete with furry ears and pointed fangs. I may not have been in a pickle this time, but going batty was just as much fun. And now, it's time for me to work on accomplishing my next goals, such as touching a real live bat, learning to use a 3D printer, and creating 3D embryology models. And, as I promote the world's tactile wonders, then maybe, just maybe, I can help to reduce its population of "DO NOT TOUCH!" signs!

Teaching Exploration: Correcting a Glaring Flaw in the Education of Blind Children

by Geerat J. Vermeij

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, October 2004

From the Editor: Born in The Netherlands, Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a world-renowned expert on paleontology and mollusks who teaches at the University of California at Davis. In 2003 he was honored with a McArthur Genius Award for his wide-ranging scientific contributions.

A few years ago I was sitting in David Hillis's office at the University of Texas at Austin. Hillis, a preeminent evolutionary biologist and MacArthur Fellow, was telling me about his research on a small Asian clam that was accidentally introduced by people to North America during the late 1930s. Today this quite ordinary-looking little clam is found in lakes and streams throughout the United States. Researchers once thought that all the Asian clams in North America belonged to a single kind or species; but when Hillis began to analyze the DNA sequences of the clams, he discerned two genetically distinct species.

Hillis leaned forward in his chair. "I wonder if you can tell the difference between these species from the shells," he said.

"Let's have a look," I said, always ready for a challenge. Hillis handed me six specimens, each a little less than an inch long. There were, of course, no labels; it was up to me to decide how to divide these six shells into categories.

I set about my task. First came a quick reconnaissance: I took each shell in my hands, manipulated it with my fingers, and put it down, all in less than a second. Much previous experience with Asian clams and with thousands of other clams allowed me to conclude that, yes, these shells belong to the genus Corbicula: ovate shape, coarse and somewhat irregular growth lines, right hinge characteristics, somewhat eroded beak without well-developed lunule or escutcheon. But all these shells sure looked alike, so a more thorough examination was called for.

The pads of my index fingers traced the outlines of the shells, probed the growth lines for their sharpness and spacing, noted how deeply cupped the valves were, and gathered a dozen other details. With my nails I observed the precise shape of the growth lines—were the lines sharp or flattened, reflected or erect, widely separated or close together, and so on. I repeated these observations, all quite unconsciously, with each shell. I picked up the valves again and again, comparing, contrasting, forming hypotheses in my mind, and putting them to the test with additional observations. I had to decide which features were meaningless variations and which might denote characteristics that distinguish one species from another. I had done this exercise hundreds of times previously, for careful observation of form, life habits, and other aspects of shell-bearing animals lay at the empirical core of my scientific work.

After a minute or two of this directed exploration, I had divided the shells into two groups of three each. The differences were awfully subtle, but I thought they might indeed indicate two distinct species.

I announced my conclusions. My colleague was impressed. "Right on the money," he declared. The distinction I had perceived through careful tactile observation of the shells precisely matched the distinction Hillis had discerned from the DNA that he had extracted previously from the tissues of the clams whose shells he had given me to examine.

I tell this story, not to pat myself on the back, but to make an important point about exploring objects by touch. Quite simply, many blind people could extract far more information from the objects they touch if they developed and perfected techniques and skills for the most effective use of the hand—that exquisite and sensitive organ of touch that we humans have inherited and evolutionarily modified from our primate ancestors.

I was confronted with this larger issue when I was privileged to take part in the National Federation of the Blind's summer science academy for a dozen blind middle-school students. Mark Riccobono of the NFB and teacher Robin House had invited me to talk about how to do science, how to think in a scientific frame of mind, and how blind people can be scientists. I would not just tell them about my research on shells. I would have everyone examine shells so that we could then talk about how to ask scientific questions of these wonderful objects. I would also tell them about the larger scientific questions I have tried to tackle in my own career, questions about how evolution works, about evolution as fundamentally an economic process, and about the role that enemies play in the many directions evolution has taken over the course of the history of life.

We gathered at the Naturalist Center, a first-rate educational museum just outside Leesburg, Virginia. Thousands of specimens from the Smithsonian Institution are available for visitors to handle in a spacious setting where curiosity and free inquiry are the order of the day. I had arrived early to pull out some shells to demonstrate to the students and their enthusiastic adult entourage. Once everyone was settled and I had made some preliminary remarks about myself, about the etiquette of handling specimens and about science and the blind, each participant was given a shell to examine.

As always happens when I am working with a collection, I was terribly pumped up to see such wonderful objects, even if they were all quite familiar to me. I never tire of looking at shells because I always expect to observe something new. On this occasion I was certainly not disappointed. Picking up a large Triton's trumpet (Charonia tritonis), I happened to notice some small tubercle near the front end of the shell that formed a continuation of a row of sharp teeth along the shell's outer lip. I have frequently handled specimens of this striking species, but somehow this interesting feature had escaped my notice.

But this exercise wasn't for me; it was for the children. I invited everyone to offer a description of the unfamiliar object in his or her hand. What could each person tell me about what he or she had observed?

It became clear that most of the students had spent at most a few seconds of unsystematic exploration and then put the shell down. The verbal descriptions offered were so rudimentary that I felt unable to proceed to the level of thinking about these objects in a scientific way. The point of departure for honing the scientific state of mind is to observe carefully and to be puzzled by the observations that make no sense. If we can articulate what does not make sense, we are well on the road to translating the puzzle in the form of a scientific question. Once we have reached this point, we can proceed to the more standard scientific stages of proposing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis against alternative explanations, and placing all our findings together with those of others in a coherent theory that will explain, not just the things we know, but many things we don't know yet. I came away from this encounter with the strong conviction that society—parents, teachers, the blind, and all the rest of us—have largely and dismally failed to teach the skills of exploration.

Our hands are powerful sensory tools, capable of discerning fine details, integrating those details into a whole representation, and making sense of the things we touch; but if we don't know how to use our hands in this way, our ability to extract information from the objects we touch is severely compromised. Tactile exploration has been part of my life for so long that I had in many ways taken it for granted. Insofar as I had thought about the matter at all, I held that learning about objects with the fingers came naturally, whatever that might mean. But I have come to believe this is wrong. Tactile exploration is a skill that must be taught and honed.

How does one do this? Although I have no experience teaching blind people, I have thought about how the hand works as a sense organ. The broad outline of the technique I describe briefly below comes from an idealized dissection of how I use my hands, fingers, and associated tools to gain a coherent concept of the things I touch.

Let's think about those Asian clams again. I began with a cursory examination. The hand as a whole—or, if the object is small, the tips of several fingers—scans the object for general shape, weight, and texture. This gives us a general idea of an object, a tactile image we can then use to place the finer details we are about to uncover. The nearly random touching of the first stage is replaced by a much more systematic exploration, mainly using the tips of the index fingers. I may trace the object's contours, noting every detail—angles, roundness, texture, protrusions, openings, and any other peculiarity.

My fingers trace specific paths, informed by the object's overall form and by my hypothesis of the object's orientation. With completely unfamiliar objects, it is helpful to be oriented: where are the front, the back, the left, and the right? If I have handled more or less similar objects before, this orientation, achieved almost instantaneously during the first phase of exploration, comes quite naturally. The pads of the fingers are sensitive but are rather large. If we want still finer details, we need finer instruments. I use the ends of the nails, especially those of the thumb and index finger, to characterize and count small features. If I need to examine the features inside openings too small or narrow to insert a finger, I employ a stiff pin or needle. Vibrations from the pin as I slowly pass its shaft along the surface of interest will tell me the number, location, size, and shape of the ribs, bumps, and other protrusions I encounter.

The entire examination may last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. By the time I am finished, I have a detailed, coherent, and I hope accurate representation of the object in my mind's fingers. Further examination would surely yield still more information, as I illustrated above with the Triton's trumpet, but completeness characterizes all scientific efforts. The key features of this process of tactile exploration are, I believe, accurate initial orientation and systematic (as opposed to random) touching and tracing. As exploration proceeds, we go from the large scale—overall shape, size, and weight; temperature; thickness; and the like—to a finer scale.

This recipe applies equally to tactile illustrations. We must begin by acquiring an overall sense of shape and size, which we do by using the whole hand and as many fingers as the illustration will accommodate. Once this stage is completed, we can begin to trace individual features, note the position of particular items, and observe how features are arranged relative to each other and to the whole.

Years ago, in a letter to the scientific journal Nature, a Canadian research group reported a study of the way blind subjects should read maps. The authors had their blind subjects first trace outlines. According to their data, it took thirty seconds or longer for the average blind subject to trace a given outline. In a comment published later that year in Nature, I pointed out that it would be very difficult to gain an accurate representation of the map if it took half a minute or more to complete the initial exploration. Integration, the key to gaining a representation of illustrations and objects observed by touch, is hard to achieve over time intervals as long as this. No sighted person would ever read a map by first following a country's borders by eye; he or she would quickly scan the map, acquire a general orientation and a sense for its large-scale features, and then concentrate on the details.

The principles that apply to touch apply to the other senses as well. It takes experience and some practice to gain a full appreciation of a piece of music or a bird's song we have heard, a painting we have seen, or even of the foods we taste and smell. Our senses have enormous potential to inform us about the world and to enrich our lives; but we must learn how to use our senses to best effect, how to observe, or to become more aware of our surroundings. This is as true for the sighted as it is for the blind, but for the blind there is the additional obstacle that we lack sight, one of the most integrative of the senses, the one that permits a nearly instantaneous, large-scale, and often distant orientation.

I no longer remember how or whether I really learned to observe, but I do know that my parents and brother were twenty-four-hour tour guides, describing everything and anything wherever we went. More important still, they showed me every imaginable thing—plants, insects, mushrooms, doorways, window frames, walls, brickwork on old Dutch buildings, rocks, models of buildings—the list is endless. In doing so, they stimulated my already substantial curiosity. Yet I wanted more; I hungered to become acquainted with my surroundings, to make sense of them—in short, to understand the world in a scientific frame of mind. I wanted to be aware, not only of the pleasures of my surroundings, but of the dangers and pitfalls.

I could not observe everything firsthand, of course, so I began to read. I read and read and read and read some more, and I still read voraciously. In order to read and to retrieve all that information, I had to have superior Braille skills. What do superior Braille skills amount to? Rapid and accurate Braille reading, like rapid and accurate print reading, means quick recognition and processing of pattern, paying attention to detail, and engaging the mind as the fingers or eyes briskly move line by line across the page. There is, I am convinced, a direct connection between learning to gather information from objects and learning to read quickly and accurately. This is true for everyone, not just sighted and not just the blind.

Nothing would help blind children more than being taught the techniques and pleasures of exploration—touch, sound, taste, smell, and whatever vision remains. It is hard to be curious about things if we do not know what those things are like. It is hard to avoid dangers if we are unable to interpret the cues our senses provide about our surroundings. It is hard to gain a sense of aesthetics if we feel, listen, taste, or smell carelessly and casually. And it is hard to get a job if we lack the skills to gain and process information by effective reading and effective use and interpretation of our senses.

We must make exploration a habit, a good habit, a pleasant and rewarding habit. We must educate parents, teachers, and the blind themselves about how to observe with the mind engaged. This is not rocket science; in fact, it requires no technology at all other than the biological technology we have inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. How can anything be more important?

More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art

by Georgina Kleege
Reviewed by Deborah Kent Stein

More Than Meets the Eye
What Blindness Brings to Art
by Georgina Kleege
Oxford University Press, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-19-060435-6
Available in audio format from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) as DB93533

When I tried to sign up for a studio sculpture class during college, the instructor was adamant. "It would be a waste of your time and mine," he insisted. "A blind person can't create or appreciate art. Art is a visual experience."

That instructor's attitude was extreme, but it reflected the thinking about art, vision, and blindness that has prevailed for centuries. Today a host of blind and sighted artists are working to shatter stereotypes and demonstrate that vision is only one channel to meaningful artistic experience. Art museums around the world have launched programs that attempt to make paintings accessible through audio description, and an assortment of touch tours allow blind visitors hands-on exploration of replicas and original pieces.

In More Than Meets the Eye, Georgina Kleege reviews past and current thinking about blindness and art. Her wide-ranging inquiry draws upon literary references, interviews with blind artists, scientific research, and her own impressions of museum access programs. Through all of her explorations she asks probing questions that challenge traditional ideas about blindness. "True access needs to be understood as something more than a one-sided act of generosity or charity," she writes in her introduction. "The presence of those formerly excluded people must be understood to invite a wholesale scrutiny of what the culture takes for granted about itself. The ultimate goal is not merely to explain visual art to blind people in the hope that this cultural access will compensate for the loss of sight. Rather, the hope is that blind people can bring a perspective that has not been articulated before."

Kleege begins by examining beliefs about blindness and perception, based on the writings of René Descartes and other Western philosophers. In 1630 Descartes theorized about the perceptions of a hypothetical man, totally blind from birth, as he maps his environment with the help of a stick. Descartes's notions about this theoretical blind man, whom Kleege playfully refers to as "the Hypothetical," echo through western thought to this day. Descartes understood the sense of touch to be the Hypothetical's substitute for sight. However, he failed to recognize the many facets of tactile experience, and he ignored the other senses that enhance a blind person's understanding of the world.

Kleege goes on to consider artistic representations of blindness and works of art that incorporate Braille. In one salient example, Braille inscriptions are used at the FDR Memorial in Washington, DC, but are placed too high on the wall to be reached and read tactually by blind visitors. "Braille is appropriated for sighted purposes," Kleege notes, "leaving blind people at the margins of society, out of sight and out of mind."

Kleege devotes a chapter to the descriptive audio tours offered to blind visitors by many art museums. Some tours provide pre-recorded descriptions through an audio device, while others involve a live docent. Kleege expresses concern that pre-recorded materials often seem rudimentary, as though based upon an assumption that blind visitors have only minimal knowledge of the visual world. Docent-led tours, on the other hand, allow the blind visitor to ask questions and gather desired information.

Another chapter focuses on docent-led touch tours, in which blind visitors are permitted to touch certain selected sculptures. Kleege reflects that the blind visitor is privileged to experience art in a way forbidden to the sighted, and therefore can provide a unique perspective. She recalls a discussion with a docent at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The docent was convinced that touch can only perceive objects sequentially, taking them in bit by bit. Kleege describes how she refuted that idea, "showing my docent how I could wrap my palms and fingers over and around considerable chunks of the form. My point was that my haptic exploration was not merely to trace the form's outline with my fingertips but rather to envelope the three-dimensional volumes with my palms and fingers." Through touch the visitor can discover many aspects of a work that cannot be experienced visually, such as texture and temperature, the grain of the wood or the marks of a chisel. Kleege argues that touch is not an inferior sense, but a richly varied, exciting mode of perception.

More Than Meets the Eye asks us to challenge old ways of thinking about art and the senses, to stretch our expectations and reach toward unimagined possibilities. "If we can abandon the notion that blindness can only diminish, damage, or destroy identity, and adopt instead the idea that the experience of blindness, in all its varieties, can in fact shape and inform other facets of personality and personal history, we will move toward a more genuinely inclusive society," Kleege writes. "The integration of blind perceptions and experiences will change the foundational assumptions of the culture; change how the human condition is defined. And I believe this is the goal worth working toward."

Blindness Skills: The Only Sure Bet in Vegas!

by Carlton Walker

From the Editor: Carlton Walker has dual careers as a teacher of the visually impaired and an attorney. In 2018 she was elected president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC).

Each year the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) brings new ideas, incredible resources, and the love and support of NFB members into the lives of blind individuals of all ages and their families. This July thousands of members of the NFB will meet in Las Vegas, Nevada, to hold our annual convention. Concurrently, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind, will host a conference within the NFB National Convention. We gather together to learn and share, to reconnect with old friends and to meet new friends. We certainly hope that you can join us.

There's an old truism: "Vegas wasn't built on winners," and it makes perfect sense. The odds of any game of chance must favor "the house," or there would be no way to afford the building utilities and the staff required to host the game. Some games of chance offer better odds than others, but all games are stacked in favor of "the house."

Unfair odds are part of the gambling world, but they are not supposed to be part of our daily lives or part of school for our children. However, for years it felt as though the odds were stacked against my daughter, Anna Catherine, and our family. School officials insisted that Anna Catherine should "maximize" her vision—even though doing so gave her headaches, caused neck and back pain, and left her demoralized and exhausted.

Nothing can improve my daughter's eyesight, so the odds are always stacked against her if she relies on her vision. However, with blindness skills such as Braille, cane travel, and accessible technology, my daughter can do what she needs to do—efficiently, effectively, and without headaches, neck pain, or feeling like she is less than her peers. 

This June, my daughter graduated from high school, with honors. Every day she uses blindness skills including Braille, Nemeth Code, a long white cane, and accessible technology to complete her schoolwork, take part in community activities, and perform chores around the house, such as laundry, cleaning, and meal preparation. None of this would have been possible had we listened to the "experts" in the schools. If we had tried to maximize her use of vision, we would have been minimizing her potential in every way.

Sometimes you'll hear the line, "There's no such thing as a sure bet," but this statement is wrong. Throughout the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, from July 7 to 12, you will find information about and access to the only sure bet in Vegas: blindness skills—those skills that allow our children to survive and thrive regardless of how much vision they have or do not have.

Come join us at the NOPBC Conference and the 2019 NFB National Convention in Las Vegas this July. Please attend our sessions, which will include information and ideas for families of blind students from birth through college. We also will have sessions on IEPs (individualized education programs), tactile graphics, accessible art, and bringing more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) into blind children's lives. You will also enjoy:

Sunday, July 7
Kid Talk: NFB President Mark Riccobono has a conversation with our children
Lunch with the NOPBC Board
Megan Bening Memorial Technology Giveaway: last year we gave away $10,000 in accessible technology to blind children and youth
Family Game Night: we will have accessible games for a great evening of family fun

Monday, July 8
Cane Walks: an opportunity to receive free cane travel instruction from orientation and mobility professionals; sighted family members are encouraged to participate as well
NOPBC Style Show: our children and youth walk the runway and share with us their interests and goals
Mock Trial and other evening events put on by NFB divisions and training centers for the blind

Tuesday, July 9
NOPBC Annual Meeting: an opportunity to learn more about and become involved with our division; speech from the 2019 Distinguished Educator of Blind Students; elections for members of the NOPBC Board
Braille Book Fair: choose Braille books that are available at no cost and will be shipped to you free of charge
Braille Carnival: a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults; the Action Fund has provided thousands of Braille books at no charge to blind children and youth

Wednesday, July 10
IEP Night: workshop on IEP laws and strategies
Tactile Art and NFB BELL Academy sessions

Sunday through Friday, July 7-12
Exhibit Hall: opportunity to have hands-on experience with accessible blindness and low-vision tools and technology; meet and speak with representatives from companies that produce and market these tools
Independence Market: opportunity to handle, test, and learn to use blindness and low-vision tools including accessible games, household items, watches, calculators, and more; chance to collect free NFB literature including articles, speeches, Kernel Books, and past issues of Future Reflections and Braille Monitor
Breakout sessions on technology, interest areas, and many more topics

Wednesday through Friday, July 10-12
NFB General Sessions: hear from nationally renowned speakers on a plethora of topics that have an impact on blind individuals of all ages; vote on resolutions that set forth NFB policy

Friday, July 12
NFB Banquet: Banquet speech by NFB President Mark Riccobono, presentation of NFB scholarship winners, good food, and conversation with our Federation family



On May 8 the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) announced the finalists for its national scholarship program, which awards thirty scholarships each year to recognize achievement by blind scholars. The finalists will become official winners when they receive their scholarship awards at the 2019 NFB convention in Las Vegas. This year's finalists are listed below in alphabetical order with their home states and vocational goals.

Amy Albin, New Jersey: Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Makayla Bouchea, Georgia: Human Resources
Tracy Boyd, Oregon: Clinical Mental Health Counselor
Kaden Calahan, New Mexico: Language Arts Teacher
Abdoulaye Dthme, Michigan: Human Rights/International Lawyer
Eric Duffy, Ohio: Vocational Rehabilitation Administrator
Rebecca Dunfield, Nevada: Victim Advocate
Emily Eagle, Texas: Lawyer and Disability Advocate
Amy Hatten, Wisconsin: Rehabilitation Counselor
Maureen Hayden, Texas: Marine Biologist
Gene Kim, California: Mechanical Engineering and Symbolic Systems
Jenelle Landgraf, Washington: Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Nina Marranca, New York: Clinical Psychologist
Ana Martinez Larumbe, Louisiana: Social Worker
Lucas Mebane, North Carolina: Biomedical Engineer
Gerald Meredith, Virginia: Professor of Criminal Justice
Pablo Morales, North Carolina: Blindness Education/Rehabilitation
Kaylee Nielson, Arizona: Lawyer
Erin Olsen, Idaho: Curriculum and E-learning Content Developer
Rachel Ooi, Tennessee: Lawyer and Children's Advocate
Amelia Palmer, Idaho: Electrical Engineering and Mathematics
Aracely Rosillo, Georgia: Vision Rehabilitation Therapist
Heather Schey, Rhode Island: Human Services
Vanessa Sheehan, Arizona: Manuscript Editor
Brandon Shin, California: Law, Music, and Writing
Derique Simon, South Carolina: Victims' Rights and Disability Lawyer
Helen Sydnor, Virginia: Teacher of Blind Students and Braille Transcriber
Alicia Ucciferri, Texas: Legal Work for Marginalized Communities
Madelyn Walker, Texas: Pharmaceutical Oncologist
Ryan Wullschleger, California: Lawyer


Braille Book Fair 2019
Contact Krystal Guillory
[email protected]
Calling all Braille readers, teachers, and parents! It's that time again—time to sort through all those boxes of Braille books and donate those gently used but no longer needed Braille books to the 2019 Braille Book Fair sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). The primary goal is to get more Braille books into the hands of children, youth, and beginning adult Braille readers. Most needed are print/Braille storybooks, leisure reading and nonfiction titles, cookbooks, and poetry. Magazines, textbooks, and audiobooks are not accepted at this time. Children are so hungry for their very own books that every year, despite generous donations, most books for young children are gone in less than an hour.
To send your donations free of charge from the post office, handwrite, stamp, or affix a label to the upper righthand corner of the box stating, "Free Matter for the Blind." Send packages to:
Braille Book Fair
National Federation of the Blind
200 E. Wells St. at Jernigan Place
Baltimore, MD 21230

Seedlings Braille Books for Children Thirty-fifth Anniversary Gifts for Teachers
To celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2019, Seedlings is offering all certified US teachers of the visually impaired four one-volume books of their choosing for free this year. Teachers should use the code tvip19 as the purchase order number. In the checkout information, include the school name and address. Teachers are eligible to sign up for this program one time only in 2019. 

Seedlings Book Angel Program
Contact: [email protected]
734-427-8552 or 800-777-8552
Children in the US and Canada ages zero to twenty-one who are blind or visually impaired are eligible to receive three Braille books per year from Seedlings through the Book Angel Program, but they must re-register each year. Sign up at the link above and list four books from the Seedlings catalog. Three books will be sent as time and materials allow.  


SciAccess 2019
Contact: Anna Voelker, [email protected]
Location: Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio
Dates: June 28-29, 2019
SciAccess is an international conference that will explore ways in which science and STEAM can be made more accessible for all. The conference is being hosted in collaboration with Astronomers without Borders. Keynote speakers will be Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned autism advocate; and Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space explorer.


You Cane Give Initiative
Contact: James Boehm, 901-483-1515
[email protected]
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/you-cane-give-initiative-1558518134229769
Are the used folding canes in that drawer collecting dust? Donate your used canes to the You Cane Give Initiative! You Cane Give collects and refurbishes used canes to send to blind people all over the world. Folding canes can be sent overseas, and straight canes can be recycled to people here in the US. You Cane Give has contacts in Peru, the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. Canes can be shipped to You Cane Give as Free Matter for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.  


K-12 and Higher Education Survey

The NFB is gathering information regarding the accessibility of educational technology used in our nation's schools, kindergarten through graduate level. If you are a student, parent, teacher, or administrator who uses screen access software or other accommodations to participate nonvisually in educational programs or services, or if you are the parent, teacher, or administrator of someone who does, please complete this survey once a semester.



Guidelines and Standards for Tactile Graphics
In 2010 the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) issued its guidelines and standards for creating tactile graphics. BANA now offers the 2010 publication online in HTML and in a downloadable PDF version. The printable, enhanced PDF version has been designed with screen reader accessibility in mind. Braille and large-print versions are also available.


Seedlings Braille Books for Children
P.O. Box 51924, Livonia, MI 48151-5924
Contact: 800-777-8552
[email protected]
Seedlings offers a selection of board books for very young readers that incorporate textures and rudimentary tactile pictures. Seedlings also carries books with tactile illustrations produced by DK Publishers: Animals, Counting, Lego Duplo Farm, On the Move, and Shapes. Another book from DK Publishers, It Can't Be True, will appeal to older readers.

National Braille Press
Books from National Braille Press with tactile illustrations include Amazing Mazes, Basic Human Anatomy, Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, Reach for the Stars (an ebook with graphic overlays for the iPad), and The Tactile Book of Dinosaurs. The large print pamphlet Because Pictures Matter, available free in English and Spanish, is a guide to using, finding, and creating tactile images for blind children. 


The Princeton Braillists Collection
National Braille Press
Thirty-seven tactile atlases representing individual US states, regions, and countries around the world are available from National Braille Press. The maps are produced on thermoformed plastic sheets with labels in print and Braille.

American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
Contact: 800-223-1839
APH has designed or adapted several maps, atlases, and a globe to help people who are blind or visually impaired understand the world. Products include an atlas of the United States and Canada, a US puzzle map, a tactile globe, and collections of regional state maps. 

TMAP: Tactile Maps Automated Production
Contact: 888-400-8933
[email protected]
In 2018 the San Francisco LightHouse introduced TMAP, offering on-demand tactile street maps. TMAP is a collaboration of the LightHouse and the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. Covering an area of several blocks around a given address, TMAP uses both Braille and large print to identify streets that are represented by crisp, raised lines. Each package contains two maps of the same address: a zoomed-out overview map and a zoomed-in detail map showing streets, paths, and buildings, if the data is available. 

ClickAndGo Tactile Maps
Contact: 347-709-5549
[email protected]
In addition to tactile maps that can be installed permanently in public places, ClickAndGo also offers portable maps travelers can carry with them or use for pre-journey learning at home. The maps are produced with swell paper (encapsulated plastic). They can be as small as 11 x 17 inches, they are more often designed in a larger, collapsible format for ease of use.


National Braille Press
In addition to books, National Braille Press offers alphabet cards with raised pictures (in English and Spanish), a tactile representation of the American flag, the Periodic Table of Elements, greeting cards with raised illustrations, and a raised-line coloring book called The Farm.

American Printing House for the Blind
Contact: 800-223-1839 or 502-895-2405
Storybooks in the On the Way to Literacy series are tactually illustrated books for children ages three to five, featuring real objects, textures, molded images, and raised outlines. Moving Ahead storybooks are tactually illustrated books for children ages four to seven, featuring raised-line drawings and symbols to represent story characters and events.

APH also offers materials for parents to help them support their child's learning. On the Way to Literacy: Early Experiences for Children with Visual Impairments is a handbook giving parents information on early communication, concept development, learning through touch, and early reading. Teaching Touch is a guide for parents and teachers that gives insight into the needs of young tactile learners. It helps parents and teachers encourage blind children ages four to seven to become active explorers and readers of tactile graphics.

The VIPS Video Library (Visually Impaired Preschool Services) created this series on DVD. These videos offer practical techniques that foster the development of children who are blind or visually impaired. The series includes "Learning about the World: Concept Development, Hands-on Experience, Tactual Learning and Skills" and "Power at Your Fingertips: An Introduction to Learning Braille."    


Sensational Blackboard
Sensational Products
P.O. Box 261085, Lakewood, CO 80226
Contact: Ann Cunningham, 303-238-4760
Tactile images can be made quickly and easily with the Sensational Blackboard. Drawings made with a standard ballpoint pen appear instantly on the page; no need to flip the page over! 

Sensational Books also sells the print/Braille picture book Sadie Can Count, including colorful tactile illustrations.

Raised-Line Drawing Board
Independence Market
Contact: 410-659-9314, Extension 2216
[email protected]
With the slightly rough surface of this drawing board, one can create same-side raised-line drawings using a pen or stylus. Contact the Independence Market by phone or email to obtain the product catalog.

InTACT Drawing Bundle
The inTACT Bundle includes everything blind or low-vision users need to create their own tactile graphics independently. As the user draws on the inTACT Sketchpad, raised lines appear on the drawing sheet. The inTACT eraser makes it possible to erase and revise tactile lines by flattening them.


Touch This Page
Perkins Archives partnered with Northeastern and Harvard Universities to create "Touch This Page! Making Sense of the Ways We Read," an exhibition about multisensory experiences of reading. The exhibit focuses on the work of Perkins founder Samuel Gridley Howe, who developed a tactile form of the print alphabet known as Boston Line Type. Included on the website are 3D printed copies of Perkins Archives artifacts that are available for download.