American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2020      ACCESS

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See3D: Creating Hands-on Access through the Power of 3D Printing

by Caroline Karbowski

Caroline Karbowski displays 3D models at an exhibition.From the Editor: For several years a number of organizations have offered downloadable files that can be used to create 3-dimensional models through 3D printing. From amebas to galaxies, nearly anything can be rendered in a form that is tactilely accessible. But few people have access to a 3D printer or possess the expertise to turn a file into an actual object. For most blind people, the promise of access through 3D printing has remained unfulfilled.

Caroline Karbowski is an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University. In this article she explains how she founded a nonprofit called See3D. See3D is dedicated to getting 3-dimensional models into the hands of the blind people who want and need them.

It may seem unusual for someone who is sighted to read Braille by touch, but I didn't think twice about it when I was in sixth grade. I wanted to be able to read books in the car without getting carsick. I figured that if I learned Braille, I could read to my heart's content on family trips.

I learned Braille on my own, and I have been using it ever since. To this day I read Braille at night before I fall asleep. I use Braille to rehearse my theater lines backstage. I even labeled the controls in my car in Braille so I can keep my eyes on the road while I drive!

When I was in eighth grade I read an article on how 3D printing could make tactile models of images seen through a telescope or microscope. The models could be labeled in Braille for blind users. I realized I could label 3D-printed models and distribute them to people who are blind.

The technology club at my high school had a 3D printer. I was eager to put it to use, but I couldn't decide what I wanted to print. Then I remembered the article I had read the year before, and I realized I could use our printer to make 3D models for blind people. I built on this idea when I led a showcase project at TechOlympics, the area high school technology conference. Our technology team created a website, see3d.org. On this website anyone who is blind or anyone who is a parent/guardian or teacher of someone who is blind, can request a model. We can then print it, add Braille labels or descriptions as needed, and mail the model using Free Matter shipping.

After we presented at TechOlympics, we were invited to other maker events. I met a number of visitors who volunteered to print and design models. A woman named Emily Kiehl offered to improve our website.

At the start of the project I didn't actually know anyone who was blind. Then I met a blind woman at a college event, and she offered to give me feedback on a Cinderella Castle model. She introduced me to some of her blind friends. My mother connected me with some friends of hers who are teachers of blind students.

I wanted to learn about the educational tools currently being used for blind students, so I visited several schools and toured the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. I also visited the Digital Fabrication Lab at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI). These visits gave me a clearer idea of how See3D could contribute to the availability of tactile learning tools.

At college I met a fellow student, Garrett Carder, who also offered to help with the website. Together we pitched for seed funding from The Innovation Studio at The Ohio State University (OSU). The funding helped us purchase 3D printing materials and convention admission fees. In addition, The Innovation Studio connected us with the Entrepreneurial Business Law Clinic at OSU, which helped us file to become a tax-exempt, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

Today, See3D has distributed more than six hundred models to blind people. We have filled requests from individuals, large group requests for conferences and schools, and a bit of everything in between.

Our most frequent requests are for models of things that cannot be touched or fully understood through touch in real life due to safety concerns or the size, cost, or delicate nature of the object. Most popular are butterflies, cells, sea creatures, DNA molecules, monuments, maps, buildings, snowflakes, and, of course, movie characters. We have designed a few original models, but our design capability is limited by the availability and ability of our volunteers. Mostly we print models that are available under Public Domain or Creative Commons licenses. Our main printing material is called PLA filament. We use cloud-based printers, so multiple people can load objects and control the printers. We are always looking for more volunteers to help design and print models, create Braille labels, and put packages in the mail.

Once a model has been designed on the computer, it can be posted online for anyone to download or modify. The files for 3D printing, which are known as STL files, are easily transferred electronically. In many cases we can fulfill a request without actually printing and mailing the model, as long as the recipient has a 3D printer. We fulfill many of our international requests by sending files to be printed. In other instances we send models with people who are traveling to the country where they are needed. We have sent actual models to places as far-flung as Kyrgyzstan, Guatemala, Canada, and Guyana. Through 3D printing students around the world can use the same models and collaborate on improvements.

Recently we have been working with the Model Club at the Ohio State School for the Blind (OSSB). We demonstrate to the students and teachers how to operate their 3D printers. Students use screen readers and magnifiers to find STL files online, which they load into a slicer for printing. However, slicing programs often are inaccessible to users of screen readers. We are collaborating with 3D printing companies to help eliminate such barriers.

In the past another barrier in the printing process was the inaccessibility of 3D printers themselves. The maintenance controls and file names had to be selected on the printer's screen. During this school year we were able to connect the printer to a computer, so all of the printer functions could be controlled with a screen reader. Some students also use video call apps such as Aira to navigate the printer screen. This method allows students to be independent and discover more functions of the printer.

OSSB has a large collection of models of historical landmarks. Last year we mainly printed smaller replicas of the large models in the collection. Students can have their own personal copies of the smaller 3D printed models, and they can gain a general idea of the shape before they use the larger model for detail. Currently, students are printing models that interest them and models their teachers have requested for use in the classroom.

I'm a biology major, and I want to get involved in science education. This past summer Emily Kiehl and I led science activities at the 2019 BELL Academy of the NFB of Ohio. The highlight was a dogfish shark dissection. We wanted to expose the students to the shapes of different kinds of sharks, so we printed models of a manta ray, a whale shark, and a dogfish shark. We also showed them a dogfish shark as a tactile graphic. In this way the students were able to make connections between the 2D graphic, the 3D model, and the actual shark specimen. We decided to expand on this concept by printing models of human organs, including the eye, the intestine, the stomach, a neuron, and the cochlea. During the children's activities at the NFB of Ohio convention we paired these models with the images in a book of tactile anatomy graphics. 

We have discovered that 3D printing can be a means to boost awareness about blindness. When we go to maker events, we spread awareness about Braille, web accessibility, and tactile learning. Many of the people who contact See3D to help print models have no personal connection with blindness. I realized 3D printing can become a great connection between people who are blind and those who are sighted. People of all ages and 3D printing abilities can become involved with See3D. Middle-school students have designed model requests. Since most requests already have a design available, a volunteer just needs to have access to a 3D printer to create the model itself. Our blind volunteers print models using screen readers and use video call apps to work around aspects that are not accessible yet. As we design and print models to be touched, it is our hope that more people are becoming aware of blindness and see the value of making the world more accessible.

You can request free 3D printed models when you visit our website at see3d.org.

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