University of Edinburgh

Tactile Graphics

CHAPTER TWO: Tactile diagrams in educational use

2.1 Past availability and quality of tactile pictures

No discussion on the use of tactile pictures in the education of visually impaired children would he complete without a mention of the situation as It has been until recently.

Until the writer began full-time research on tactile diagrams in January 1985, there was no-one in the UK working on tactiles who was able to combine an educational perspective with the necessary technological and design ability, and to underpin this with a framework of research. The physical quality of diagrams available from (mainly) charitable sources was not as good as the available technology allowed. Reasons for this included lack of design skill, but more seriously a situation where producers frequently lacked knowledge of the educational environment in which such diagrams would be used.

The best diagrams available tended to be made by teachers of the blind, but the many other demands on their time meant that such diagrams were few in number. Demand outstripped supply, and there was no effective co-ordination of supply. The sterling work of pioneers such as Pickles (1968, pp118-l54) heralded improvements in all kinds of diagrams, but still the quality of master diagrams was not exploiting the potential of the thermoform method of production to the full.

The situation with maps was not as bleak as for other kinds of diagram, and the work of the Nottingham University Blind Mobility Research Unit (James and Armstrong, 1975) led to the development of a standard map kit (James, G A, 1972) which had Its parallels in similar ventures overseas. (Barth, 1982)

The Nottingham Map Kit was often used for other types of diagram, Sometimes unwisely in the present writer's view, and its influence was widespread. This is an example of the way in which ease of use can be the determining factor for a hard pressed practitioner, so that effectiveness of the medium can become a secondary consideration.

Following European seminars on Town Maps and the coordinated activities of working parties in a number of European countries (Hebecq, J-P, 1983), a European mapmaking kit, known as the Euro-Town-Kit was compiled, and is now produced by the Deutsches Blindenstudienanstalt in Marburg. (Deutsches Blindenstudienanstalt 1989) This incorporated the best symbols from the Nottingham Kit and other such sources after thorough evaluation by the working parties but is rather expensive.

Of the material freely available in British educational establishments Mobility and Town maps were thus largely an exception to the generally indifferent quality of tactile diagrams (which is not to imply that there is not room for improvement in maps also). The effect of this general weakness was to give many blind children a bad impression of the value of tactile diagrams as a tool for learning, and sometimes to cause them to abandon them as a serious source of information. This has become apparent during the writer’s  conversations with older blind pupils and adults on vocational training courses and in continuing education.

Many teachers also gained a false impression of the ability of their pupils to understand and use tactile presentations, (partly because of the quality of teaching material they were provided with), and thus became half-hearted in the way they employed them in the classroom. Thankfully there were shining exceptions to this generalisation, but it appears that at a time when pictures and diagrams were becoming much more numerous and important in mainstream educational publishing (Mackean, 1962, was one of the early examples, and has run through many revisions) tactile pictures and diagrams were failing to communicate much vital information to blind students. The writer's observations of the educational careers of a number of students would seem to confirm that the shortcomings in diagrammatic material were one factor although certainly not the only one, in narrowing curriculum provision, in restricting examination choice, and hence ultimately in reducing career options for blind pupils.

The effect on the careers of individual pupils can best be illustrated through the experience of a congenitally blind Scottish seventeen year-old preparing for university entrance who was questioned by the writer after three days of educational research at her school involving a number of children aged from eleven to eighteen.

This pupil bad recently used tactile diagrams a great deal with teachers who were skilled In their use, and had become fluent in extracting information from them, and thoroughly at ease in using them. When the writer asked about her experiences of tactile diagrams in her earlier education this girl explained that she had met her very first tactile diagram in a geography lesson at the age of thirteen in circumstances that she described with great precision. She described how excited she had been by what seemed to be a completely novel means of communication. It is difficult to imagine the education of any child with full sight limping through thirteen years without the benefit of pictorial modes of description.

Thankfully improvements are now taking place quite rapidly, and information about these spreads freely. International conferences convened by organisations like those concerned with visual impairment and special education and the International Cartographic Association provide a good forum. In fact, one of the ICA's constituent bodies, commission VII, (Wiedel, 1983; Tatham and Dodds, 1988) has been set up specifically to develop tactile maps and diagrams, and it takes a broader view than its cartographic origins would suggest. It also publishes an international newsletter called 'Intact' for those interested in tactile graphics.

2.2 Young blind children using pictures

In the following sections, which report on some of the author's research with blind children under the age of seven, any child whose work is mentioned can be assumed to be either totally blind or having minimal residual vision unless otherwise described. Where information about congenital or, conversely, late blindness is relevant to the situation of individual children it will be mentioned.

A few of the activities have been pursued with children who have rather more vision and their degree of residual sight is mentioned in the record. The research activities did not take place chronologically in an order which follows the natural teaching order of the activities described so this will be discussed separately.

One of the first investigations was of the effectiveness of simple bold thermoformed tactile pictures in conveying information to very young children. It should be said at the outset that a number of teachers of the blind have asserted that very young children cannot cope with tactile pictures. The examples used in this instance were a few specially produced pictures which were almost relief sculptures of the things depicted. To these were added a few pictures from the writer's existing catalogue of diagrams for secondary age children, chosen in  this instance fortheir relevance to the everyday lives of the very young, and their inherent interest for this age group. (See diagrams in appendix).

These included bold pictures of an egg in stages of preparation for an egg cup. This was almost unanimously recognised in tactile form by children whose ages ranged from 3.5 to 6. Of the two exceptions, the first was a very bright 4.5 year-old who guessed that the first picture was an egg, but offered an alternative hypothesis 'it could he a round bar of soap'. This suggestion was highly significant because it demonstrated the potential for ambiguity in all illustrations, and tactiles are even more vulnerable to this than visual illustrations. This is well illustrated in some of the work of Kennedy and Domander (1984) and Pring (1987) but whereas they continue to investigate this as an interesting psychological phenomenon, the educator's whole approach to the production of tactiles, and even the choice of media for these, must be to be aware of this possibility for ambiguity and to design the illustrations so as to eliminate or at least minimise it. Sometimes this means structural considerations, and at others it can be accomplished by suitable captions or accompanying text to narrow the options a little.

This small boy's alternative postulate for the egg picture was also interesting as an illustration of strategy in an intelligent blind person: what possibilities spring to mind and which do I feel is the most likely? (The boy in this instance was quite prepared to choose the eggas being the most likely of the two possibilities.)

The other exception, a child who found the egg picture very difficult to identify and was completely unable to understand the egg-cup in the third picture of the series, was found to have an overprotective mother who was fearful of him spilling egg yolk down his clothes, so she always fed him when he had a boiled egg. Consequently he had never handled an egg-cup, and did not know that an egg on a flat table would tend to roll. This underlines the importance of varied and extensive handling experiences for younger blind children which are a prerequisite for intelligent tactile picture use later.

2.3 Introducing maps

Another way of introducing 5-6 yearr-olds to tactile displays is by the use of simple maps. Some researchers such as Spencer and Blades (Spencer et al, 1989) have worked extensively in this area, but their work is particularly related to mobility and navigation. The writer's interest is more simply in children relating a tactile diagram or map to some other reality. First introductions have been of various types, all of which have been effective in an appropriate teaching context. These include exploration of the features of a hamster cage, followed by presentation of a simple map whose only braille information was Hamster cage. Lower floor. Upper floor. (The two floors of the cage were shown separately.) Each feature of the cage was correctly identified by two blind 5 year-olds from their memory of the cage which they had examined a week previously. Follow-up work in this instance involved similar mapping of their mainstream classroom which was begun by the researcher and completed by following the two children's own instructions.

Mapwork with younger children can also be given an adventure setting by the use of a classroom sandpit or sand tray. During the course of the writer's research with blind children aged live and six years old a classroom sandpit on a stand was designated as 'a  treasure island'. (Hinton, 1991) It was provided with a few boxes of distinctive shape as landmarks (cube, cylinder and triangular prism) and also a small dish of water which was suggested as a pond. The treasure was a small coin in a tiny plastic box which was secretly buried for each child to find. In each instance the child was provided with a thermoformed map showing the positions of the landmarks against a sandy texture. The position of the treasure was indicated by a small raised star symbol. A number of alternative Iayouts were prepared, varying both the treasure position and in some cases the position of the landmarks. This allowed the task to be made easier or harder for individual children as desired, or for the same child to have more than one attempt.

Children were instructed to explore the map thoroughly, and then to check the positions of the landmarks in the sandpit to see if they matched. (The map was in this instance presented right way up.) Children were asked not to dig for the treasure until they were sure of its position from the map information. They were then allowed to dig in one place only.

In fact every child in this particular group found the treasure at first attempt, although younger children were given maps in which the treasure was easy lo pinpoint, while older children, and those with enough residual vision to allow a good oversight of the sandpit were given a more demanding layout, probably involving a crude distance estimate from relevant landmarks. This exercise was carried out within a developing programme of map, picture and shape work, and for educational reasons it was important that each child found encouragement as well as interest in the activity. For this reason, and because of the varied degree of impairment within the group it was not assessed quantitatively.

2.4 Drawings from life

In Chapter Six of this book the writer will discuss in detail the shortcomings and difficulties for blind users inherent in line drawings. These difficulties have to do with the fact that a raised line in a tactile diagram will emerge as a structure in its own right and will have a meaning (possibly the wrong meaning) attached to it by the reader. It may, for example, be perceived as a 'wall' surrounding a void. When areas of a diagram are given a textured infill, the line indicating the limit of this (always given in visual illustration) may be unnecessary and confusing.

Despite their incompleteness as a communication aid for blind users tactile line drawings do have a place in education, not least as a way of acquiring some understanding of the conventions of visual illustration which may he useful as a quick means of representation on German Film.

There is a social dimension to this in that the vehicle for communication should not be allowed to differ too wildly from that in regular use without a very strong reason. This could cause unnecessary educational isolation for the user.

In one phase of the author's research blind children were encouraged to make their own drawings on (German film of objects which they had been shown or had collected during other lessons. The justification for this activity was partly the need to increase their general repertoire of understanding of tactile pictures and their connection with the real world which they experienced, and also the educational need to maintain a lively and stimulating context in which picture skills can be developed. In the latter case there is a need to practice and repeat some of the necessary operations. It is important that the circumstances in which such operations are practised do not become dull and uninteresting, but that the desire to record things that the child has experienced gives purpose to the drawing activity.

At a more fundamental level it is necessary to practice the control of the drawing instrument and the fluent drawing of straight and curved lines. (Sections 4.4 and 5.2).

The stimulus for these drawings can be a professionally produced thermoformed picture, or a real object which pupils have been able to handle and examine. Examples illustrated include attempts to show the outline shape of an egg: the winged fruits of sycamore and lime; and a child's attempt at representing a fir cone.

drawing an egg

Fig 1: A six year-old blind girl's successive attempts to draw an egg on German film

The egg pictures illustrated in Figure 1 are a reproduction of one child's work page, showing repeated attempts to render a satisfactory egg outline. The standard was set by the child, and not by adult intervention, although the researcher did comment on successive attempts by way of helping the child to direct her efforts. In fact from the beginning she was conscious of imperfections in her own drawing, and decided for herself what needed to be done to brinug about an improvement.

tree fruits

The two tree fruit drawings were copies of the researcher's own line drawings (also shown), although in each case the child was able to feel the real fruit as well. This particular child was being shown how a simple line drawing could be used to show features of the read thing.

The pine-cone picture (Figure 2) was made towards the end of a lesson with no opportunity for further attempts. In this case the pupil was not given a teacher drawing as an example to imitate. It became clear that the child had not fully understood the structure of the cone. Some of the important features of its architecture were inaccessible to the child because of the closeness of the cone scales. The pupil really needed a larger example at this point so that the origins of the scales and the central column of the cone could be appreciated with the fingers. In the example given the child could only feel isolated bosses of the scales with no clear connection between them, so her picture is probably an accurate representation of what she was able to feel of the fir cone.

This illustrates the need for a thorough structural appreciation before drawings are attempted. Teachers need to ensure that the right opportunities arc presented for this to be achieved, and to beware or expecting the child to represent features which the teacher has been able to appreciate mainly through vision rather than touch.

In this kind of drawing activity it was frequently observed that the structural understanding of the pupil was much greater than the quality of the illustration suggested. One significant observation that the author has made repeatedly in drawing with blind children is that their perceptual ability is far beyond their executive ability in the early stages. They are usually immediately aware of the shortcomings of their own drawings and suggest how improvements can be made even when there are major manipulative problems to be overcome in reaching the desired result. Teacher criticism is not necessary.

The control problems to be overcome by a blind child learning to draw have been discussed elsewhere, as has the need to give adequate opportunity for practice. Only by frequent use of the drawing apparatus can the pupil's drawings become matched with her/his perceptions.

Another approach to the reading and drawing of diagrams and maps which was tried was the teaching plan developed by Yngstrom (1988).

This has been described separately in Section 4.4 where it is discussed particularly in relation to congenitally blind pupils, because of the many control skills etc which need to be learned through systematic teaching if this useful teaching plan is to be followed successfully.

2.5 Simple plane geometry

Alongside some of the other work, young children need to learn the characteristics of some of the simple plane shapes such as the square, circle, triangle· and rectangle. These were introduced by means of some of the standard templates sold by educational suppliers for mainstream school use. These were used as templates for tracing onto German film, and later for free-hand drawing. A useful intermediate stage was to present the child with an incomplete shape for identification and subsequent completion. The amount to be contributed by the child can be varied according to need.

Important teaching points included the need to verify the starting and finishing points of the section to be added, and to ascertain whether a straight line, a bent line or a curved line is required.

In locating the required addition, the blind child is of course unable to be guided by the constant visual feedback enjoyed with full sight. In substituting touch monitoring for this lack of vision, the successful blind draughtsman needs to replace the frequent and regular touch checks, which can give a 'stepped' result from small corrections of alignment and counter corrections with a confidence of line born of kinaesthetic practice.

The task is successfully completed by confident assessment of the parameters of the line which is needed to complete the shape, followed by fluent insertion of the completion line. This can only be achieved by a draughtsman who has felt the necessary movements many times and knows what the sequence should feel like. This problem is discussed in relation to the special needs of congenitally blind children in Chapter 5.2

2.6 Solid shapes

Congenitally blind people need to learn the significance of viewpoint or aspect, when correlating an illustration with a solid object. If the hands are the only means of 'looking at' the object, they will most likely become aware of a greater proportion of its surface than could be seen by the eye from a single viewpoint. In trying to illustrate what they understand of an object they may include what the visual artist would describe as 'hidden detail'. This is well Illustrated by some of the drawings reproduced by Kennedy. (1982, p.322)

However, the writer's observations of young blind children confirm that by continued use of appropriate educational resources and the opportunity to discuss what they find, blind people can quickly appreciate the predicament of the sighted person and begin to learn and to be able to estimate what could he seen from one side, (particularly when the viewpoint corresponds to the standard 'elevations' of the architect or draughtsman). Unusual viewpoints may introduce angular judgements which are too difficult for a person working entirely by touch.

The author's classroom research demonstrated that congenitally blind children as young as five could understand the changing face of a rectangular box (cuboid) depending on the direction from which it is viewed, and could successfully demonstrate this with free hand drawings on German film. Similarly, a child would describe circular and rectangular aspects of a traditional cocoa tin, and be capable of illustrating these.

The writer would teach this by deciding on the viewpoint and then pointing the index finger towards it from that direction, so as to feel round the shape from that side. Some children need very little reinforcement of this, and can give quick responses to questioning, whereas others find the necessary thought process hard. It depends partly on the intelligence and maturity of the child and partly on the richness of the child's previous experiences.

Kennedy has done some interesting and useful research on drawing strategies adopted by congenitally blind adults to show hidden three-dimensional aspects or moving parts of solid objects. These include such strategies as to display even the rearward facing sides of a solid object (which would be hidden from normal vision) as in the opening out of the sides of a cardboard box. (Kennedy, loc cit, pp 322-324) or, in another context, showing the motion of the spokes of a wheel by curving them or by an esoteric code reminiscent of a wisp of smoke around the wheel. (Ibid, pp 327-328) Here again, Kennedy is a psychologist investigating the cognitive process whereas the educator attempts to devise a learning sequence which will produce a useful and reproducible result. Valuable though these experimental insights are, it is important that blind people who use drawings can employ them for two-way communication. To do so they need to understand the relationship between the drawing and the object, and the significance of any drawing conventions they employ. This includes ultimately an understanding of where, if ever, these conventions differ from those habitually used by people with full vision.

Drawing with the finger or otherwise feeling round the shape is part of the necessary learning process as is plenty of plane geometry shape work.

Ron Hinton
First published 1996
ISBN: 0901580775