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“How Tactile Graphics Can End Image Poverty” for Individuals with Vision Loss

“Images are for everyone.” Writing in the MIT Technology Review, Chancey Fleet, assistive technology coordinator at The New York Public Library (NYPL), explained that “Access to rich imagery shouldn’t be something that blind or low-vision people have to do without.” In the Dimensions Lab at NYPL’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Books Library, patrons learn to make tactile graphics and three-dimensional models that can be experienced by touch. Discussions about graphics and images generally assume reliance on “vision as a pathway to understanding.” However, the power of images in conveying information through “spatial representation,” is not “inherently visual.” Images “rendered legible by touch” can “open up the world of spatial communication.” Fleet, who is blind, shared her experience in redesigning a house she and her husband purchased: “A tactile graphic was the ideal tool to help me envision our future home and make decisions about it with confidence.” She used a high-tech graphics embosser and tactile “’blackboard’” to create floor plans. Fleet offered pointers about developing tactile graphic design as “an art of transformation: what appeals to the eye may be cluttered and chaotic to the fingertips.” The legibility of a tactile graphic depends on the creator’s ability to convey information by touch. Because the resolution of what is perceived tactilely is lower than resolution experienced visually, tactile graphics must be “scaled up enough to make key elements detectable.” Fleet cited an effort to place digital tactile graphics “under the fingertips of students and adults.” The Monarch, a tabletop device featuring a refreshable braille display, explores images in detail within seconds. It is being field tested in schools and other community settings and is a collaboration involving the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and assistive technology company Humanware. To increase access and awareness of tactile design, the Heiskell Library hosted an “inaugural tactile art teach-in.” The event featured opportunities to draw by hand using a low-tech “Sensational BlackBoard” to raise tactile lines on paper with regular pens. Sound cues and ribbons running through frames helped users learn about perspective. “We confronted the stark reality that most of us have become habituated to a state of image poverty and affirmed that we need, deserve, and can flourish with access to tactile images.” Read the full article here to learn more about  “How tactile graphics can help end image poverty.”