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Tricia d'Apice

The ability to learn through pictures and diagrams is crucial for the acquisition of knowledge. It is desirable that parents and professionals work together to enable children who are blind to learn through tactile graphics. In the early learning stages tactile images can be enhanced by the accompaniment of audio input, making the image more meaningful and interesting.

Why do children who are visually impaired need to read graphics?

Today, more so than in the past, children who are blind need to have well developed tactile graphic reading skills. They can use graphics as the medium for acquiring concepts, spatial skills and accessing the academic curriculum.

Concept Development

Children who are blind do not have visual access to the world. The world around them needs to be recreated into a form which is accessible. This is often done through verbal descriptions, exploration of immediate environment and presentation of tactile models and graphics. It is through tactile models and graphics that a child begins to be able to relate one object or concept with another; a relationship can be observed with images that appear on a page. The concepts that are represented using comparative language can be easily demonstrated with a number of tactile drawings, eg big/little truck, longest/shortest string.

Spatial Awareness

The relationship between objects becomes evident when presented in graphical form. Take for example a scene of a suburban home, the positioning and sizing of the entities can be easily compared. The house is bigger than the dog; the windows may not touch the ground; the roof is on top of the house; the top of the tree is wider than the trunk of the tree, etc. A great deal of information can be absorbed incidentally through exploration of a diagram. After being exposed to a variety of tactile images children may not need to ask such questions as "Why don't aeroplanes crash into power lines?"

Through exploration of maps, both local area maps and larger scale atlases, an understanding of the spatial relationship between places should develop.

Changing Times

Children's books have traditionally relied heavily on the use of graphics to tell a story. Braille books in the past were notably short of tactile images. In many cases this was not a problem; that is, when the print graphic was only present for aesthetic reasons and not for conveying any message. It is when the print drawing was of assistance to the reader in enhancing the story, that any omissions of similar tactile graphics was denying the braille reader the same information as the print reader.

Accessing the Regular Curriculum

Humanities and science subjects relied heavily on diagrams that were very straight forward and fairly easily transcribed into a tactile image. These days with an improvement in graphical displays and a heavy reliance on photographs, more creative effort has to be put into portraying this vital information. Education is changing, the emphasis is not as heavily on the reproduction of rote facts. Children more and more these days are expected to be able to interpret and extract information from graphical stimulus in various formats, either as tables, graphs, maps, charts, diagrams and pictures. With this change in focus it is, now more than ever, essential that the tactile readers are proficient in reading tactile images.

Staying Ahead

How does one make sure that tactual readers stay abreast and even ahead in our changing times. Like any form of learning the younger the learning commences, the greater the chance the child has of mastering the skill. Many are probably already encouraging parents of pre-schoolers to expose their children to tactile models and images. As the sighted child learns foundational concepts from being read to aloud regularly from infancy, so too does the vision impaired child. There is a difference when reading to a child with a vision impairment, they may not have access to any graphical material on the page and due to this lack of additional input have trouble forming a complete understanding of the concept. The two additional forms of input that the vision impaired child requires are: tactile images; and audio explanations.

We know when we meet vision impaired people that it is courteous to quickly introduce yourself to take the 'guess work' out of the meeting. We should be applying this same principle when introducing a tactile image in the early stage of learning. Tell a student what the image is, explain to the child what they may find on the page. This can only lead to success and enjoyment of the process.

Audio-Tactile Graphics

There are limitations to tactile images, they may need excessive labelling, it may be difficult for the hands to locate and relate all the features of the image. It is often difficult to identify a tactile image alone. It may be lacking extraneous information that was omitted in the transcription process. Unless discussed or tested, it is difficult to determine if the tactile information was correctly interpreted.

If the reader is guided through the investigative stages there is the chance of a greater understanding. This guidance can take many forms, it may be by adult commentary, pre-recorded audio-cassette, or computerised speech feedback. Any model or image can be enhanced by verbal commentary. Some examples of this will be presented in a slide presentation. If the child is able to learn incidentally and has had experience with tactile images s/he may not have any trouble understanding the Two Dimensional representation of a Three Dimensional image. Some vision impaired children will have to be guided through this process. There are many suggestions available for this; tracing the hands onto plastic film/aluminium foil; having concrete materials blu-tacked onto the tactile drawing, then removing the model to expose the tactile image.

Whenever possible in the early learning stages, tactual images should be juxtaposed with audio input. Then later the child should develop the skill of reading graphics without this audio backup.

The use of a Graphics interpreter such as Bumpy Pictures or Nomad can appeal to children. At St Lucy's School in Australia, we are producing audio-tactile graphics kits for use with these computer peripherals. The learner is gaining audio feedback through an error free exploration of the graphic. These kits also enable the learner to work independently through a concept without the need for constant supervision.

A picture may paint a thousand words for a sighted person ..... words may enhance a tactile image a thousandfold.

Presentation Format

1) A brief reminder of the vital role graphics play in our society and education;
the changing nature and presentation of print books;
the emphasis on pictures and complex diagrams;
the necessity for advanced interpretation skills.
2) Examples of enhancing tactile images and models with sound, both for pre-school and school aged children.
3) Slide presentation of audio-tactile grahpics at St Lucy's School.

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