Tactile Graphic Tools

Drawing engages your student's imagination to become more active. Each time he/she draws or creates, they access their imagination and make physical representations of what is in his/her mind. Drawing stimulates creative thought, increases observational skills, and is a way to demonstrate true understanding of the concept. Describing and object verbally, does not necessarily mean that a student has a true understanding of the object. Students who are visually impaired can often repeat words to describe an object or concept without fully understanding the object or concept.

"Duck" Example

Years ago, I worked with three totally blind first and second grade students who were learning about ducks. Their classes had incubated duck eggs and were waiting for them to hatch. The students described ducks as, "Ducks have two webbed feet, a flat, wide bill, short necks and round bodies with feathers. They swim in the water, waddle on land and can fly. Ducks make a 'quack' sound." Sounds great, right? However, when given a life-like representation of a duck (complete with textured webbed feet, flat, wide bill, real feathers, etc.) the students had no idea what it was. When a real adult duck (who was tame!) was available to touch, again, no concept of what it was. The students could identify feathers, but not "webbed feet" or "flat, wide bill". When asked to describe how a duck swims, the students used words like "gills" and "fins" and did not realize that the duck typically floats on top of the water diving down into the water to reach food. In this example, the students echoed the correct words, but lacked the concept of a duck.

realistic model of a duck standing on two feet with real feathers, open bill, and webbed feet.

Impact on Education

While hands-on with real objects is ideal, there are many objects that cannot or should not be touched. Some things are too big (elephant) or too scary (tarantula) or simply not available. Students with vision can look at a picture or watch a video to develop knowledge about objects. Students with visual impairments are given verbal descriptions - but it is important to check that the student truly understands the words that are used to describe the object. One way to support verbal descriptions for real items that cannot be touched, is to provide tactile representations. Keep in mind that there is a big difference between touching a real duck and exploring a raised line outline of a simple duck shape; students should sequentially be introduced to and learn how to interpret raised line drawings. This includes the ability to create their own tactile graphics! The natural progression of how to introduce tactile resources to students who are blind or low vision:

Progression: Real Objects > Models of Real Objects > Tactile Graphics Representing Real Objects > Symbols (including braille or print words) Representing Real Objects > Students Creating Tactile Graphics

(For more information, see Tactile to Digital #2 post)

To be clear, when possible, students should be introduced to real objects. These real objects should be paired to models of real objects and then tactile graphics of real objects; and, even young students should have opportunities to draw or create their own tactile graphics. This starts in preschool! A student may be introduced to a toy ball, which is basically a round sphere. A wooden 3D round sphere (from a math kit) can be used to represent that ball. Then, a circle (basically a flat, 2D ball) replaces the 3D wooden ball. Then a raised line circle is used. TVIs do this all the time and preschool students learn to recognize and differentiate between circles, squares, triangles and other shapes. Educators pair the real object with models and outlines. However, the last step is often missing for students who are blind or low vision - DRAWING the shape. Keep in mind that students will be required to draw images and diagrams for higher math such as geometric images, charts, graphs and plotting points. Drawing skills are a huge part of the preschool and kindergarten curriculum and are critical foundation skills for students who are blind or low vision!

Students with vision often learn to draw shapes by tracing dotted lines that outline the shape. Students who are blind or low vision can trace around an object using a tool that creates a tactile line. Drawing with a crayon on a bumpy surface will create a textured line. There are a variety of tools and kits available that create raised lines. 

Tools that Create Raised Lines

Tactile Doodle board with  raised edges and clip. Pen is drawing around around 2D shapes creating raised white lines on black background.

Larger drawing tool with attached sliding tactile ruler.

Tactile Graphics Kit: robust kit that uses heavy gauge aluminum sheets and various tools that are hammered or are tracing wheels.

Sensational Blackboard- lightweight rubber mat designed to fit in a backpack that uses regular paper and pen to create quick raised line drawings.

Clipboard with rubber padding. Foil sheets are required to create quick raised line graphics.

Board with mat that uses foil sheets to create raised line drawings.

Intact: Board with edge that uses plastic sheets to create simple raised line drawings.

Tools for Educators to Create Tactile Graphics

In addition to the tools listed above, educators also equipment to create quality tactile graphics. These tools can created documents or files that can be shared with others and that can be stored digitally.

The Paths to Technology Book Library has a growing section at the bottom devoted to images for tactile graphics machines.

The reindeer image below is a digital file available on Paths to Technology's Book Library (under Tactile Images). This tactile image contains the outline of a reindeer, with textures to distinguish various body parts, braille labels and arrows between the labels and body parts.

Image of accessible tactile reindeer with raised lines and braille created on Swell paper using a PIAF or Swell machine.