Tactile Graphics!

We often hear, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” and, in many cases, it is. However, many blind/low vision individuals cannot effectively, efficiently, and sustainably access pictures. In many cases, pictures are simply left out of their materials, or, if they’re lucky, they might get a short “alt text” description of the picture.

Alt text — not an alternative in many cases

Now, alt text is great, and I’m all for it — when it is appropriate. Here’s the test: Alt text is appropriate when you can remove the picture for EVERYONE and replace it with the alt text. (Of course, if you could replace the picture with words, why didn’t you do so in the first place? But I digress …)

In many, many cases, especially in education, business, and governmental matters, the pictures/graphics used cannot simply be replaced by a few words — or even a thousand words. The picture/graphic IS worth far more than one thousand words.

If that’s the case, what are we to do for blind/low vision individuals? Shall we simply wash our hands of our ethical (and legal) duties to provide access to the information contained in those graphics?

Tactile graphics are an answer

No, because we have TACTILE GRAPHICS! What are tactile graphics? Well, they are tactile representations of graphical information. Here are some fast facts about tactile graphics:

  1. They can open the doors of information and imagination just like pictures do for the sighted. And many fully sighted individuals enjoy accessing this information tactilely — I know I do.
  2. Tactile graphics can be as simple or as complex as is needed to convey the information provided by the visual graphic.
  3. Making tactile graphics can be fun and empowering — even for craft-challenged people like me.
  4. Many, many high-quality tactile graphics are at NO COST (except for the materials needed to create the tactile graphic).
  5. Learning to read tactile graphics is not hard, but it is not automatic either.
    • Sighted people learn to read visual graphics throughout childhood, and they have plenty of opportunities to do so.
    • Blind/low vision children often get few, if any, opportunities to access tactile graphics, so it is not surprising that they may need extra support in this neglected area of learning.
    • Tactile graphics should be plentiful and instruction in exploring, reading, and making them should begin in infancy and toddlerhood — just as it does for visual graphics.
    • Tactile graphics provide information throughout life. High-stakes testing uses tactile graphics, and tactile maps are an important way for individuals to gain information about new places.

Making your own tactile graphics

  1. Top tip: when possible, begin with REAL objects.
    • For example, use an actual orange before creating a tactile graphic of an orange.
    • This would be a terrific time to create the tactile graphic together:
      • Discuss the orange
      • Discuss how to represent it on paper
      • Compare and contrast the orange with its tactile graphic
  2. For homemade tactile graphics, I recommend:
    • Braille (yes, braille), made on a slate and stylus or a Brailler.
    • In addition to braille, I recommend materials like graphic art tape (matte) and tactilely-differentiable paper/foam to begin.
  3. I do NOT recommend items like puffy paint (irregular lines and long drying time), Wiki-Stix (they come off easily and leave a wax residue on fingers that can damage refreshable braille displays), or play-doh/clay (amorphous graphics may lead to confusion rather than understanding).
  4. If you do choose to use these materials, please be aware of their pitfalls and plan accordingly.

Resources for tactile graphics

Here are some resources that offer free tactile graphic files (and, in some cases, 3-D printing files). Please note that, for several of these, you will need to register (it’s free). Also, please note that these files may require special tools (such as embossers, thermoform machines, and/or 3-D printers). But don’t let that stop you: even if you don’t have those tools, you can print out the PDF files and add tactile lines to them — by placing the matte graphic art tape on the lines or by making the lines raised using a raised line drawing tool (such as the Sensational Blackboard, the Tactile Doodle, or the DRAFTSMAN Tactile Drawing Board.

Please explore these great resources (and let them know how much you value these resources):

Note: I do not receive any compensation in relation to the items noted above.