How Tactile Graphics can help those with Visual Impairments Understand Maps and Shapes

Detail of education globe for children with braille writing. Europe.Tactile graphics are representations from the real world that people with a visual impairment can move their fingertips across. These graphics feature raised lines or shapes and, often, a Braille label, a paragraph in Braille, texture and more. Almost anything, including artwork, architecture, geometric shapes, graphs and more can be represented in these graphics. Maps are heavily represented

These representations must be uncluttered because tactile learners cannot effectively interpret a graphic that’s loaded with information. Tactile learners go from the part to the whole, the opposite of the way sighted people learn. They put together a picture in their mind from bits of information. When used in conjunction with the complimentary text of Braille (or audio), these representations help a person with a visual impairment to better understand and navigate the world.

Tactile graphics allow students in high school and college to use math and science textbooks more efficiently because those texts rely heavily on charts, diagrams, symbols and cross sections. These graphics keep working professionals productive because using them they can read workflow charts, plans, drawings and other work-related, non-textual representations.

Many tactile maps are made by the thermoform process. Manufacturers heat a plastic sheet and then stretch it over a form using a vacuum. The result is a 3-D product. Another method of producing these representations is to use swell paper, which includes capsule paper, puff paper and fuser paper. Manufacturers that use this paper employ heat to produce raised lines on paper. Among other methods of producing these graphics are to use silkscreen and emboss using a Braille printer.

In order to use these graphics to their advantage, people with a visual impairment must first have had experience with the object represented. Therefore, it’s recommended that children learning Braille be introduced to touching three-dimensional objects such as balls or blocks before they are introduced to graphic representations.

Children must be taught how to interpret what they feel. After their introduction to objects, tactile graphics can be incorporated into their course of study because they have to be taught how to interpret these graphics.

Context is still important. A map of Europe means nothing to an older child who does not know about continents or who has never heard of Europe. With learning, these users can employ graphics to discover, for example, the shape of the state they live in, the flow of a winding river and the differences in the shapes of the continents.

These graphics bring the world to people with visual impairments so they can take it on.

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