UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 5 | Mar.
Study puts educators in touch with blind
Aim to establish guidelines for graphic representations
by Michelle Cook staff writer
The increasing use of graphics in high school and university textbooks
is proving to be a challenge for visually impaired students, but
with the completion of a study on tactile graphic educational materials,
researchers in the Faculty of Education hope to help establish guidelines
for producing high-quality maps, graphs and other representations
for the blind.
The Graphic Research and Standards Project was a two-year study,
sponsored by the Canadian Braille Authority (CBA) and the Braille
Authority of North America (BANA), to examine how visually impaired
students respond to different kinds of tactile graphics. The first
research of its kind undertaken in North America, it looked at which
production methods and materials best meet the users' needs and
"Textbooks today contain more graphic material than ever before.
Students who are blind or visually impaired must have access to
graphic material in text and consistent production methods would
help teachers prepare students to interpret this complex information,"
says project leader Assoc. Prof. Cay Holbrook, director of UBC's
training program for teachers of visually impaired children and
the only faculty member in Canada specializing in literacy for the
It's an area of research that is only just starting to receive
attention, adds Amedeo D'Angiulli, a SSHRC and Killam post-doctoral
fellow who assisted with the project.
For the study, Holbrook, D'Angiulli and other researchers recruited
19 Canadian and American students aged 13-23 -- all lifelong braille
readers -- to compare six sets of tactile education materials. Produced
by CBA, BANA and other organizations, the sets include Braille-like
dots, raised lines, textured backgrounds, and moulded forms.
The students had to determine what information the graphics conveyed
and their personal usage preferences. Tactile graphics producers
will use their feedback to determine what graphics are most effective
when developing tactile representations of things as diverse as
mountain ranges and oceans on relief maps to muscle and skin on
Among the study's main findings were that graphic size is important
because symbols can become too small for fingers to interpret. Researchers
also found that tactile pictures of subjects like animals and plants
were of little use.
"We found that without context, a graphic representation of a
picture of a lion isn't meaningful to a person who is blind. It
may look like what it should look like, but it doesn't feel like
what it should feel like," Holbrook explains."The blind student
needs to have experience with the real thing, the actual object
or something that can transfer that knowledge."
With the study completed, Holbrook and D'Angiulli both hope to
continue researching the use of tactile graphics in educational
materials for the visually impaired.
"Graphic material must be included in textbooks for students who
are blind," Holbrook says. "If they are eliminated, the blind child
will be at a disadvantage to his class peers."