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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 5 | Mar. 7, 2002

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 personal tastes.

"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 blind.

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 biological diagrams.

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."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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