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Winter 2002 Table of Contents
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The Real Challenge in Tactile Graphics

By Phil Hatlen, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Many, many years ago, when I was a beginning teacher, I had a totally blind 4th grader who was taking California history. On one of the first print pages of his textbook there was a map of California, on which were displayed mountains, rivers, major cities, county borders, natural resources, and crops. It was a mess in print, but imagine my dismay when I discovered it had simply been left out of the hand-transcribed braille copy. That was the beginning of a career-long venture into the world of tactile graphics.

Some of the things I've learned along the way:

  1. Blind children need to learn, in a gradual, developmental way, that there are systems for displaying real things in abstract form. This learning must be led by a skilled, qualified teacher of the visually impaired.
  2. Each new use of tactile graphics will require instruction from the teacher of the visually impaired.
  3. We should not try to reproduce three-dimensional pictures in raised line form. No raised-line picture will be three-dimensional to a blind child.
  4. Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to tactile graphics. When the fingers of one hand cannot encompass a tactile graphic, we are expecting the blind child to have a spatial sense that she may not possess.
  5. While it may be desirable to have standards for tactile graphics (one shape always means the same thing), this is not likely to happen.
  6. Blind people themselves feel differently about tactile graphics. I have friends who tell me that for me to decide what is presented as a tactile graphic, and what is not presented, amounts to censoring by me. They say "Put it all in and let us decide." I have other blind friends that tell me to describe a graphic in narration if I think it would be better understood.
  7. Tactile graphics are necessary in three subjects: mathematics, geography, and science. My TVI friends who teach in local schools tell me that these subjects are often the most difficult for a blind child in a general education setting. At the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, very few students are referred by their local school district because of academic needs, but those that are, need the kind of small class, intensive instruction available at a school for the blind in those three subjects.
  8. As local school instruction has continually improved over the years, schools for the blind would do well to find ways to complement the work of general education. We do this by emphasizing the Expanded Core Curriculum, because the subjects contained in it are those that TVIs in local districts often do not have time to teach. The academic subjects that schools for the blind might want to continue to stress are mathematics, geography, and science. Often in schools for the blind there is time to not only teach the academic content of these subjects, but to teach the reading of tactile graphics. Remember, if we don't develop standardized tactile graphics, it leaves us with no choice but to teach the reading of almost every tactile graphic.

The journey from those early days in California has taken many turns through the years, and I know several people who have helped us to significantly improve the production of readable tactile graphics. But I remain disappointed because we seem no closer to making wise decisions about how and when to use tactile graphics than we were forty years ago! Children with blindness need quality tactile graphics. As concerned parents and professionals, we owe it to these children to share this issue and advocate that it be addressed systematically at national, state, and local levels.

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Last Revision: July 30, 2002