A Touchy Subject – How Useful are Tactile Pictorials?
Some years ago when at a blindness convention, I found myself in a lively discussion with a bunch of people who have been blind since birth. Someone in the group made a passing reference to how pleased they were that they’d managed to obtain tactile maps of the area in which the convention was being held. Another member of the group expressed surprise that this convention attendee found tactile maps of any help at all.
I must confess to agreeing. While I know many people seem to benefit a lot from tactile maps, I find them confusing and unhelpful, and I’m not sure why.
I’ve heard people suggest that it relates to the fact that some blind people have pour spatial awareness. Indeed they do, but I’m not convinced that’s a total explanation that fits for every blind person who feels this way. In my own case, I find exploring the screen of the Apple Maps app in iOS gives me a sense of the area that I don’t seem to be able to obtain from looking at Braille maps. So at least in my case, spatial awareness doesn’t seem to account for my tactile maps blind spot.
Conversely, when I first started using Windows, and we’re talking back in the 3.1 days about 20 years ago, I was given some tactile diagrams that I found immensely helpful. I immediately understood the concept of the title bar, possibly a toolbar, and a menu bar at the top of the window, and the way a menu bar looks to a sighted person, all thanks to these diagrams.
I also get value from reading bar graphs and pie charts.
Back on the flip side, when I was at school, a lot of incredibly dedicated volunteers used to try to make kids’ picture books come to life by putting together tactile versions of the books. In this case I’m not referring to using an embosser, these books used felt, glitter, various hard and soft textures, to try and create the same sort of enjoyment for blind kids as sighted kids clearly got from the books.
When I would be handed one of these books, I’d enjoy the tactile diversity, but I usually had no idea what the pictures were supposed to represent. If I read the words to go with the pictures, I was sometimes able to work it out from the context, but not always. And of course a sighted person can just glance at the picture and know what’s going on.
It was kind of like the old story of the emperor’s new clothes. In the story, some swindlers told everyone that they had weaved a fine suit of clothes for the emperor, but you couldn’t see the clothes unless you were wise. No one wanted to be thought of as a fool, so they all praised the emperor’s new clothes and how intricate and delightful they were. Children tend to tell it like they see it, and eventually, a boy expressed amazement that the emperor was out in public naked. Once he said it, everyone realised they’d been made fools of, all for not wanting to appear to be fools.
None of us at school wanted to seem like we were the only ones who didn’t get these tactile masterpieces, and the dedicated volunteers who made them were so proud of the hours of work they’d put into them. But as adults, many of us talked about how we thought that the reason such tactile books didn’t work out is that it’s difficult to simulate 3 dimensional concepts in 2d.
At a less intricate level, a lot of people would use tactile embossers to produce “tactile pictures” of animals and other things. I had a friend at school who could identify what they were, every single time. There was no way she could have been faking it. Yet I seldom could.
Perhaps it’s just nothing more complex than the fact that no one can be good at everything, but there does seem to be quite a strong divide between blind people who find tactiles helpful, and those who appear not to.
The reason why I raise this discussion now, is that a few weeks ago, I found myself in a fascinating email exchange with Tasha Raella Chemel, who got in contact with me via the contact form on this website. Tasha has put an interesting article together called Seeing with your Fingers. This article describes a concept by which Tasha believes blind people could experience colour tactually.
As someone who’s never seen, I don’t hanker to understand colour to any greater extent than making sure my clothes match. I appreciate, welcome and respect that others, even those who’ve been blind since birth, are far more interested in colour than that. Tasha tells me that as a blind person, she feels as if she’s kind of visually wired, and that’s why she’s been pursuing these concepts.
I’m all for promoting discussion and tools that help us better experience information of any kind, even if I may not find them useful personally. So I hope you enjoy Tasha’s article, which I told her I would share gladly with my readers.
I’d also be interested in how useful you find different kinds of tactile graphics or representations. Which ones help you, and which do not? Do you think working with tactile maps is a skill anyone can acquire with practice?
Share your views in the comments.