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.

15 Comments on “A Touchy Subject – How Useful are Tactile Pictorials?

  1. hi Jonathan an interesting topic, I when I was young thought I enjoyed tactile maps, but really when the crunch time came they did little for me. Although I do like charts that are embossed. the one about the sighted representive of windows.

  2. I hear you Jonathan, but I gently disagree a little. First, Vision is, so it seems, quite handy, time does not permit me to count the ways, and inevitably I’d miss a few. Tactile graphics and tactile representations can be useful, fun, instructive, but probably not for the same reasons as pictures for sighted people are, and not used in the same way. I contend that with time and some helpful orientation, tactile representations can be from good to very good, depending on their purpose. We had a built up three dimensional map of the campus at UCLA a long time ago. What it did for us blind students was show us relative sizes, relative distances between buildings and areas, and the general layout, the east west information, the north and south. It didn’t translate to a useful guide as we ventured out to find a place, but it gaved us a sense of the positions of things, enabling us to ask better questions and make better guesses. I recently purchased maps of Europe, The middle East etc. on thermoform paper in large volumes. Then I forgot about them. Then I developed an interest in World War II, and I started reading various materials. I reached for the maps, and took my time with each one of them, and wow, the positions of the nations went a long way toward supplementing the written material by giving me a sense of the proximity and the strategic rationales of the combattents, and the sizes of the countries, their access to ports, rivers, etc. Now that information could certainly be told to me, like in a geography context, I mean it’s not an either or situation this learning stuff, but it does work for me, when I go real slow. Yes sighted people can do it at a glance. That old remote sensing tends to make sighted people look like they know what they’re doing all right. But with some orienting information, we can get something useful out of graphical presentations.

    The issue is time. Go to a hotel for a conference and know you’ll never go there again, you might not wish to spend the time learning the symbols to indicate elevators, escalators, rest rooms, etc. but here’s an indicator of the usefulness maps may provide. If you saw a tactile layout of a place you already knew, it would probably make sense to you. What we lack when presented with a graphic is a sense of it’s scope, scale, and its accuracy. It’s not our fault we don’t get it, and it’s not the fault of the medium either. We can’t do the instant analysis, because we don’t know how the variables of a graphic work and we lack the cradle to grave sense of symbols sighted people take in stride. Start simple, a drawing of an intersection intended to show you how weird it is. If someone shows us, and answers our questions, we can understand just why it’s so hard to analyze it when we’re out there trying to cross the street.

    No, graphics aren’t the same for us as they are for sighted people, but they can be helpful, just not in the same way they can be for others.

    • Hi Mike and thanks for taking the time to share your positive perspective. I was hoping people would, to provide some balance.
      I have a question, just to satisfy my curiosity. I think you have an iPhone? If I’m right, did using the Braille maps to hep you get a concept of the geography of key World War II areas give you information that zooming in on the iOS maps could not have? Is that an option you considered? I’m certainly not suggesting people should abandon tactile maps at all when they work for them, just interested to see whether there are some who find the exact reverse of my own position, IE tactile maps help but the iOS maps don’t help.

  3. HI Jonathan, Tactile maps just don’t work for me. Once during a particularly volatile interlude in the mid-East (not unlike what’s going on today), I bought some tactile maps of the area from National Braille Press so I could understand what country was next to what, and how all of those faraway countries related to one another geographically — but, try as I might, I just couldn’t synthesize the information the maps were trying to show me. Finally I chalked up my total inability to comprehend what I had wanted to learn to the fact that I didn’t learn braille until I was an adult and I just didn’t have that orientation of interpreting tactile information down…! It is true that my spatial abilities are not my best skill, so maybe that, too, explains the difficulty I have with tactile maps. Yet, I can figure out the touch screen on my IPhone, and I could also figure out the tactile images of the screen that were included in a book National Braille Press put out a few years ago. So, yes, there is a difference between interpreting tactile graphs and interpreting tactile maps. Who knows why I am so unskilled at the whole tactile map experience… I think it’s a very good thing that vision teachers and others are beginning to utilize 3-D printers to make 3-D models for people who are blind — It seems to me that we will gain quite a bit of information from these representations, especially if they are accompanied by verbal explanation.

  4. Nice article. For me, I love tactile maps, but the representations of the computer screen do nothing for me. Why should I care that the title bar is at the top or the task bar at the bottom? After all, either can be either if that’s how some want it, so having a tactile representation of it ends up not being reliable. I understand the world through tactile maps, and can cross reference that map in various ways in my head to connect the relevant knowledge.

    • Hi Dave, there are certainly people who go through life not understanding how Windows looks. However I’ve found it very helpful because when I am in an unfamiliar or problematic application, by exploring the screen with the JAWS cursor, I get a rough feel for how the screen is laid out. That can help when configuring an app or seeking sighted assistance.
      It’s certainly true that now, with many advanced screen reading technologies available, it’s less important, but I think still sometimes helpful, particularly if you’re a bit of an explorer of applications by nature.

  5. I find tactile maps enormously helpful. I’m adventiciously blind and for me, (well made) tactile maps are simply another version of the visual maps I used most of my life and could always handle very easily. Exploring a tactile map I’m usually able to create a 3-dimensional map or model of the area in my head and it helps me navigate a great deal.

    However, one of my friends is congenitally blind and initially, for him tactile maps seem to be pretty useless. He was able to follow a specific trail on the map in terms of “furst turn right, then left”, but the map as such didn’t seemto mean much to him. At least in our cases, spatial awareness and three-dimensional thinking seem to be the key factors.

    But from my own (limited) experience with congenitally blind people I also believe, that this skill can be learned to a certain extend. It starts with how to describe a specific route to a blind person with poor spatial awareness. I found that with some instruction and a little practice, these difficulties can often be overcome and the brain can learn to make the connection between the map and the space around you. This might not rival the spatial reasoning of a (initially) sighted person, but it seems to be good enough to make use of such maps.

  6. I was born with a tiny bit of sight, but had lost it by the time I was 4, so not sure if it is of any relevance at all. I found the tactile diagrams of windows screens very helpful too, just as I find getting to see a screen layout on my trackpad useful sometimes now, and in very many IOS apps, I do learn where specific controls are, and access them directly rather than by flicking. I have never got to grips with IOS maps much at all for some reason, but absolutely love tactile maps. I like them for the same reason I prefer reading my sports tables in braille, I can use both hands and compair anything with anything else, work out where any two locations are compared to each other by placing a hand on each, rather than having to locate one, then the other etc. Tactile diagrams were very helpful in economics and, to an extent, maths, although I could never get 2d representations of 3d at all. However, tactile pictures rarely work for me at all, one animal looks very much like another to me, for instance.

  7. Each person has a range of innate abilities and no two people are the same. Hence there will always be variability in how people perceive and use spatial information. What is not in question though is that proper instruction in the use of a tactile diagram is essential, and this is a skill that is rarely taught, or taught well. Many sighted people that have not had proper instruction on how to use a printed map struggle to make sense of them. And it is no different if you are blind or partially sighted. There used to be a local school for the Blind (no longer exists) here in Sydney that provided a really comprehensive instruction on reading tactile information, starting as soon as the kids began schools. After 5 or 6 years it was not unusual to find a totally blind child who could freehand draw very meaningful tactile information using spur wheels and tactile drawing kits. Without proper instruction you are up the proverbial creek without a map.

  8. I am someone who has not found touch screen maps all that helpful. I’m not sure how much of this has to do with screen dimensions or with my inability to get as much out of the audible response as I can from tracing the boundaries of an area. I have not been able to get much out of the exploration feature in Ariadne, for example.

    My profession requires the use of link charts, and I wish I could use more tactile representations. Unfortunately, I am not well-versed in the abilities of good embossers and have not been able to come up with an innovative way to make tactile charts work for me as effectively as they do for sighted people.

    For context, I have glaucoma and have gone from reading regular print to distinguishing shapes and color in adequate lighting.

  9. What’s interesting is that I actually have pretty terrible spatial skills, but when my friend made me a map of the Brown campus on five pages, and showed me how the pieces all fit together, I had a really amazing, halistic picture of the campus. The map was also extremely useful in helping me plan routes.

    On a related but unrelated topic, I am now studying at Harvard, and I’m in a class where I get to design a product. As my article said, I’ve found ways to teach myself a lot of visual concepts, like color, and how 3d images can be drawn in 2d spaces. If I were to create a multisensory environment that simulated visual concepts, using touch, motion, and sound, would this be something other congenitally blind people would be interested in? I don’t know how this would be technologically possible, but one thing my device would do would be to create a tactile image that would be in motion, so that your fingers were drawn to certain aspects of it.

  10. This is an interesting article, and I have enjoyed reading it along with the comments. I have been totally blind since birth. At the residential school I attended, there were maps of the campus and of the city where the school is located. These maps were made of wood, and the buildings on the campus map were easy to distinguish by shape and hade braille labels. The streets on the campus map were long grooves that had the names in braille. The map of the city had a note at the top that said, “You are facing North.” Although I think they were well designed, I had trouble using them to plan routes. I would get confused because I had to move my finger down to find a particular street, but then I would be walking forward to get to the same street. I felt like looking at the map I was walking backwards. Is this crazy?

  11. I’d like to slide in here without causing offense, and will understand if my posting is inappropriate. I have taught infants, children and adults in all 3 of major blindness instructional fields. As mentioned previously, I sincerely believe some people are just not wired to translate two dimensional representations to three dimensions. I can also say how to explore graphics in a meaningful way is often skipped in school because the TVI doesn’t have time, or the ever popular “why bother, the aide will read it.” I believe a lot of difficulty is because sighted people who have little or no knowledge of how graphics are understood make the maps. A great deal of information can be learned in one visual scan, and many times tactile graphics, especially maps, are so cluttered with labels and textures and lines that the information is lost. Sighted people feel every detail they see must be represented even if it isn’t technically needed. The children’s books that are hand adapted tend to suffer from the same overload of information, as if any detail left off is denying their child of the same happiness as a sighted childs gets from the same book. The maps of the new city bus hub are rarely used because they’re ouside in the snow and rain, mounted vertically on posts, impossible to find unless you know where they are and you’re willing to give up your present orientation to find them, and they’re mounted vertically and do not match real life orientation. If you have to face south in order to read the map, why is the top of the map north? I think early education in how to explore raised graphics is key. At first the information should be simple and meaningful, and then build up the skills as we would with any other subject. (I once horrified another o&m instructor when he saw me making a large print map for my adult Usher’s student. The buildings were labeled “dead stores” with some buildings named. I had pointed out closed stores to my student during her first exploration. As we discussed what this meant, she said she understood–the stores that were completely closed, boarded up, papered over, were “dead” stores. Worked for me. She was new to the area, couldn’t read store names, and didn’t care what the building used to be. They were dead. She didn’t need every curb, every step, every lightpost marked. She just wanted to get to the bus stop. She used her maps very successfully until she lost too much vision to read print.)

  12. Hi Jonathan,
    When dealing with visual things, I need to get a picture in my head to fully understand it. This doesn’t work for colours (I appreciate colour but have similar thoughts to you on it generally), but for intersections, buildings or other things, I need to “see” myself travelling in that space. Tactiles are the best way to do it, if I can’t physically walk there.

    Tactile maps are helpful for me, and for some reason I can’t get a sense of a place using something like Maps or Ariadne GPS. If someone were to describe a place so I could get a picture in my head it’d work, but using the phone alone doesn’t cut it. Tactile maps done right (with proper distinctions between different areas) give me the same picture in my head as good descriptions would.

    As for tactile pictures though, I tend to agree with you. Sometimes I can figure them out, but often times there are too many lines and such to follow that I get lost. The same is true for complex graphs, but simpler ones are ok. For graphs, a description usually doesn’t cut it, unless I’ve seen the graph before and so have a visual reference. For three dimensional representations, I try to create 3-D models rather than trying to figure out a 2-D graph of a 3-D space.

    I hope that makes sense.

  13. I enjoyed reading this article and the comments a lot. I have lost most of my vision as an adult, so I have some spatial experience. But it doesn’t help me with maps on the iPhone. Dragging one finger around and “tripping” over various streets and landmarks doesn’t work for me. Tactile graphics work better, although I think they are presently limited in the amount of complexity they can convey. I’m interested in this topic because I’ve used graphics extensively for my scientific research, and I’m trying to figure out which emerging technologies will be useful for the blind professional (not just youth education). I think there has been some research showing that tactile maps or graphics augmented with audio information are used by blind people more successfully than plain tactile versions. This was discussed in a recent scholarly paper published in Human-Computer Interaction by Anke Brock and colleagues (online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07370024.2014.924412#.U7F2_EAR-NB). The IVEO system by ViewPlus aims in this direction. But it is rather complicated to create each graphic, and sighted assistance is required to add the descriptive audio labels. I think that eventually the solution lies in touch screens, which are easily refreshable. But I haven’t yet come across such a solution that will allow me to interpret a graph like I did when I had normal vision. I’ll keep searching…