The World of Tactile Graphics: Tips and Best Practices for Teachers and Instructors

At T-Base Communications, we are leaders in tactile graphics at some of the largest educational institutions in the world, spanning across Canada and the U.S. We are very fortunate to have the Chair of the BANA (Braille Authority of North America) Tactile Graphics Technical Committee, Aquinas Pather, who is also a braille and tactile graphics expert, on our staff. When we were asked to guest post about the world of tactile graphics, we knew immediately that we wanted to speak to Aquinas and have him share some of the best practises and insights teachers should be aware of when it comes to their students and the world of tactile graphic design. Here is what he had to say:

Tactile graphics are images that can be read by touch. It is no secret that the eye can sense many images at once and register them in the brain within a short timeframe, much shorter than what can be registered through sense of touch by the finger tips. Basically, a tactile reader gathers information in parts, rather than scanning an entire image in a flash.

This means that the process of rendering a print image as a tactile graphic must follow different design principles. One has to think tactually, and set aside visual preferences; just because a tactile may look pleasing to the eye, does not mean it is readable by touch.

Simplification of tactile graphics

Most tactile graphics generally require some form of simplification. The degree of simplification depends on the amount of information, complexity, as well as the type of information being conveyed. The purpose or intent of the author is a major consideration before any type of simplification or modification can be applied.

This becomes particularly important when designing tactile graphics for educational purposes, as the student is often learning brand new material, and the complexity and detail of information that is to be rendered tactually must be taken into account. Authors use diagrams and illustrations to simplify advanced ideas so tactual simplification is paramount when it comes to readability and comprehension. The age and experience of the reader must be considered when designing a tactile graphic. Based on the student’s skill level, it may be necessary to limit the number of key symbols when assigning areas, lines, and points or to produce more than one view of the same diagram rather than trying to accommodate everything into a single tactile graphic.

What you see visually may look clean and uncluttered, but to the sense of touch, it may be near impossible to decipher. The ability to track linear information if pathways or routes are not distinct and unobstructed while being explored by touch is essential to the tactile reader. This underscores the need for extra explanatory notes when necessary or the use of legends or keys even when none exist in the original print material.

Test your tactile graphics non-visually

This is why it is always important to test your tactile graphic blindfolded, before handing it off to a student and expecting them to be able to use it. A blind user’s feedback on the tactual quality of textures and braille label placement is most valuable to the tactile graphic designer.

It is important that all areas (land, water) lines (borders, roads) or points (cities, ports) be tactually distinct and their representation in the legend or key be unambiguous.

Another important consideration is to ensure that tactile graphics prepared for vacuum form remains consistent by testing or proofreading the copies, as textures may have changed in the copy process or features may move or become lost. This will result in unclear or misleading tactile information which may discourage the tactile reader. For microcapsule graphics, it is important to ascertain whether line thicknesses are distinguishable, point symbols are readable and area textures are distinct because looking at computer images on the screen, “what you see is not always what you get” tactually.

Education is one of the longest and most crucial parts of a child’s life; knowledge is power, and it is important that blind and low vision students receive the same opportunities as sighted students.

Quick tips on tactile graphics

Here are some key points for teachers, instructors and designers to remember when working with tactile graphics:

  • The braille code and format used in preparation of the tactile graphic must be consistent with the braille code and format used in the transcription of the main body of the text.
  • It is preferable that the dimensions of the braille text page(s) and any inserted tactile graphic page(s) be the same.
  • Some eye-catching design techniques used in print, such as decorative borders, are irrelevant to the concept being taught and should be omitted.
  • When placing a tactile graphic on the page, it should be positioned near the left margin of the page or indented according to the braille code in use, rather than centered. This is because tactile graphics, like braille, is read from left to right, and will therefore be tracked more efficiently.
  • Transcriber’s notes are important for explaining changes made to the print format, and it is even more important to use vocabulary that is appropriate to the grade level and subject matter of the text. The use of transcriber’s notes for kindergarten and first grade should be limited and if used, should be provided in print for the teacher.
  • When designing either simple or complex tactile graphics, it is important that the author’s original intent and purpose for showing the image is established. This will help in deciding whether a diagram should be produced or not.
  • Facing pages (where the graphic and its related text are shown over a single page spread) is desirable when the braille text is either single-sided or interpoint (double-sided). Facing pages should be used when the key and graphic will not fit on one page. Facing pages allow the reader to see both graphic and key without turning pages.
  • When the key is longer that one page then the graphic is placed before the key (on a left-hand page) and the continuation part of the key is placed on the next right-hand page for optimal referencing between key and tactile graphic.
  • Consider placing the tactile graphics on a separate page with limited text so that the graphic may be used with electronic text (e-text), as a tactile graphic supplement, or added to a collection for future use.

The entire list of guidelines and strategies for tactile graphics can be found online at the Braille Authority North America’s web site.

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Aquinas Pather
Aquinas advises on all matters related to tactile graphics for braille code in adherence to BANA standards both internally and externally. As a foremost expert in this area, he trains and mentors T-Base transcribers on tactile graphic design, managing the tactile graphic production at T-Base and represents the company on the BANA Tactile Graphics Technical Committee. He has been focused on the application of tactile graphics, braille, and accessible communications within the education sector for many years, and is one of North America’s thought leaders in this area. Aquinas is a co-author of the current Guidelines and Standards for Tactile Graphics, 2011 which is BANA’s official code for the production and design of tactile graphics material whether for academic, leisure or informational requirements. For more information on producing tactile graphics, contact T-Base Communications at 1-800-563-0668.

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