University of  Sussex MEDIA RELEASE

The Information Office, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9RH.

PSYCHOLOGISTS DEVELOP TACTILE DIAGRAMS AS LEARNING AID FOR BLIND CHILDREN

A major difficulty in educating blind children is how to communicate diagrams, graphs, bar charts and other non-text material. Graphics like these are used for a purpose, and lose an important part of their meaning when translated into words. Researchers at the University of Sussex are exploring how to convey such information through touch, using raised line graphics which can be felt, like braille.

Prof Alan Parkin and Dr Frances Aldrich are starting a three-year project to develop a range of tactile graphics. They are designing graphics which are modified versions of the visual, conveying salient points while appreciating the limitations of the tactile medium.

The project is split into three phases. Phase 1 will survey local teachers of blind children to learn about the difficulties they encounter in communicating the range of graphics included in school textbooks, particularly in science subjects. Phase 2 will follow a group of blind children over a three-year period, introducing them to a range of tactile graphics to see how use affects the children's educational development. Phase 3 will run in parallel with the second phase and will develop and evaluate a range of formats for tactile graphics.

The project will result in:

  • a thorough understanding of the difficulties faced by teachers of blind children in communicating graphics material, the approaches currently used, and the opportunities for improvement
  • a tried and tested range of tactile graphic formats to overcome previous difficulties
  • an elementary graphics curriculum to assist blind children in developing graphic literacy.

Many of the tactile graphics will be produced using a special paper coated with a layer of minute, alcohol-filled capsules, invisible to the naked eye. A diagram can be drawn onto the paper using ordinary black ink. When the paper is heat-treated, the alcohol in the black areas boils, which bursts the capsules to leave a permanently raised line.

Funding for this research was provided as a bequest from the Phillips Trust, which has long been associated with funding education of those with disabilities. The Trust was established in 1987 in honour of the late Reginald Phillips, who had donated gifts to the university since 1969. The ability to read graphics is important if blind people are to gain equal opportunities in education and the workplace, and the researchers are grateful to the Trust for supporting research into this neglected area.

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For further information please contact Dr Frances Aldrich on (01273) 678610, fax: (01273) 678611, e-mail: frances@biols.sussex.ac.uk or Laura Miles, Information Office, tel: (01273) 606755 ext. 4353 fax: (01273) 678335, e-mail: L.Miles@sussex.ac.uk