Picture Perfect – Designing Tactile Images

The old adage says ‘ a picture is worth a thousand words’.

Actually unlikely to be true if you’re blind– then it may be better to have the ‘thousand’ words.

Looking at a picture and understanding though vision is an instantaneous, effortless and undemanding process. One that allows us to quickly comprehend and integrate both complex and detailed concepts. By comparison understanding pictures and interpreting their content through touch is a painstaking process, and can never deliver the same shortcut to understanding.

So consideration number one regarding a tactile diagram? Perhaps it’s this: is the image really necessary for understanding – can understanding actually be better delivered in another way.

tactile mapThere are times of course, when a tactile image will be the most useful way to support learning. Then consideration two comes in to play: is the final image easily intelligible as a tactile experience to be helpful.

When creating the picture, this boils down to: stop considering the design from a visual point of view. Obvious if you think about it, but when the majority of us are primarily visual operators, harder than you think in practice.

Having just worked my way through the RNIB Accessible Image training materials on the Load2Learn site, I can bear witness to that. I did get better, but if there’d been a tactile image transgression checker, marking my first attempts at image adapting, I would have been a high scorer in the: committed detail includer; faithful copy transcriber; and multiple texture lover categories.

Having worked with tactile images, I thought I might have started with an advantage – but no. So as well as being both really interesting and enjoyable to complete, the course activities have been surprisingly revelatory and illuminating to my understanding. (If you’re any way involved with using or producing tactile images I would heartily recommend you have a go).

So how do you make tactile pictures understandable to a blind reader?

Having completed the activities, the key points I’ll now be keeping in mind in are to:

  • Identify the key element/s the tactile image will explain
  • Synthesise this into its simplest, best-spaced, and cleanest design.
  • Remove the visual principles eg. perspective, 3D, transparency, occlusion
  • Make good use of lines and textures (and red alert – beware those textures and lines that may look different visually, but actually when it comes to touch, may actually feel similar)
  • Investigate the image in an organised and logical sequence.

And be prepared to use some of those ‘thousand words’ to provide a supplementary image navigation description:

  • Step 1- say what the image is in one sentence
  • Step 2 – give a brief summary of what the image is and where the important elements can be found.
  • Step 3 – Locate each element of the picture and describe the detail in more depth eg. the appearance and/or function of the different parts.
  • Step 4- End with a short summary and if appropriate some wider background information that further explains the image content or context.

As part of my completion of the Unit 9 Inclusive technologies for Reading Course I had to submit a redrafted tactile image. If you fancy a peek, it’s attached below: the original RNIB tactile image which was used for the redrawing exercise; reasons behind any changes; my version of a new draft tactile image; and an accompanying navigation description.

Though unfortunately the training didn’t improve my artistic skills, I hope that the final pic indicates the application of some of my new awareness.

Download File: Assessing and changing a tactile image

‘All Aboard’ Inclusive Technologies for Reading

Picture of a road map entitled a change of place imparts new vigor to the mind

A change of place imparts new vigor to the mind – photo by katerha on Flickr

Pre planning

I have to say I didn’t start the journey on the Inclusive Technologies for Reading course with any particular thoughts or expectations. I just noticed that it was to do with IT (tick for area of interest), supporting those with print disabilities (tick for an area in which I wanted to learn more), and that as a pilot course it was free (another tick in these times of limited funding for course participation…).

So when I say the course has surpassed my expectations it certainly has – but it would also have genuinely done so if my expectations were set high to begin with.

Starting point

I was aware that with developments in assistive technology, there was massive potential for improvement in access to the curriculum for pupils with a visual impairment. The pupils with whom I worked I already used various technology eg; VI specific software; certain shortcut keys for use with Word and the general Windows environment; laptops to produce their work; DAISY audio books on a DAISY player etc. However, I was conscious that this was now really the tip of the iceberg. I knew it was important to learn more, but was unsure what direction to take and how to structure the path of any learning.

The road map

The course has moved through a comprehensive itinerary of PLN building, Structured Documents, Text to Speech, Productivity, Ebooks, Print Disability Theory and Practice, and  concludes with two additional destinations: for me, Tactile/Simplified Images and DAISY synchronised text and audio, from a choice of a further six options*. These core components (accessed through the innovative mediums of learning stations, videos, quizzes, webinars, twitter socials, google docs and hangouts) provided the framework and direction of the forward travel, with encouragement and support also provided within each unit, for individualised excursions to areas relevant to particular learning interests.

The latter generated a really useful ‘trip advisor’ function, as new discoveries and recommendations from other course members were posted on, through the course shared links, participants blogs and twitter #itr12.

Feedback on posted work from other course participants was also really appreciated, keeping any leanings towards getting off at the ‘Easier Life Stop’ at bay.

Photo diary

Snapshot of the wider impact so far (clicking on the pic opens it in larger form)

mind map snapshot of learning and wider effects: work with VI pupils, new ideas; technical confidence; staff training

The place I am now

Trying to encapsulate what I’ve learnt feels similar to answering that question ‘how long is a piece of string?’. I just know that on reaching the end of the course: how I feel I can now support the VI pupils and staff with whom I work; how I think about organising that support; and how confident I am to do so, has changed exponentially.

Postcard from (near) the end

In my first blog post, I wrote that I hoped to be able to say a ‘wish you were here’ at the end of the course, and having nearly arrived, (rather disheveled and definitely bleary eyed), I can say that undoubtedly reflects my sentiments.

So thanks Dominic and Justine (and to the other course participants)– I hope the course funding is renewed and other educators gain the same experience, for as I am already seeing in practice: for pupils with print disabilities, the subsequent improvements in their access to the variety of assistive technologies, has a real potential to significantly improve both their learning experience and their independence.

*(Optional Units: Software for VI students; Tactile/Simplified Images; Software and hardware for supporting active reading; Speech Recognition; DAISY synchronised text and audio; Assistive technologies for people with physical disabilities).

Visually Impaired? Check for these helpful ebook reader features

When choosing an ebook reader is there such a thing as a perfect fit?

Most people I know have multiple devices, usually a phone, e-ink device or tablet, they alternate between dependent on need ie, circumstances, type of ebook etc. All have their pros and cons. However, as the majority of these users have good vision, then all the aforementioned devices are likely to be, if not a perfect fit, then at least a good fit.

So what makes a good fit if you’re a visually impaired user?

It’s important to note that for many VI users, access to ebooks is a major step forward in terms of both reading accessibility and choice. However, certain ebook reader features can definitely help with the reading experience, so it may be useful to check which of the features listed below is available on the device.

(As part of the checklist compilation activity, I tested an iPad and 2 Kindles: my Kindle keyboard, and a Kindle Touch -the only 2 e-ink Kindle models with audio capabilities)

I’ve included a PDF version of the checklist at the bottom of the post, for access in larger form.

Checklist of  ebook reader features useful for VI access

Checklist of useful VI ebook reader features

*navigation mechanisms

  • iPad -Table of contents (TOC), Search, slider, move to page, Xray with Kindle app and ebooks.
  • Kindle Keyboard: TOC, Search, button activated move by chapter function (dependent on book), move to location.
  • Kindle Touch: TOC, Search, finger swipe move by chapter function (dependent on book), move to location, Xray.

Download file :Checklist of ebook reader features useful for VI access

Ebooks -Reading for Free

picture of an ebook reader lying on a table

Book: picture by inconvergent on Flickr

What’s not to like about an ebook?

They’re easily portable: available for download 24/7 and for those who have a print disability, they offer a range of access options that can revolutionise their reading experience. There’s also the added bonus that some ebooks are even available for free.

Even on a big commercial company website such as Amazon, you can find thousands of ebooks that are available at no cost. There’s a list of their top 100 free ebooks  on the Amazon Kindle ebook page (right hand side)  and by using Jungle Search, a search engine designed for searching at Amazon, you can access an even wider choice.

There are also a range of other places where downloading or accessing an ebook comes with a £0.00 price tag.

Many local libraries now offer an ebook loan service. Either find your local library and contact them directly, or check the listing of 48 UK libraries offering the service, compiled by Paul Stainthope. You can also try the ReadEasy online digital library, and for kids, the ebook online Children’s International Digital Library . Whilst, for those who find print difficult to access, there are flexible format digital book options available at the Seeingear library.

Project Gutenberg – the first producer of free ebooks, has a library thousands of classic books, whilst Bartleby.com, offers one of the largest and oldest free full-text collections of verse on the web. MobileRead Wiki also offers dozens of free Harvard classic, as well as a comprehensive listing of where to find free ebook downloads or sites where you can read them online.

Over on the WikiBooks site there’s an extensive collection of open content textbooks , whilst on Wiki Junior you can find a library of non-fiction books for children from birth to age 12.

Looking for something educational? Then Open Educational Resources (OER) hosts thousands of resources for teachers, Bookboon offers textbooks for older students (as well as travel guides), whilst you can even find some free Oxford reading Tree ebooks at Oxford Owl .

There are numerous sites out there that offer access to free ebooks, even for specific genres of reading eg. Science fiction and fantasy (Baen) or particular areas of interest (FanFiction). So, it’s definitely never been easier to become interested in reading.

Shortcut Keys Cue Cards- Gmail and WordTalk

I actually find that the keyboard shortcuts for Gmail are so simple and convenient that I’m using them quite a lot – anything for an easy email life…..

And if you use WordTalk, the shortcut cue card is a re-adapted version of the original Load2learn one.

Download file: Gmail and WordTalk Accessibility Cue Cards

If you’d like to improve computer productivity and make work more accessible for people with print disabilities, you can also find a wide range of other shortcut cue cards at Load2Learn

Productivity Reflections

Picture of new column view organisation of files and folders

New organisation of files and folders

Pic of how files and documents were originally organised

Original organisation of files and folders

(Clicking on the pictures enables full size view)

When asked what was the best advice she’s ever received, in an article about how she worked, Tessa Miller from Lifehackers, said her dad told her: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. Always begin, again and again. (An idea from Shunryu Suzuki’s classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.)’

This idea certainly resonated with me when working through the ITR12 Unit 5 on Productivity. When it comes to things we do routinely, we all tend to fall into the familiar pattern and then rarely question if there could be a better way of doing them.

Obviously there is some advantage to this, in that doing something we’re accustomed to takes very little of our effort or thought. However, when it comes to technology, where things are being so constantly expanded, updated and improved, we could be doing ourselves a disadvantage.

The Eye-Opener
Oddly enough, this most obviously became apparent to me when doing what seems like one of the more ordinary set Unit tasks: reviewing the way the documents and files related to the course were sorted out.

When I started using my Mac (about 6/7 years ago) I’d opted for a list view, and either used sorting by name or date to find them. With my Load2Learn course work and links, I’d simply loosely sorted each Units work into a designated blue folder and followed the usual routine when trying to relocate anything I wanted. (see pic at top left hand side of post for the original layout).

Not an ineffective way of doing things, but certainly as I found out, a limited way, and one that, it became apparent, had actually become inefficient and was actually costing me time and effort.  

Just through being asked to review this habitual practice, (and effectively put myself in the ‘mind frame of a beginner’), I’ve discovered how many more, very useful options there are available.

(Clicking on the pictures enables full size view)

Now, if I want to: change my viewing options, so it’s simpler to follow a file/document pathway- I can do it; sort by kind of document – I can do it; change the size of text of file and documents –it can be done; colour code my files to make them more distinct – I can do that as well. And these are just a few of the available options that are now making how I work easier (see pic at top right hand side of post for the new organization of Load2Learn coursework).

From Little Things……..

So how’s this going to influence how I work in a wider context?

It’s made me realize that an organisational skills programme for pupils with a visual impairment definitely needs to include a component on organization of work within IT –something I’d never really considered before, but which I now see is important.

It’s also flagged up how critical it is to regularly consider any of my customary support programmes, but particularly when related to IT, and ask ‘Is this working – is there now something available that means it could be done better’.


If you’d like some ideas about files and how to organise them, then the following Load2Learn video is a good place to start

Organizing downloaded files – L2L Screencast

Text to Speech Quiz

Picture of 2 question marks

Questions: photo by valeriebb on Flickr

I’ve learnt something new on each of the ITR12 members’ ‘Text to Speech’ quizzes I’ve managed to try.

They’ve covered a lot, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ve managed to include some new stuff.

Good luck ( less than 5/10 means extra homework and a resit…)

take the : Talking Text Quiz

Links below, to the other ITR12 course participants Text to Speech quizzes I’ve tried:


Learning Spaces



Information Junkie

WordTalk and AMIS for VI users

An additional method of accessing text is always going to be useful if you’re visually impaired. So having access to free technology that can read the text in your Word document to you, or allow you to not only listen to a book but also navigate through it with ease and precision and add locatable bookmarks, can only be a positive situation.


Wordtalk as it looks in the Word environmentFirstly there’s WordTalk: a free, downloadable plug-in, for use with Microsoft Word.

What’s good

The software locates itself directly within the Word toolbar, and can be easily used to read aloud any text you’ve either typed, or imported, into a Microsoft Office Word document.

Want to listen to your document later, or on a portable device? Just save the converted text to speech as an audio file. Need a dictionary or thesaurus?  You’ve access to WordTalk’s talking versions. Find the toolbar a little small?  Don’t worry, there are some easily memorable keyboard shortcuts.

The fact that WordTalk’s designed to be used within the Word environment, also means the user can still benefit from working with the document’s familiar assistive features and options eg. setting preferred text sizes and line spacing, using the navigation pane, practiced keyboard shortcuts etc.

What could be better

However, there are some parts of the software that work less well for a visually impaired user.

wordtalk narrator highlighting

Text size Wordtalk dictionary

The content of a text can often be more easily understood by synchronizing the visual/audio experience. Yet, crucially, the WordTalk visual experience can be difficult. Trying to follow the small word narrator highlight box, as it jumps along with the audio location in the text, can be visually stressful, and the highlight often obscures, rather than gives definition, to the word being read.

Unfortunately there’s no option for a more ‘easy on the eye’ sentence by sentence narrator highlight box instead, and whilst you are allowed to choose a visually preferred background highlight colour, it’s not possible to do so with the crucial foreground word highlighting.

Use of the handy speaking dictionary/thesaurus would also be improved, if the text size of the words could be enlarged. It would also be appreciated if WordTalk was available for Windows for Mac.


However, despite these limitations, WordTalk is still a handy assistive learning tool. It’s free, it’s simple to use, and it enables a helpful and convenient audio access strategy.


Then there’s AMIS – again a free software that allows you to open full text, full audio DAISY digital talking books (DTB), on your computer.

Features of AMIS

What’s good

DTB’s are specifically designed for use by people with a ‘print disability’, so as might be expected with software designed to work with these, there are a number of really useful accessibility features.

Toolbar too small? Then use the screenreader function or keyboard controls. Want to navigate easily through that complex textbook? No problem – you can easily do so phrase by phrase or section by section. AMIS even allows you to search for specific words and place bookmarks for any text you want to easily relocate.

And what about the listening experience? The normal narrator speed can be halved or doubled without suffering distortion, and when pairing text and audio access, the narrator highlight box is synchronized to follow sentence by sentence, making for a visually relaxing reading experience.

To further optimise the latter you can enlarge the text; choose both a preferred narration highlight colour and a text colour eg. white text with a black highlight etc; or even opt to subdue the distraction of the surrounding text by ‘greying it out’ with an overlay of grey or pink.

Save as DAISY add in

Save as DAISY add-in for Microsoft Word

Additionally, by using the DAISY for Microsoft Word add-in to convert your documents to DAISY format, you can even use AMIS to improve your access to your own work.

What could be better 

So what’s not to like? Similarly to WordTalk, it would be useful if AMIS was available for Mac users. Apart from that, well considering all that AMIS offers, it’s a minor quibble really, and may have more to do with the DAISY format than the AMIS software: AMIS is an environment for completed DAISY content ie, you cannot use it to work on one of your own documents that you may wish to edit.


There’s every reason to download the free AMIS software, for when combined with a digital talking book/magazine/document, it allows a VI user to move around a text in a way previously only available to sighted users.

More info about using WordTalk and AMIS?

Try these Youtube videos:

WordTalk-A Quick Overview 

Using AMIS to read DAISY files – Load2Learn Tutorials

How to Create and Save an Audio File on a Mac (An Audio Post)

Audio Instructions:

Visual Instructions: SUPPORTING PICTURE INSTRUCTIONS PDF (as part of the audio ITR12 unit, try following the audio post instructions before having a look …no cheating…)

Learning Through Audio (a cautionary tale)

No problem. Simple. Sure to be my favourite study unit of the ITR12 course I thought, when considering the set text to speech targets and activities. After all I love listening. I use audio books all the time. Can’t get enough of them infact. Could listen to them all day without getting tired – and the radio – and my recently discovered favourite podcasts.

Let me just say famous last words…..

The audio tick sheet

Text to speech, such as the above (and below), is very much to my liking, consisting as it does of content in which I’m interested, often spoken by professional narrators, using human voices with all their cadence, depth and variety of intonation and tone, and delivered in a way that gives clear meaning to the subject matter.

(Picture:Nicholas Jones/whale05 Flickr. Audio: Narrator -David Horovitch, Alice -Jo Wyatt)

However even when presented with all these elements, I find I still have more boxes that need ticking to move the audio experience to the Goldilocks zone, where it’s ‘just right’.

With audio books I prefer to listen to American narrators, followed by Scottish, then English. And with both the latter I have a definite leaning towards male rather than female voices. Infact, once or twice, I’ve even been unable to get on with a human reader’s voice and have had to abandon listening to a chosen book.

I also prefer to be physically active/occupied when listening eg. driving a car, decorating etc. Just sitting and listening without any other stimulation usually means I’m either lulled into a cozy state where I fall asleep, or I get fidgety. Neither being conducive to prolonged or engaged listening.

Additionally, I have the advantage of being positively inclined to audio as a learning style, whereas for some people, even given their optimum text to speech conditions, listening is still difficult.

Ripping up the tick sheet

man with hands over his ears standing next to audio speakers

Photo by austin tx on Flickr

So what happened when none of the above criteria were ticked? When I had to listen to text by which I was not particularly engaged, read by a synthetic voice (even a preferred one), with it’s more monotone delivery and pitch. When the interpretation of the content was dictated by whether the original author had correctly placed their punctuation, leading to very real ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ or ‘eats shoots and leaves’ situations, and where I was expected to remain seated and maintain classroom appropriate listening behaviours.

To my shock, I found it extremely difficult to listen.

I fidgeted, twitched, and squirmed. I wanted to leave my chair to relieve my restlessness. I became annoyed that the voices were delivering the information at too slow a pace, mispronouncing words and diluting the meaning. I lost attention. I found it difficult to absorb and retain information. I found it difficult to re-locate information. I developed a headache.

Certain things helped somewhat with the attention issue, such as being able to integrate access to both audio and the text: a luxury that may not be open to a visually impaired person. Using voices that I preferred, such as Welsh English Geraint from Ivona for non-fiction, which, for me, offered a less monotonous listening experience, incorporating as it does the rhythm, stress and intonation of the Welsh language pattern (and may have been more comfortable for me as I’m Welsh).

Narration by Ivona Geraint 

Additionally, being prepared to use a robotic sounding voice (such as that used by the JAWs screenreader), which more easily allows for the voice to be accelerated to read the content at speed.


Even then, if tested on what I’d been able to study and remember from longer extracts of  material in audio form, I often would have been the deserved recipient of the dunce’s cap.

So what have I learnt?

A lot. The most important of which for me, is that I no longer regard access to audio as the straightforward and simple solution I once thought it. I’ve realised there are potential barriers to overcome and it’s made me rethink how to effectively support visually impaired pupils, so they develop the skills and ability to make the most of audio in all its forms.

So, I’ll now think to offer dual access to text and audio, and to allow for personal choice of a voice reader, and my customary listening skills programme is about to expand. I’m now planning on starting it earlier and continuing it longer; to incorporate the use of synthesised voices to deliver various listening activities; to more consistently target and develop pro-active, listening comprehension strategies and also to work on maximising aural memory skills. (I may even be more understanding of the fidget….)

For whilst audio may not be perfect, it’s remains one of the more important, and sometimes the primary strategy, for alternative access to the curriculum, and if supported properly, has the obvious potential to offer many advantages for learning.