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

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

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

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.

Supporting Structure

picture of this post as a structured document including navigation pane and table of contents

this post as a structured document including document pane and table of contents

What does it mean to have structure in a document?

When a document is properly structured, various tags are embedded that a computer or similar device can recognize and use to generate useful accessibility tools such as a table of contents, a navigation panel/document map, and supplementary descriptions for pictures and graphics.

So how much difference can these tools make?

I buy a lot of ebooks to read on my kindle. As a reader, I do a lot of jumping back and forth within a book. What drives me crazy is that a lot of the new ebooks aren’t properly structured. So, instead of being able to use a contents page to give me an overview of what the book is about or to find a target page, or being able to access navigation shortcuts and activate a link to take me to a specific chapter or section, I’m often limited to just searching backwards and forwards on a line by line, page-by-page basis. Very irritating and time consuming.

Imagine then the potential for frustration of a similarly unstructured document, for users who already find print difficult to access, such as those with a visual impairment or dyslexia. Their use and understanding of a document be dependent on the way it’s been formatted and it’s potential for accessibility.

But it sounds like it’s hard to do.

Actually, it’s really simple – so simple you wonder why we all aren’t all doing it already. Just apply:

  • heading styles to headings (it also cuts out the usual hassle involved in highlighting, setting the font size, activating bold, activating underline etc);
  • lists styles to lists;
  • some simple alternative text (alt text) to your images and graphics so that a screen-reader provides a description for a reader who cannot see it
  • care with the labeling of your hyperlinks for the same reason.
  • and if using tables, structure them for easy navigation

In case you’d like some quick and easy tips about how to use the above the following link is a useful ‘how to’: create accessible word documents

Word 10 even has a useful accessibility checker that can help test your document for you. You can check out how it works with find-and-fix-accessibility-issues-in-word-2010

A couple of other tips

Taking a bit of extra care with your document’s layout and text can also improve its accessibility. Just follow a few easy rules such as left align your text, use a font size of 12pt or bigger, line spacing of 1.15 -1.5, and lighten up on the use of underline and italics, and your document will not only be easier to read but it will also benefit from a clearer and cleaner design. http://rnib.org.uk/tips for accessible print

So give it a go

There’s no disadvantage to structuring your documents. It’s straightforward, takes minimal effort and you can even save your formatted document as an accessible PDF (for PDF conversion advice for Windows, see Katrina’s blog post Windows and accessible pdfs and for PDF conversion advice for Mac, see Carol’s blog post  Mac and accessible pdfs).

You’ll be creating documents that can be more easily used by everyone, an important attribute in this day of digital documents.

Cue card evolution

The task:
To adapt a keyboard shortcut cue card for a student with a visual impairment

The history
Providing cue sheets is standard for my work with VI students and I’ve followed on with the established historical pattern of providing them in tabular text form with word descriptions eg. Select All :  Control + A. As the students are able to use them, I’d never really considered that perhaps a redesign could make a difference to their accessibility, so this exercise has proved really interesting and I definitely moved from a ‘here to there’ position by the end of it. 

Original type of cue sheet:

Original tabular text form cue card

Initial decisions
To simplify the visual access by making it a ‘cleaner design’ with more high contrast white space. This meant removing the lines of the table  and the + symbols (which aren’t really needed as a combination of keys is always an ‘and’ process).

Rather than everything looking as the same, I also decided to trial the use of different high contrast colour cues as an aid to differentiation, and to also include a memory tip.

First evolutions 

Keyboard short cut cue card in new format including additions of the colours black and yellow Revised cue card with the the colour additions black, red and yellow

Next decisions

Initially I was quite happy with the redesign. However, I found once I’d starting re-evaluating, I kept having more thoughts about trying to make them more accessible.

For the VI students the complication with the cue cards is having to access the words. Was there a way to make this a simpler task?

I decided to trial cards with an initial key and so remove the need for writing on the instruction keys. I also used a light edging around the instruction key that contained text, so it didn’t distract from the text contained within.

For two of the cards I included blocks of high contrast colour cues, but for the third I use just black, but with the addition of a shape cue ( would have tried white rectangles divided by a line horizontally or diagonally but my tech skills weren’t that advanced – all advice gratefully received).

I’d noticed on the original cue cards that the instruction keys were presented on the left and the explanation on the right, so I also decided to reverse my usual presentation to this format and see which the students preferred.

I also removed my memory tip, as on further consideration I felt the students’ memory tip should be their own. I’d mention my thoughts, but the students could use the back of the card to write whatever was meaningful to them.

Second evolutions

Cue card with key and reduced text. Colours black and yellow.Cue card with key and reduced text. Colours red and yellow

Black and white shape cue card

The outcome
I trialed all the cue cards with four of my students:  2 from Key Stage 2, 1 from Key Stage 3, and 1 from Key Stage 4. (None had any diagnosed colour difficulty).

  • All preferred the cards with the initial key and no writing on the subsequent keys, and said they found them easier to work with than those with writing on every key. (One student remarked that having to think rather than try to read helped reinforce his memory.)

Having decided on the format of the cards they preferred we then moved on to the colour/shape options.

  • All liked the differentiation offered by the blocks of coloured keys and felt they helped with quicker access and discrimination.  2 preferred the black and yellow combination and 2 the yellow and red.
  • All of them thought the shape card could be useful, but felt that for them the colour cards offered them preferred cues.

The final decision was in regards to the placement of the explanation and key cues.

  • All preferred the explanation to be placed first, with the key instructions following.
  • All stated it was easier to access with this layout, and one of the students who explained more fully, said that it was difficult for him to visually track back from an explanation on the right, to the instructions on the left. (This would tally with practiced reading habits, in which we track along text from left to right – presumably it would be different for pupils in China).

Final thoughts
What looked like a simple task has ultimately reminded me that even when things seem to be going well, it’s always useful to review accepted practice.

Although the original cue cards were usable, the redesign process has shown they could be better. The new sets will follow the reduced text format and will incorporate colour cues/shapes (or perhaps other ideas) as identified by the pupils themselves, and will hopefully prove a more accessible, user friendly resource.