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

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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:

H-blog

Learning Spaces

JoWalker

Dyslexiata

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

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.

Overall

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.

AMIS

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.

Overall

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.