Your books may describe every picture, but having access to the real graphics will help you to learn in a more multisensory comprehensive way. Learn how to incorporate tactual and visual graphics into your education.

By Henry Wedler on Thursday, November 30, 2017 11:04:18 AM


Most learners do not use one single mode of learning to understand and fully grasp an idea or concept. For instance, when teaching a math course, professors do not stand at the board and write on it completely silently for an entire lecture. This would be extremely boring and unproductive. Similarly, we as blind and visually impaired (BVI) students need graphics, not just words, to fully learn a subject. Audio and straight text with descriptions of figures can be helpful, but for many subjects, particularly science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, tactile graphics are indispensable. For instance, when you learn about a glucose molecule and the differences between straight chain form versus ring form, someone could spend a lot of time verbally describing figures. While these descriptions may be excellent, they lack the visual information sighted learners gain from images. Seeing or feeling the difference between these two molecules helps us to intuit the information much more quickly.

Imagine yourself in a test situation after reading a braille biology textbook with descriptions instead of graphics. A test question requires you to draw and label the parts of a cell. But all you can do is describe them just as the transcriber described them to you. If you had felt a picture of a cell, your ability to describe it, using your own words and knowledge, would be much stronger. Ultimately, clear images or tactile graphics are a vital component of genuine learning.

Tactile Strategies

You might be surprised to learn how many methods are available for accessing tactile graphics and images. The most logical first step toward accessing tactile graphics is to contact the disability resources office at your school. The office usually has equipment for making good tactile graphics, or your disabilities counselor will know who has the equipment to make them.

Though they are somewhat obsolete, you can still use thermoform machines to make high-quality tactile graphics. Thermoform plastic paper is placed over an original tactile copy of a figure (most typically embossed into thin aluminum), the setup is heated, and the raised lines on the original figure press into the thermoform duplicate making an image. Thermoform is rarely used now because of the time involved in production and many people’s discomfort with the texture of the final image. But if it is the easiest option on your campus, it can still be a good way for you to access the necessary tactile information.

A more modern method for producing tactile graphics is a Pictures in a Flash Machine (PIAF). You can print figures on SwellTouch paper with a laser printer. Toner activates the paper so that when areas exposed to toner are heated, a raised line or dot appears. PIAF is excellent for making tactile graphics with raised lines and good quality braille. PIAF can work in just about every subject which needs graphics, from history courses which require occasional interaction with a map, to complex organic chemistry courses. Vocational rehabilitation counselors can often provide you with your own PIAF machine and printer if you need those pieces of equipment. I use this setup in my laboratory and it works very well.

But sometimes your disabilities resources center can’t get you the graphics you need, or you need access to a picture you hadn’t anticipated. The easiest and quickest way to solve that problem is by working with an assistant who can draw tactile images on the spot for you. My assistants and I use heavy-weight laser printer paper. The assistant draws an enlarged version of the image and then flips the paper over onto a soft surface such as a notebook or rubber mat. Then, the assistant retraces the image that he or she drew on the other side of the paper, pressing hard with a pen to crease the paper and produce excellent tactile line drawings. This technique is quick, inexpensive, and easy. Though expertise in the particular subject matter is helpful, the assistant doesn’t necessarily need technical knowledge of the subject to make a great figure. I love this technique for generating tactile figures, because assistants can describe a bit of a figure, draw it, describe more, draw a bit more, and build the figure up in pieces. You can find an article which discusses this technique in more depth in the Journal of Chemical Education, available online through most university libraries.

Visual Strategies

While I have focused heavily on tactile strategies, students with low vision may find it helpful to utilize their vision to access graphics and images. The most practical solution for many students is a hand-held magnifier. While magnifiers used to be huge, in the form of closed circuit televisions, they have become much smaller and can usually fit in your pocket. If you have a smart phone, many apps will scan text and enlarge it for you in real time. Finally, students with low vision can also utilize the help of sighted assistants to draw enlarged images for them.

While enlarging graphics with assistants or using magnifiers are certainly viable methods of access for those who can use them, I often recommend that students with low vision work to learn nonvisual access techniques. From my experiences working with BVI students over the years, nonvisual techniques prove to be more efficient even for students who can see, unless the student has functional vision for the task at hand and his or her vision will not deteriorate. Unfortunately, many students learn to use their limited vision as their primary resource for learning, and then their vision deteriorates and is no longer useable. Be as sure as you can that the skills you learn to use now will still be available to you for many years to come.

Working with Graphics Assistants

Working with an assistant is an effective way to gain the images you need to learn, but unless the assistant is familiar with making tactile graphics or visual images for someone with a visual impairment, expect that person to take some time to learn how best to help you. Assistants who are new to making graphics for students with visual impairments often generate figures which are beautiful to a sighted person but which people with visual impairments find to be incomprehensible. By far the most confusing instance of this is when people represent 3-dimensionality on a flat surface. Try feeling an enlarged tactile translation of a great work of art, and you will know what I mean. The confusion results from the different ways we access information. People with sight take in a whole image with a single glance and look at individual details later. On the other hand, we feel or see individual parts of a drawing first and use the parts of the graphic or image to build a whole concept.

Because of this difference in perception, you and your graphics assistant should keep the following tips in mind when designing understandable tactile graphics.

Meet with the graphics producer while he or she creates the graphics. If you have time to generate an accurate image in your mind while the assistant creates the figure, you should be able to remember the details later when you feel or see the figure on your own.

Make sure the assistant draws in a way that is as linear as possible and in which you can progress from one part to the next, to the next, etc. Circular graphics are usually frustrating, because it is difficult to find a frame of reference.

Work with your assistant to devise a key to make complex symbols in a graphic easier for you to understand.

Depending on the type of graphic, the assistant should make your tactual or visual graphic at least twice as large as the picture she sees.

Finally, no matter whether the figure is tactile or visual, remember that your job is to provide prompt, constructive feedback if you do not understand a graphic. Ultimately, practice makes perfect. The more practice you get looking at tactile graphics, the better you will become at understanding them, and the more practice your assistant gets in creating a graphic, the better he or she will become at making a truly meaningful graphic.

Audio Descriptions

Even with these strategies in place, there may be instances when you won’t be able to access figures tactually or visually. Then, you must rely on descriptions in order to paint pictures in your mind. I became adept at mentally picturing concepts, but developing this skill took practice and patience. Always encourage your disability resource center to obtain tactile or visual graphics whenever possible, but do not fret when you don’t have them. Always do the best you can with what you have.


Accessible grphics are extremely important to your education. You can advocate for them during college, and you should advise whoever is making your figures about exactly what you need. Using excellent instruments like the PIAF, you can easily create your own tactile graphics. If you cannot get access to tactile graphics, do not worry. Keep your head high, get solid explanations, and be strong. With the right attitude and work ethic, you will succeed.


1. Wedler, Henry; Cohen, Sarah; Davis, Rebecca; Harrison, Jason; Siebert, Matthew; Willinbring, Dan; Hamann, Christian; Shaw, Jared; Tantillo, Dean. J. Chem. Educ. Applied Computational Chemistry for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 89, 2012, 1400-1404.