American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2018       GRAPHICS AND ART

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The Hungry Fingers Way to Tactile Graphics

by Boguslaw ("Bob") Marek

From the Editor: Boguslaw ("Bob") Marek, a retired professor of English, is director of KUL KAN, the center for students with special needs at the John Paul II Catholic University in Lublin, Poland. He founded Hungry Fingers, a small organization that develops resources for children with visual impairments. For the past twenty years he has focused on teaching English and on introducing tactile graphics to totally blind learners. He has conducted workshops in Europe, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, India, Nepal, Samoa, Singapore, Palau, and Japan. In 2002 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II honored him with the Order of the British Empire.

Few educators today question the importance of tactile graphics for blind children and adults. However, two conflicting attitudes and approaches come into play. On one hand it is often assumed that blind persons who have little or no memory of vision cannot understand raised-line drawings and diagrams. On the other hand, tactile adaptations of highly complex visual illustrations such as drawings, photographs, and paintings sometimes are offered to blind persons on the assumption that they will be able to interpret them effectively, simply by exploring with their sensitive fingertips. In the first of these two approaches, the use of tactile graphics is limited to highly simplified maps and drawings of basic geometric shapes. The second approach, in which very complex graphics are presented with little explanation, may discourage unprepared blind persons from exploring raised images.

Sighted Conventions

Drawings and other kinds of visual graphics employ a range of "sighted conventions" that must be explained to blind learners. Only with a knowledge of these conventions can blind learners be expected to make sense of two-dimensional combinations of lines and textures that represent three-dimensional objects and the spatial relations between them. Due to insufficient explanation and training, tactile graphics remains one of the most difficult areas in the education of blind students. The difficulty persists even when high quality, professionally designed raised diagrams are available.

The hands of a teenage boy draw a tactile picture on a drawing board.A heartbreaking comment from a congenitally blind adult contributor to a tactile graphics discussion list summarizes the problem. "I remember being told that some set of lines was supposed to represent a 3D box," she wrote, "and that the reason I didn't understand this is because I wasn't trying. So I tried and tried to come up with a set of transformations that would take me from the real object to that flattened thing. I've memorized a few of the simplest objects, but that's not the same as understanding them."

The quotation refers to a situation from the writer's school days, but the problem still exists for her. "Is there a blind beginner's guide to understanding 3D drawings?" she wrote. "I'm serious."

In this article I will introduce a "tactile graphics primer" developed in Poland. I hope that the solutions it offers will inspire parents and teachers to engage children with visual impairments in educational and leisure activities involving tactile graphics.

The Hungry Fingers Tactile Graphics Primer

Made up of several sets of tactile publications and resources, The Hungry Fingers Tactile Graphics Primer was presented as a step-by-step course and was tested in Poland over a period of several years. It proved highly effective in raising the confidence of blind children with tactile drawings and diagrams. As an ultimate test the primer was tried out in Nepal with a group of totally blind children and teenagers. These children and teens had never before been given a chance to explore or to make tactile drawings.

Introducing all of the components of the course would exceed the scope of this short article. Therefore, I will limit myself to the essentials. I will discuss the first steps in teaching about tactile graphics—geometric shapes, drawings of 3D objects, drawing people, and introducing blind learners to the concept of a map.

First Things First

Understanding the relationship between actual objects and drawings that represent them is one of the greatest challenges facing blind students as they learn to "read" tactile drawings and diagrams. The student must build confidence through simpler, introductory tasks before this relationship can be understood. Straight, curved, and zigzag lines made with a stylus on paper or a thin sheet of plastic are the first steps in building a tactile vocabulary. This vocabulary is necessary for understanding new concepts and more complex drawings.

Given the opportunity, most blind children eagerly engage in drawing, often with surprisingly good results. Starting with meaningless doodles, children soon learn that the tactile lines they produce can represent rain, grass, or a fence. One child commented that his maze of lines going in all directions represented an afternoon at a shopping center.

Responsibility for tactile education must not be delegated exclusively to the schools. Blind children need as many chances as possible to explore and make tactile drawings at home. Drawing can enhance orientation and mobility and daily living skills, and it can be a leisure activity for the whole family.

When a child slides her hand up the door frame and then along the threshold, she may easily grasp the concepts of "vertical" and "horizontal." However, she still may struggle to understand these concepts in a tactile drawing. If raised vertical and horizontal lines are drawn on a sheet of paper and taped to the wall, the child will have no problem understanding them. Once the drawing is placed on the table, the vertical line is the one that "runs away" from the child, while the line parallel to her body is horizontal.

Such basic exercises are an effective introduction to other concepts, such as "diagonal" and "parallel." They can help the child discover that three lines can make a triangle, or that a square can be divided into, or built from, other geometric shapes—triangles, rectangles, or smaller squares. The "Shape Detective" series presents activities involving tactile drawings of lines and shapes. It is accompanied by the "Space Organizer," a wooden frame and a set of magnetic wooden geometric shapes. These materials make the introduction of tactile graphics to blind learners entertaining and stress free.

This simple resource, along with a supply of embossable plastic and non-slip silicon mats, made a tremendous difference for blind university students in Pokhara, Nepal, and for a group of blind children in Humla, a remote village in northwest Nepal. They opened access to subjects that had been available only to a limited extent or absent from the students' education altogether. The following comments made by Nepali students are probably the best description of their reaction to their first encounter with tactile graphics: "All I was taught at school about geometry was that it was a branch of mathematics." "I have heard the word drawing before, but only now [do] I understand what it means."

From Objects to Drawings of Objects

Understanding that lines and shapes can represent things is a necessary prerequisite to understanding drawings. Drawings are defined as two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects. A sighted person probably will not have problems recognizing a drawing of a table represented by a horizontal line and two vertical lines extending from it toward the bottom edge of the page. For one blind child, however, the drawing meant nothing more than three lines. Asked to draw a table, this child produced a rectangle (representing the table top) and four legs, represented by short lines extending from the corners. It was a perfect reconstruction of the way he explored a real table.

To help explain the concept of a projection, we developed a Hungry Fingers "Transfograph." It consisted of a simple resource transforming a set of objects into simple outlines. Six wooden models of various pieces of furniture slide into slots cut out in exchangeable box lids. Only a front or side view of a table, chair, bed, desk, refrigerator, or chest of drawers is revealed. The Transfograph helps the child understand why it is possible to draw a table with only three lines, one for the edge of the table top and two for the front legs. The child can recognize why the other two legs are "invisible," and therefore need not be drawn.

The usefulness of the Transfograph as a tool for explaining the relation between objects and drawings was confirmed by users in several countries. Its effectiveness with totally blind Nepali learners, complete beginners with tactile graphics, is particularly promising. After just one session, all of the students were able to draw a table and a chair, the two models of furniture used during training. They also provided evidence that they understood the concept of an outline by producing drawings of a bed (not used in the training) and of a chair viewed from the back. After a training session with the remaining models, all of the students made successful drawings of new objects of their choice. One of these drawings, a rectangle with a small square in each corner, initially was not recognized by the trainer. It turned out to be a drawing of a table viewed from underneath!

Drawing a Person

A young Nepalese man imitates the body position of a tactile stick figure."I can only draw and recognize a drawing of a person standing, but not when someone is doing something." These words from a congenitally blind Polish child gave us the idea of adding "Fleximan" to the set of resources used with the tactile graphics primer. This flat stick figure can be arranged on a magnetic board to represent a person who is standing, running, kneeling, or bending down. It serves as an effective prompt to help blind students understand drawings of someone performing these actions. Fleximan also has proved useful in raising blind learners' awareness of their own bodies.

One Nepali boy had no problem copying a fairly complex pose taken by Fleximan. Later photos confirm his impressive progress in drawing a person before and after a session with Fleximan. He moved from drawing a small circle (the head) and a few lines scattered around it (arms, legs, and hair) to an easily recognizable drawing of a man.

When working with younger children, we preceded our Fleximan sessions with a tactile activity book in which a drawing of a teddy bear appears one step at a time. A wooden magnetic puzzle gives the child a chance to assemble pieces into the flat image of a teddy bear. This puzzle image works as an intermediate stage between a real teddy bear and a drawing. It was very encouraging to watch the joy of the Nepali children as they drew teddy bears and people in all kinds of situations.

Getting Ready for Maps

Understanding that spatial relations between objects can be represented graphically is a necessary step to understanding the concept of a map. Without this understanding borders, rivers, and cities will remain mere lines and dots, with no relation to cardinal directions or parts of the world.

An approach that has proved extremely effective in introducing blind children to maps was developed at the Laski Special School in Poland. It starts by building the child's confidence with spatial relations between objects within an easily manageable space, such as a placemat. A plate, cup, spoon, fork, and knife are presented to the child. Next the child is introduced to tactile drawings of these objects in various configurations. This system provides an irreplaceable opportunity for introducing a wide range of spatial concepts and allows the child to draw his first "maps."

Next the child moves from the drawing of a breakfast set for one person to creating tactile representations of a table ready for dinner for two, three, or more persons. These drawings prepare the child for floor plans of rooms and buildings, from which they can make a painless, stress-free move to maps of larger areas—the area around the school or the child's home, maps of cities, countries, and the world. "Getting Ready for Maps 1" and "Getting Ready for Maps 2" are the two tactile publications that complete the set of resources in The Hungry Fingers Tactile Graphics Primer mentioned earlier in this article.

The Value of Tactile Graphics

There is no time or space here to enumerate all of the benefits of raising blind learners' confidence with tactile drawings and diagrams. I would like to mention just a few important points.

For more information about The Hungry Fingers Tactile Graphics Primer, please consult the website

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