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Announcing Dimensions: Community Tools for Creating Tactile Graphics & Objects


When I first visited the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library at the age of 10, I noticed that it was not like my library back home. Any person could come in off the street, walk right up to the bookshelves, and take books off those shelves and read them—then and there. One could even check books out on the spot. If you are a sighted person without a background in the world of blindness, this probably sounds like a joke. But for a braille reader who grew up with only braille-by-mail service, it was a very remarkable and intense experience. This library gave me my first opportunity to browse independently—no more and no less than another reader among the bookshelves.

Fast forward to 2010. The iPhone had finally become accessible to blind people, and every time we got together we were showing each other new apps. At that same time, NVDA, the free screen reader, was really starting to get some traction. People who could never have afforded a screen reader before were using it to get online. I found out about communities of Spanish- and Chinese-speaking blind New Yorkers who were discovering NVDA and teaching it to each other in their native languages. Meanwhile, though, I knew that a lot of people who weren't so looped into the community of disability, or who were newly blind, had a ton of questions about technology and didn't know where to go for answers. They didn't have the ordinary experience that sighted people have all the time of just casually learning from a friend or a next-door neighbor, because as blind people we use technology differently than most of our friends and neighbors. (We can, of course, learn from people who are sighted, but it’s generally helpful for us to learn the fundamentals of assistive technology from people who know it well). So a few of us approached the library and started a conversation about addressing this need that grew into the founding of our volunteer-led computer support clinic.

Once again, the library was in a position to help people in our community have an experience that is powerful yet ordinary: informal learning in our community, just sitting down with our peers and talking about how we do things. From our beginnings as a Saturday clinic that offered the community 3 hours of coaching per month, we’ve grown to a program whose staff and volunteers work together to do about 150 hours of peer tech coaching every month. We are definitely not a replacement for comprehensive training or formal courses, but we are a replacement for that feeling that there's a next door neighbor or an office mate you can count on when there’s something about technology that you just don't understand. 

Fast forward again to 2014. I had been going to conferences around the country and learning about embossers for tactile graphics Occasionally, I would go somewhere that had a really stunning tactile map, but dealing with graphics still wasn't part of my daily life and I didn't know anyone beyond a select few blind artists and scientists who were living and working in an image-rich environment. Kirk Adams, who leads the American Foundation for the Blind, moved to New York around that time. He posted on the Facebook Tri-State Blind and Vision Impaired group, which is something of a bulletin board for events and odd quests in the local community, that he wanted to get a five borough map so he could better understand how the boroughs relate to one another and to the waterways. The Facebook community came through for Kirk. He got some leads about a place in New Jersey that could send him some high-quality maps, but I got to thinking: here we are again. Any sighted person in this office can pull up a Google map right now and understand how the five boroughs relate to each other. If they want they can print that map out. If Kirk Adams—one of the most well-informed blind people I know—doesn’t have easy access to this ordinary experience, who else is missing out?

The Dimensions project is our way of broadening access to spatial information—like that five borough map—for New Yorkers with all levels of vision. We are providing what I hope are some of the key ingredients necessary for blind people and non-visual learners with all kinds of vision to have every day access to spatial information: again, an ordinary experience in the modern world that we can and should have, given accessible tools and a community that is committed to creating equity of access.

Here's how it works. We have a tactile graphics embosser, the Index Everest, which is capable of producing images at the highest resolution that is generally perceptible by touch. It is paired with TactileView software, which allows a mouse user to draw on screen but which also allows anyone, including someone who is totally blind, to generate lines, shapes and patterns through a menu driven process. We also have a digitizing tactile drafting board that people with all levels of vision can use to draw tactile graphics free-hand and have them captured by the software. We can also pull in any image, run it through filters that help declutter it so that it is legible by touch, replace its printed labels with braille ones, and produce usable tactile graphics—in many cases within minutes. All this is made possible by a generous gift of the embosser from the New York State Commission for the Blind.

Embossed tactile paper floor plan of the 2nd floor of the Heiskell library with braille labels Embossed tactile paper version of the NYPL logo

As useful as two-dimensional tactile graphics can be, there concepts in architecture, art, geometry, chemistry, and almost every other field, where it is helpful to understand something in all three dimensions, by handling a model that is made at a usable scale. Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant: three blind men grapple separately with parts of an elephant, and no one can agree on what they’re touching. I thought, growing up, that this was an offensive story about blindness, but now I think of it as a story about how accessibility enhances possibilities for perception and learning. Those guys would have had no trouble recognizing the elephant if they were working with a scaled-down 3D model. When an object is too small, two large, too fragile, too dangerous, or too distant to understand by touch, 3-D printing can help present it in a way that does make sense from a tactile perspective.

Thanks to the support of The New York Public Library Innovation Project and the Revson Foundation, we have acquired a Lulzbot Taz6 3D printer that can create three-dimensional models of objects. The test print that everyone does when they receive this type of 3-D printer is an octopus, which seems like a silly novelty, until you realize that as blind people most of us have never touched an octopus. When we hand it to someone, if he or she has the mental model of an octopus either from seeing it before, reading about it, or encountering one as a toy or an art object, he or she will recognize it—but a lot of people don't. So the octopus is one tiny example of how a 3D printer can make a concept real to someone who might not learn that concept through the osmosis of constantly encountering images.

Chancey and Willa laughing over Lulzbot which has an open instruction booklet on the semi-assembled bed


As remarkable as I think this technology is, the equipment is not the most important part of the project. The most important part of the project is you, our community. We need people to come forward and talk about what types of images and objects they need and want. We need community members with backgrounds in art, education, design, and data to help seed a strong community of practice that will ultimately empower New Yorkers with all levels of vision to design graphics and objects that are useful and meaningful.

We will be offering community training in the fundamental best practices for producing tactile graphics and objects, along with specific sessions that focus on using the tactile graphics embosser and the 3D printer. Folks who have participated in the training with us will be free to create the tactile graphics and objects that they need to achieve their goals, and we will ask that they contribute their completed designs back to an open library for other community members to use. We want to create a space and a culture where the average blind person, or person with a visual impairment, or any non-visual learner, has the tools and the support to create images and objects that are important to their vocation, education, and interests. We believe that accessibility is more than a feature you request. It can also be something you make. We invite you to come together, imagine how you can best use these tools, and help make access happen.

As we’ve embarked on this project I’ve made as many bad graphics as good ones: a crooked Lego brick, a totally unrecognizable 3D rocket, and a lot of other mistakes. I’ve heard from some folks that have picked up our maps that they aren’t good at reading maps. I would ask you to be gentle with yourself as you explore this new frontier with us. Those of us who did not grow up in an image-rich environment will need time to learn, as children learn. I imagine that when Louis Braille invented the code we know and love, there must have been a groundswell of excitement; but there must have also been a great number of smart, capable adults who thought they were bad readers because they were, by necessity, beginners. Let’s celebrate and explore this new kind of access, even when some of it feels difficult to grasp.

When you visit our branch, you will be able to explore the 3D printer and tactile graphics embosser and to check out some of our early efforts. We have tactile street maps, labeled floor-maps for both floors of our branch, a rendering of the solar system, and much more. We also have a few of our first 3D prints, both successes and learning experiences.

Please stay tuned as we prepare to announce our first round of community workshops.

Dimensions Launch Party, opening speeches and displays


A community member trying out TactileView non-visual design software


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