Tactile Books Improved for Blind Children

Researchers in Geneva develop illustrated books for blind children utilizing tactile illustrations that can be navigated with two fingers.

Tested prototypes of illustrations involving action simulations. (© UNIGE)

(CN) — Long before a child can read, they can recognize and respond to the image of a school bus or rabbit in an illustrated book. That is, as long as they can see it.

But for blind children, this experience is limited to the text of the story, with no visual cues to help them comprehend what they’re learning. Even tactile illustrations — images with a “sense of touch” — replicate visual experiences of the sighted, leading blind children to struggle with comprehending representations of traditional objects depicted by raised lines, thermoforming or embossing.

But researchers from the University of Geneva are working to close the gap in the reading experience between sighted and blind kids.

Working in partnership with Université Lumière Lyon 2 in France, Geneva researchers have devised 3D mini-scenarios that children can explore with two fingers, making it easier to identify an object, according to a report of their findings published the journal PLOS ONE.

“Blind children don’t have the same visual representation codes as other children,” said Edouard Gentaz, psychology professor with UNIGE’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE). “For instance, they don’t interpret dotted lines surrounding a circle as the sun, and a rectangle with small circles below may be nothing like their representation of a bus.”

The reason for the work is clear: children’s books play an important role in child development, giving children access to culture they might not otherwise have. And every child has the right to an equally enriching education, making educational materials and books adapting to their particular way of perceiving objects and information essential to their learning experience.

To mitigate these challenges, Gentaz and his colleagues explored ways of illustrating objects that are more suited to blind children. A primary discovery? Action-simulated 3D illustrations.

“We have devised a new type of illustration that explores the simulation of the body’s experiences in interaction with objects,” explains Dannyelle Valente, study first author and a researcher in the Development, Individual, Process, Disability and Education Laboratory (DIPHE) at Université Lumière Lyon 2 and UNIGE. “The illustrations take the form of mini-scenarios in 3D that children explore using two fingers.”

The concept involves children navigating miniature scenarios with two fingers similar to walking through a maze or obstacle course.

“These movements can be used to simulate actions such as climbing stairs, running or jumping on a trampoline,” notes Valente.

The illustrations were produced by the nonprofit publishing house Les Doigts Qui Rêvent with the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Researchers tested blind and sighted children ages 7 to 11 to measure the level of recognition each had with the illustrations, then compared those results with those by a similar group asked to recognize the same objects depicted with traditional methods.

The results were clear: objects are more recognizable in illustrations involving simulation than textured illustrations, narrowing the difference in perception between blind and sighted children.

“The results showed that the gestural exploration process activates the sensorimotor patterns associated with the depicted object, meaning it’s easier for blind and sighted children to identify it,” said Gentaz.

In response, researchers designed a prototype book for children with visual impairments. The book, titled “Balade des Petits Doigts — Little Fingers Do The Walking,” is being produced by the Les Doigts Qui Rêvent publishing house.

“Tactile books that use gestures and body simulations have a high potential for sharing since the sensory experiences are the same for sighted children and blind children,” Valente said.

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