Creating Tactile Graphs for Students With Visual Impairments: 3D Printing as Assistive Technology

Creating Tactile Graphs for Students With Visual Impairments: 3D Printing as Assistive Technology

Terence W. Cavanaugh (University of North Florida, USA) and Nicholas P. Eastham (University of North Florida, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7018-9.ch011


Educational technologists are often asked to provide assistance in the identification or creation of assistive technologies for students. Individuals with visual impairments attending graduate schools are expected to be able to work with data sets, including reading, interpreting, and sharing findings with others in their field, but due to their impairments may not be able to work with standard displays. The cost and time involved in preparing adapted graphs based on student research data for individuals with visual impairments can be prohibitive. This chapter introduces a method for the rapid prototyping of tactile graphs for students to use in data analysis through the use of spreadsheets, internet-based conversion tools, and a 3D printer.
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...when I was a child I met a blind woman and was amazed at how intimately she knew the layout of her rooms and furniture. I asked her if she would be able to draw out the blueprints with higher accuracy than most sighted people. Her response surprised me: she said that she would not be able to draw the blueprints at all because she didn’t understand how sighted people converted three dimensions (the room) into two dimensions (a flat piece of paper). The idea simply didn’t make sense to her. (Eagleman, 2011, 38-39)

This chapter describes the use of a pedagogical and analysis technology-integrated approach used for students who have a visual disability and are conducting quantitative research. This approach used a rapid prototyping process and a 3D printer to create resources as an accommodation for a student who is visually impaired and was doing graduate research. The student needed alternative data displays based on his research to be used for interpreting the research data and sharing findings with others. The use of the 3D printer in this situation was actually more cost and time-effective for preparing adapted graphs than outsourcing to an embossing service. This chapter introduces a method for rapid prototyping and provides step-by-step instructions for creating a usable stereolithographic (.STL) file that uses spreadsheets, and internet-based conversion tools. The .STL file can be printed with a 3D printer to create tactile graphs from a flat graph image for students who are visually impaired to use in data analysis, and the authors include printer settings for either the .STL designer, or an entity that prints the file for the desired user.

The following chapter sections will provide information on legal concerns surrounding meeting the needs of students with disabilities in the postsecondary classroom, meeting the needs of students with visual disabilities in postsecondary institutions, and how a multi-sensory approach for students with visual disabilities can help universities meet the needs of that specific population. Following that background information, the authors describe how 3D printing/additive manufacturing can be used for the rapid prototyping/production of tactile images (in this case graphs), as a simple solution to potential problems that may exist in universities. The process for creating the graphs is then outlined, and potential future research topics are presented.



As educational technologists, the authors of this chapter are often approached by faculty and students who need instruction on how to use the tools that they have, or for information about tools that could help them in their teaching and learning. Often, there are available tools that the students and faculty were not aware of that can help them with what they are doing with their associated courses.

Key Terms in this Chapter

JPG/JPEG: Stands for the Joint Photographic Experts Group, and is a lossy graphics file format commonly used for photographs.

Additive Manufacturing: Another term for 3D printing, where objects are created through a process of adding layers.

Fidelity: The smoothness and accuracy of a print.

Brim: A stabilizing base that extends under the object to assist with adhesion to the print bed.

Cognitive Load: The amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.

Braille: A form of writing for the blind that uses patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips.

STL: Is a file format used for 3D objects display and printing.

RAFT: A printed component to assist with the printer bed adhesion and stabilization.

Assistive Educational Technology: Resources that are used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals who have a disability that impacts learning or the learning environment.

Grayscale: A range of gray shades from white to black.

Assistive Technology: Is any form of technology that uses assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities.

Infill: The percentage and structure of the interior of an object that is actually printed.

Legally Blind: Having a visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction, and/or a visual field of 20° or less.

3D Printing: The process of creating a three-dimensional physical object by laying down thin layers in succession.

Embossing: To mold or stamp a design into an object so that it will stand out in relief.

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