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Accessible graphics

Kent Ratajeski explains how tactile images can be used in geoscience teaching to increase accessibility for visually impaired students

Words by Dr Kent Ratajeski
1 March 2023

A student uses a tactile graphic illustrating seismic amplification printed with the Harpo “Pictures in a Flash” tactile image printer (Image: Amanda Nelson, University of Kentucky)

Geoscience teaching naturally pairs well with visual resources. Textbooks use colour graphics, photographs, and diagrams liberally, and many geological concepts are explained using maps and images of outcrops. But how can geoscience teachers help those with a visual disability access this wealth of geoscience imagery and knowledge in a way that is meaningful and helpful? Now an online resource, the Geological Tactile Image Repository (tactileimages.theiagd.org), puts tactile graphics into the hands of geoscience students with visual impairments.

Teaching a blind student

In 2017, Sydney Clark, a blind student majoring in Public Health, enrolled in my Physical Geology course at the University of Kentucky, USA. Our school’s Disability Resource Center provided much-needed assistance as I took on the challenge of teaching a blind student. Prior to and during the semester, I spent hours making textured graphics, clay sculptures, and Styrofoam models highlighting concepts I cover within my course. Using university funds, I purchased raised-relief topographic maps and used wax sticks to enhance features on those maps for tactile discovery.

As part of my accommodations for my student, I also used a Harpo ‘Pictures in a Flash’ (or PIAF) tactile image maker that was available at the Disability Resource Center. Using a graphic printed from a laser printer onto a special type of swell paper, the user feeds this into the PIAF machine, which exposes the paper to heat. This causes the black printed areas on the paper to expand, creating raised areas on the paper. Another machine, the TactPlus tactile image printer, is now also available and has an easier, single-step process. 

After making a few of these graphics with the PIAF, I realised that the whole process would have been much easier if pre-made graphics were readily available. Online collections of tactile images already existed for various subjects, but searching for the term ‘geology’ on the American Printing House for the Blind Tactile Graphics Library resulted in only six tactile images (compared to 130 images for the search term ‘biology’). Realising the need for a geoscience-specific resource, I eventually wrote a grant proposal to the American Geophysical Union, which was funded.

Making accessible graphics 

For digital imagery, alternative text, or alt-text, describes the content of an image in words that are read aloud by screen readers as an aid for the visually impaired. Not every textbook is available in this format, but even for those that are, complex meaning can be lost in the process. For example, accurately describing sedimentary cross bedding using words alone might be unwieldy, but still possible; however, describing a continental margin subduction zone or a geological cross-section across the state of Kentucky would be much more difficult, if not impossible. Thankfully, there are more direct ways to convey complicated graphical and spatial information.

Tactile graphics provide non-textual representations of images that can be readily accessed by those who are blind or have low vision. Tactile graphics can be produced by hand, using a tactile image printer (which imparts a textured surface to a sheet of paper or a moulded sheet of plastic), or using a 3D printer.

A collaborative project

Using a drawing tablet and a list of graphics commonly used in introductory geoscience courses, I started work on the project in 2018. Early in the design process, I realised that my self-taught skills in Braille and tactile graphic design were limited, so I asked Sydney Clark, my now former student, to serve as a reviewer for the graphics I made. I recruited another expert to the project, Donna Lee, a professor in the University of Kentucky’s College of Education and an expert in Braille and tactile graphic design. Most of the web design and development was done by Jack Reed, a digital designer and web developer at Stanford University Libraries. Christopher Atchison, Director of the International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD), offered to host the resources on IAGD’s website.

A diagram of a continental margin subduction zone, with Braille labels, from the Geological Tactile Image Repository.

Geological Tactile Image Repository 

The Geological Tactile Image Repository was released in 2021. There are currently more than 82 images in the repository, spanning a diverse range of geoscience topics, including tectonics, climate change, rocks and minerals, weathering, soils, rivers, coastal geology, geological time, geological maps and cross-sections, and geological structures.

Each entry in the repository is searchable using keywords and is available in PowerPoint and pdf format. Each file contains a page with English labels (for teachers), Braille labels (for student use), and no annotations at all (for when auditory explanation is provided by the teacher). We followed the principles of tactile graphic design and the rules of Grade 2 (contractional) Braille as much as possible in the creation and editing of the graphics.

The Geological Tactile Image Repository is freely available for use by all geoscience educators and provides quick and easy access to tactile graphics illustrating a range of topics covered in introductory geoscience courses. We expect that the repository will be expanded in the future to better meet the needs for accessible graphics for geoscience education.  

The Geological Tactile Image Repository is freely available at tactileimages.theiagd.org

Dr Kent Ratajeski

Dr Kent Ratajeski is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Kentucky, USA.



(Image credit: Pete Camparoni, University of Kentucky)

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