The power of touch: Helping the visually impaired experience the world around them

From detailed figurines of literary characters to tactile versions of Monopoly, 3D printing innovations make everyday activities more accessible.

By Garage Staff — October 18, 2018

A lot of printed handouts kids get in class are pretty uninspiring. But when Neal McKenzie made a custom 3D-printed version of a worksheet about fossils for a visually impaired high school student in a science class, he didn’t realize he would quickly have a frenzy on his hands.

McKenzie, an assistant technology specialist for the Sonoma County Office of Education in California, says the sighted students in the science class couldn’t wait to try their classmate’s version, which included not only 3D fossil shapes, but different textures to represent the time periods of the fossils’ origins.

“All of the other students wanted to work with our blind student, because it was just a lot more fun to go tactilely through the packet as opposed to just look at a black-and-white picture,” he says.

In recent years, additive manufacturing technology has not only transformed several industries, but captured the curiosity of many lay people as well — like the students who couldn’t wait to get their hands, literally, on the fossil worksheet.

For visually impaired people, who experience much of the world through touch, 3D printing is more than an industry or hobby. It’s a passport to a richer world.

“Visually impaired students need good reference points ... 3D printing helps you fill in those gaps.”

Neal McKenzie, special education technologist

Games you can feel

McKenzie often creates 3D printed objects to help visually impaired students in the classroom. Something as simple as holding a pen can be a challenge for people with disabilities. McKenzie recalls working with a first-grade student with both a visual impairment and cerebral palsy. The student, who had muscle-control issues, was able to write his name with the help of a 3D-printed nameplate that he could use as a guide.

3D-printed learning aids in the classroom.

Neal McKenzie

3D-printed learning aids in the classroom.

“I took the negative space of his name out from a 3D-printed square, so he could go on a whiteboard and use his adaptive pen,” he says. “It would help him guide his hand, because he didn't have a lot of control at first. By the end of the year he was able to independently write his name on a whiteboard by tracing the nameplate.”

Sonoma County has also started a local hangout for kids with visual impairments to come hang out and play 3D-printed board games.

“Kids say they've never played Monopoly, never played these staples that most of us always had in the house,” McKenzie says. “These kids missed out on that [part of childhood] just because the games aren't already accessible. So we work together to make them accessible, and then we spend a lot of time just kind of playing games and hanging out.”

McKenzie says he’s currently working on a 3D-printed version of the popular board game Settlers of Catan.

“Visually impaired students need good reference points. Often something [like a game] is really close to being accessible, but there's just a few pieces missing, and 3D printing helps you fill in those gaps,” explains McKenzie. This often means adding more tactile elements to an object, like adding raised bumps to dice, or textures to a game board so blind players can feel the different spaces.

Mapping the unseen world

Touch Mapper creates 3D-printed, tactile maps.

Touch Mapper

Touch Mapper creates 3D-printed, tactile maps.

Sighted people often take navigation for granted in 2018, thanks to the GPS technology we all have in their pockets. But for people with limited vision, Google Maps isn’t an option.

Enter a project called Touch Mapper which is making kinesthetic navigation (exploring the world through touch) a lot easier. Finnish programmer Samuli Kärkkäinen designed the site to allow users to create 3D-printed, tactile maps of almost any location using open source map technology. He got the idea when he was trying to describe to his visually impaired partner where a restaurant was located.

“The unique benefit of a tactile map is that it gives a visually impaired person an overview of an area. It’s hard to understand shapes and locations of roads and buildings by any other means,” Kärkkäinen says. “For example, even though my girlfriend is skilled at moving around independently, she hadn’t realized a road starting from our home slowly turns 90 degrees, and so her internal map was quite confused. Only after we created a tactile map for the area was she able to form an accurate internal map about the routes that she had been using.”

Character studies

Braille has been the primary way for the visually impaired to consume books for more than a century. But traditional Braille, a written language for the blind made of small raised bumps, is becoming less popular with the younger generation, says Eva Sbaraini, a 3D product designer based in the U.K.

A 3D printed figurine of the Little Prince brings the classic story to life.


A 3D printed figurine of the Little Prince brings the classic story to life.

“Many modern technologies such as audio books and text recognition devices mean it’s not a necessity to be able to read Braille as a blind or partially sighted person,” she says. Sbaraini makes 3D printed figurines featuring characters from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which you can download for free on her MyMiniFactory page. Sbaraini and French artist Claude Garrandes, who is blind, traveled to the New York Institute for Special Education with the support of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation and now lead workshops for teachers and blind students, teaching them how to use 3D printing in the classroom. She says her inspiration came from thinking about accessibility and ways in which 3D printing technology can transform a narrative into a powerful tactile experience.

Sbaraini’s 3D models offer the visually impaired the chance to “see” the characters of the story. “It is a beautiful story, and also one of the most widely published of the 21st century – it has been translated into over 300 languages!” she says. This tactile tech lets everyone feel the power of great literature.

A touchable version of the Mona Lisa and George Washington Crossing the Delaware (as seen above).


A touchable version of the Mona Lisa and George Washington Crossing the Delaware (as seen above).

Accessible art

As 3D printing continues to break into the mainstream, there is enormous potential to develop more and better accessibility solutions for outside home or school as well.

Galleries and museums, for example, are beginning to think about how 3D printing can help the visually impaired experience art, as additions to their tactile tours and touch galleries. The Belvedere museum in Vienna houses a 3D-printed version of its famous painting, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt.

A company called 3DPhotoWorks creates three-dimensional versions of modern artworks, photographs and classic paintings such as the Mona Lisa and Washington Crossing the Delaware to help the blind experience art. These paintings even contain sensors that trigger audio cues like music and detailed descriptions of the artwork.


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