A group of US-based chemists have transformed scientific graphics and images into tactile materials accessible to blind and visually impaired researchers. This could help reduce barriers faced by visually impaired people who want to study and work in science.
The team led by Baylor University biochemist Bryan Shaw used 3D printing techniques to convert scientific images into thin 3D constructs called lithophanes, which present high-resolution data in a form visually impaired people can interpret.
Shaw explains that the project began as an outreach project with deeply personal roots. “I started this job because my son was born with tumors in both eyes. He can still see quite well, despite losing one eye and tumors in the other eye, but some of his friends can’t,” says Shaw. “It got me thinking: how can we show all these mind-blowing science images to these kids?”
Shaw bought a basic 3D printer for $3,500 and started converting images into tactile graphics. He and his students found a way to make the sheets as thin as possible to use less material and speed up production. “When you held them up to the light, they lit up just like the picture on the computer screen – they looked perfect,” says Shaw. “It got us thinking that we can use them as a universal visualization tool so blind and sighted people can sit down and share the exact same piece of data.”
The team used their method to 3D print UV-vis and mass spectra, protein gel electropherograms, textbook illustrations and micrographs of a butterfly chitin scale. They then compared the ability of groups of blind, blindfolded and sighted students and researchers to interpret the data. Blind chemists performed at least as well as their sighted counterparts in the vast majority of questions.
“Tactile graphics aren’t really new – we’ve had thermoformed graphics, where you heat up the ink and it rises, or tactile Braille graphics for years and years,” says Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, chemist at the Yale University, who has been functionally blind since birth. “But the problem with these charts is that they usually have to be done by a specialist who has a long period of training; the specialist must be sighted; and they usually come in bulky Braille books that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are really lucky as a blind man if you can get your hands on it.
“When Bryan showed me these tactile graphics, what immediately struck me was how easily these tactile graphics can be achieved. In principle, if the software is accessible, a blind person could do it themselves”, adds Guberman-Pfeffer. “Being able to 3D print diagrams from articles – which are completely inaccessible today – and be able to really access the data and share it with colleagues and discuss on the same image that they see and that I see at the same time , that’s a huge possibility.’
Mona Minkara, a computer scientist based at Northeastern University in Boston who developed blindness during childhood, also thinks lithophanes have great potential to help blind and sighted people share scientific ideas. “As a blind teacher myself, I think it’s really cool technology,” she says. “I can use it to communicate with all my students – this one medium will make the data accessible to both me and sighted students.’
A visual paradox
For Hoby Wedler, a chemist and entrepreneur born blind, lithophanes offer a way to address an unfair paradox where chemistry – a subject focused on things no one can see – has become exclusive for people with visual impairments. “Chemistry is not a visual science. As much as people try to tell us, nobody can see atoms. Chemistry is a brain science,” he says. “The hardest part of studying chemistry for me, especially in an academic setting, is getting visual material from literature or textbooks or even PowerPoint presentations into my mind – doing chemistry is the easiest part. The other hard part is sending my data back to the world.
“Whether we like it or not, chemistry has only become a visual science based on how we like to present our data, because we rely heavily on visuals and numbers to do so,” says Wedler. “But to have technology that can easily, cheaply, and quickly create tactile figures, where I, as a blind chemist, have the same advantages and disadvantages when I feel them to sighted chemists – it extends and brings to life the idea that data can be made available to everyone.
“I think this will significantly improve inclusivity in Stem areas,” comments Jane Essex, an expert in inclusive science education based at the University of Strathclyde, UK, who was not involved in the project. “While the most obvious beneficiaries are those with visual impairments, I think it has much wider implications.”
Essex explains that using multiple senses to learn something often creates a fuller understanding, and points out that blind paleoecologist Geerat Vermeij described how sensing biological remains – rather than seeing them – gave him a different perspective on their structure. . She thinks the new technology could pave the way for “a lot more people” to engage with Stem topics. “Above all, it sends a powerful signal that there are multiple ways to understand the physical world, and that’s a message that needs to be reminded often,” she adds.
Shaw hopes the technology can be improved to make it easier for blind researchers to print the lithophanes themselves, directly from journal articles. “I wish it were automated,” he says. “It would be great if we could team up with computer scientists, and we could click on an image in an article and output it to the 3D printer, like it does in a normal printer.”
With 3D printing now affordable for many chemistry departments and high schools, Guberman-Pfeffer believes the widespread use of the technology will also encourage more visually impaired and blind young people to pursue careers in chemistry. “When I started in chemistry, I was actually strongly discouraged from doing it precisely because the instructor felt there was no way for me to understand the pictures he was drawing on the board,” says -he. “Now one thing lithophanes allow an instructor to do is sketch out their course and then 3D print it – problem solved.”