Tactile Illustrated Books: Did You Say, “A Little Miracle?”

At the end of the 1980s, there was a “book famine” all over the world. It had existed at least since the early 19th century, in spite of all the very generous international official statements and concerned organizations, such as the Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In addition, there were national declarations of intent, even in the country of Louis Braille, but there were still thousands of children without access to reading in both rich and poor countries. Why? Because they were visually impaired (partially sighted and blind)—namely, a minority, and all minorities are neglected by majorities.

So, when I arrived as a teacher in a classroom of a special school, in charge of teaching several children with visual impairments to read Braille without any accessible books in the school, in public libraries, or in bookshops, I was in shock! Amandine, a five-and-a-half-year-old girl, born blind, living in the school all days of the week, was completely lost, like a bird fallen from the nest. Over the course of two or three weekends, I hurried to make a book for her as best I could, with material I had at home. In the Country of Amandine had print and Braille text along with textured illustrations— what we today call a “Tactile illustrated Book,” or TiB. She was so happy, so pleased to have her first book, that she slept with it! Then our principal showed this “tactile” book in different places. Some parents from other towns heard about it and contacted me; we met during the following summer holidays (like members of the Resistance), and it was decided that we should do something about this book famine. But what? That was not so clear, but it was clear I was no longer alone.

In France, when one wants to do something for which the state should assume responsibility, one starts a nonprofit organization (association) to be able to get financial help from the same state and some private funds. We did this, and officially in 1994, Les Doigts Qui Rêvent (LDQR; Dreaming Fingers) was born.

The Right Time and the Right Place

Meanwhile, the French Culture Ministry had started a new plan for public libraries to support people who were prevented from reading for any reason (socioeconomic status, disability, or other reasons). Because public libraries couldn’t find any books accessible for children with visual impairments, the ministry was ready to help “publishers” produce these books, as well as help public libraries to purchase them. But there were no publishers willing to create such books; the market was too small and the cost too high.

At the same time, all over the world, children with disabilities were beginning to be integrated into mainstream schools. This was when it became obvious to parents that their children didn’t have the same means to learn as other children did. They began calling out for tactile books.

In 1995, I obtained a scholarship from the Fédération des Aveugles de France (French Blind Federation) and went to England, Belgium, Italy, and Spain to meet people, near or far, involved in this field. This was before the Internet, so it was not easy to find them. I learned that France was the only country planning to have a workshop for producing TiB, but because I was still a classroom teacher, things were going slowly. Then, in 1999, I managed to organize the first international meeting about TiB, with participants from England, Belgium, Italy, Russia, and Sweden. The proceedings were titled “To Learn to Read, Yes, but to Read WHAT?” A little miracle…

There are several ways to make a picture in relief: thermoform, raised lines, or collage. We chose collage, using textures, because research shows that textures provide the most meaningful clues for young blind children. However, textured illustrations are more time-consuming to make (producible only by hand) and therefore more expensive. But by the merest chance, I met people involved in the social economy. This organization had helped many individuals who, for any reason, could not find work. In 1996, with its huge support, a little miracle… We chose to establish a workshop because no one else was able to produce the type of tactile books visually impaired children needed. The motto for our partnership: “People excluded from work producing books for children excluded from reading.”

Luck, Once More

In 2000, following a petition organized by the French Blind Children’s Parent’s Association, the Education Ministry allowed me to work full time at Dreaming Fingers. A little miracle…

Still, all over the world, including France, the situation remained largely unchanged; the “book famine” still existed. So I proposed to some countries that we cooperate and form a group. I proposed an annual event,
a TiB competition. That was the birth of Tactus, renamed Typhlo & Tactus in 2005 (www.tactus.org). With the help of the French Culture Ministry, we applied for a grant at the European Union. We got it, despite of the complexity of EU applications. A little miracle…

The grant enabled us to produce the winning prototype in all the languages of the five participating countries and to distribute the books in their own countries at the low price of 15€ (17.50 US$). That was a big breakthrough because, for these countries, it was the first time that textured TiB became known to teachers, librarians, and parents. It showed that it was possible to produce such TiB.

Integration or inclusion also meant that TiBs had to be available in all the same places where sighted children can find picturebooks, namely public libraries, schools, bookshops, and homes. For our TiB made for France, despite all our efforts to reduce costs and all the energy we put toward finding financial help, we have not been able to keep a low selling price. So, the French librarians played a very important role; at the library, anyone can borrow TiBs for free. In many countries—including the United States—however, TiBs cannot be found in public libraries.

Some Insights

To better understand the significance of these books and the “little miracles” that resulted in their creation, consider the following insights.
Globally:

  • 650 million people are considered visually disabled, and if family members are added to this figure, two billion people are impacted in some way or another by disability;
  • 76.6 million books exist for youth (25% of all books sold).

In France:

  • 932,000 individuals are partially sighted, and an additional 200,000 are blind;
  • 5,000 visually disabled children (0-18) are enrolled in school (2015-16);
  • 111,389 books for youth were printed in 2017;
  • only 5% to 10% of all the books are accessible for all disabilities and ages.

These statistics have been drawn from sources such as UNESCO, the Fédération des Aveugles de France, INSEE, Observatoire régional des Pays de la Loire, and the Syndicat National de l’ Edition.

What Is a Tactile Illustration NOT?

A tactile illustration is not merely a visual picture raised in relief— regardless of the technique being used for the relief—because a child who is born blind does not apprehend the world in the same ways in which sighted children do. How do we know that? By listening to what they say:

“What color is the wind?”

The idea of color is unknown and impossible to catch.

“I can hear that I have lost my way, but I don’t know where I am!”

This shows that blind people have a multisensorial way to perceive reality, “seeing by sounds” and not “seeing by sight.”

“How can you see a big tree by looking out a small window?”

The idea of perspective is based on seeing at a distance, while touch is based on direct contact.

“Why is everybody saying that Tom looks like his grandfather, when Tom is sweet and warm and his grandfather is prickly and all stiff?”

Visual resemblance is not working the same way as tactile resemblance.

We also learn how they perceive the world by asking blind children and teenagers to draw. Many research studies in psychology show that their drawings open a little window into their world: these three lines, drawn by a Polish teenager, depict something every sighted person uses, knows, and sees every day. Yet it would be impossible for you, the non-blind reader, to know what it represents, even though you know very well its referent (revealed later in the article) . It is a different way of taking in the world.

For this reason, in 2002 we began to build relationships with several universities, mainly staff and students in departments of psychology, in order to be able to base our tactile pictures on research and theory. Two universities were willing to cooperate. A little miracle…

Through these collaborations, we started a documentation center, containing books and articles from across the world about visual impairment, perception, pictures, and child development. These resources span psychology, history, and philosophy, among other related fields.

What IS a Tactile Illustrated Book for Us?

A tactile illustrated book needs to be sharable with sighted people as well, to promote family and social inclusion. A TiB is addressed to children who are partially sighted, children who are blind, sighted children, sighted parents with a child who is visually impaired, partially sighted parents with a sighted child or a visually impaired child, and blind parents with a sighted or a visually impaired child.

A TiB needs to link pleasure, books, reading, and Braille. It needs to incorporate two forms of written text: large print for the partially sighted and sighted, and Braille for the blind. It must have highcontrast colors for the partially sighted reader, as well as diverse authentic textures. It needs a binding that allows the pages to be completely flat, in order to facilitate reading by touch. It has to be visually appealing and tactually efficient. It has to be as beautiful, as sturdy, as attractive, as books for sighted readers (to break away from the image of the blind as deprived or suffering). And last but not least, it needs to be sold at the same price as books for sighted.

Before Les Doigts Qui Rêvent (LDQR) came about, the rare books accessible for those who were visually impaired did not exist side-by-side with those for sighted youth and were often not available in public libraries, mainly because of their low level of quality. Our TiBs are considered by librarians, publishers, and authors as books belonging to good-quality literature for youth, and it was for this reason that they received the international Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2016. Nowadays, 40% of the TiBs we make are bought by public libraries, 40% by mainstream and special schools, and 20% by parents and book lovers.

Our collections are organized according to the development and needs of the child who is visually impaired and learning to read—not the biological age. Reading starts long before first grade. To address the needs of children at the developmental stage of emergent literacy, we publish sturdy fabric books with just a word or a short sentence, card books of four to five pages each, and concept books.

For emergent readers, we publish storybooks in which tactile illustrations are more important than the text. And for beginning readers, we make storybooks in which tactile illustrations are as important as the text and schoolbooks, to help teachers in mainstream schools integrating children with visual impairment into their classrooms. We recognize that most teachers have no formal training to teach visually impaired children.

Finally, for more experienced and advanced readers, we publish storybooks where the text is more important than the illustrations, as well as artistic tactile illustrated books.

In most countries, individuals with visual impairments are not permitted to touch much in museums. How can they be allowed to have an experience with art, with the aesthetic, with beauty? We design and produce TiBs that address this need by asking artists to adapt, in collaboration with children, their books or to design a TiB from scratch; this is a wonderful experience. Artists have this great capacity to transform a perceived “constraint” (reading by touch) into artistic creation. A little miracle…

In order to help parents and teachers integrating a child with a visual impairment, we also have a collection (Corpus Tactilis) for sighted adults, which consists mainly of translations of books from abroad. There are not so many resources of this type in each country, but altogether they can constitute a very good and useful resource. Translations are made by retired language teachers. This year this collection reached forty-five titles, coming from the United States, England, Scotland, Denmark, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, and Italy.

Our Mission and Actions

Our mission is to facilitate reading and access to books for children who are visually impaired and in the process to assist unemployed people with social disabilities and help isolated retired people to reclaim their social life.

Design/Conception

Quite early, we understood that a “good” TiB needs three ingredients: knowledge concerning children with visual impairments, research, and art. Therefore, quite early, we hired a very creative graphic artist, who works alone or in partnership with authors. Her creative work is done through her relationships with teachers and professionals, as well as researchers. Nobody can force a creative process to fit a time frame. Sometimes the creation process is relatively quick; sometimes it takes a lot of time. A TiB requires hundreds of decisions to be made. Creation is always a little miracle…

Production

Once the prototypes of tactile illustrations are made, the main job is the layout of the text, which is more complex than the layout of a print book because it is in large print and in Braille on the same page, the Braille taking much more space. This is often a “brainteaser.”

The layout of the text will determine the size of the book, because we avoid hyphenation of the words in the text. Then our people start to cut the elements, all of the elements, because we have to differentiate by texture and color everything that is visually differentiated by colors.

Meanwhile, we order the large print, and we send the pages to the Braille printer. We are very demanding about the Braille quality; a lowquality Braille that is not of the standard height, diameter, and shape is not easily readable or not legible at all. The Braille text has to be pleasant to touch for beginning readers. Then all pages are checked one by one by our team because in our TiB, Braille mistakes are not acceptable.

Once all the elements are cut, the production team and our wonderful volunteers (consisting mainly of unemployed people with social disabilities and retirees) begin to glue and fix all the elements on each page. Dreaming Fingers has seven salaried graduate staff members who are assisted in the production process by trainees with social disabilities, trainees from art schools, and twenty-five volunteers. A single storybook character can be formed of several parts that must be assembled before being fixed on the page. Our production team has the patience of angels. When all the illustration pages are ready, we assemble text pages and illustrated pages and we bind them. Then each book is checked again before being wrapped in plastic to protect it from dust. Here are some numbers that describe what we do:

  • Average time for designing a TiB: about 5-8 months per title
  • Average time of hand work: about 3½ hours per book
  • Average time to produce 200 copies: 4-8 months
  • Average amount of copies produced per year: 2,000-3,000
  • Average cost—price per copy: 165.00€

In addition to designing and producing TiBs, which is the core of our work, we also engage in other, related activities.

Exhibitions in Mainstream Book Fairs

These are done in order to promote this kind of book among all the other publishers.

Workshops about “Difference” for Sighted Children

Because children with visual impairment are integrated, sighted children have to learn to accept a friend who is a bit “extraordinary”—different but equal. They have to learn that one can apprehend the world with senses other than sight (and it is working!).

Research

This is a very important topic for us. Common sense is not enough. Many sighted people close their eyes and touch a tactile picture, believing they will have the same experience as a child who is blind; this is not true, of course. Thus, we ask researchers to help us to refine our theoretical basis. Research studies are both medium and long term in scope.

Projects

“TiBonTaB” is an example of a project we have been working on since 2014. In developed countries, 70% of the children with visual impairment are not blind, but partially sighted with additional disabilities, often due to prematurity or birth trauma. And there are as many forms and degrees of partial sight as there are partially sighted children, each with a different pathology or combination of pathologies. Now, when we distribute one of our TiBs, nothing in it can be changed (colors, contrasts, font, font sizes, etc.). The partially sighted child cannot adapt to the TiB, but the TiB must be adapted to the child. How can this be done? This is what we are exploring in this long-term project.

Conclusion

After more than twenty-five years in the field of TiB, I can say that we discovered a new world. We started to design and produce TiBs for blind children, then we designed and produced TiBs for all children (but always accessible to the visually impaired), and now we are designing TiBs with children who are visually impaired (participative design). And during all these years, when listening to these extraordinary children, looking at their drawings, and reading many testimonies, we found out that they had what I dare to call a “culture.” I don’t have other words to name it. They use the same vocabulary as sighted children, but the vocabulary of the sighted has very, very few words to name all the feelings experienced through touch and hearing by the visually impaired in order to take in the world. They live in the same world as sighted individuals, but they don’t need or use the same cues. Nevertheless, reality is the same for us as for them. Whose perception of this reality is correct? Who is capturing reality in a more authentic way? I used to wonder about that, but not anymore. If you ask ten great artists to paint the same subject, you will get ten different paintings.

The three lines in the picture depict the three contact points of a young man’s body when getting into a bus: two steps and the vertical bar at the entrance of any bus. Nothing to depict the bus as seen from a distance. This drawing is an embodied picture for the teenager who did it. His body is in contact with the bus. And these drawings are the most wonderful reward in our work. They offer us a chance to get into our readers’ worlds. What a present! A little miracle…

Source: American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.