Translating Pictures

2, February 2012

Working on the Missouri History Museum’s ADA exhibit (The Americans with Disabilities Act: Twenty Years Later) helped me think about and then expand what I knew (or thought I knew) about accessibility. One of the commitments the exhibit team made was to provide Braille label text throughout the exhibit.

This turned out to be more challenging than the team expected. Braille is fixed in size and can’t be made smaller as is sometimes done for lettering on traditional text panels. Braille also has its own set of contractions. These two features led to many revisions to make the text fit the available space. Fortunately I was able to find a local resource, Midwestern Braille Volunteers, to help me negotiate the challenges of translating the exhibit text into Braille.

A large part of the work that Midwestern Braille Volunteers performs is translating textbooks into Braille for school use. Translating the text is pretty direct—a volunteer retypes the text or imports it from an electronic file, and then software translates the text into Braille. A machine “prints” the text by embossing heavy paper with the raised dots that make up Braille.

CollageFigure 1. Materials of different textures that compose a "picture."

Dealing with images is a different story. School textbooks are often dry, but they do have pictures to help illustrate the concepts. In a Braille version of a textbook, the images are turned into tactile graphics to help the reader more fully understand the text. The graphic is often a collage of different textures and dimensions that is used as a pattern for thermoforming (figure 1). Thermoforming requires heating a thin sheet of plastic, then placing it over the collage and vacuuming out the air. The plastic is forced tightly down over the collage, and the textures and dimensions become embossed in the plastic sheet. The result is a durable and detailed version of the collage.

FoilFigure 2. Butterfly image on heavy foil.

If the illustration is simple enough, it can be traced onto heavy foil and then thermoformed for durability (figure 2). Simple illustrations can be made by arranging dots or other shapes to form a picture (figure 3).

ShapesFigure 3. Simple shapes form a collage.

To see the Midwestern Braille Volunteers translating illustrations into tactile graphics was truly impressive. A special combination of skills is required to do this work. Working mostly with social studies, history, and science textbooks, the volunteers first review the textbook and its illustrations, matching the detail needed in the tactile graphic to the information in the textbook. Then, working with a wide variety of materials such as string, sandpaper, fabric, and strips of cardboard, they translate the image into a collage (figure 4).

CollageFigure 4. A collage representing the inner ear for a science textbook.

Watching over the group of volunteers at MVB was Lee Erickson, who has been a volunteer for the History Museum. Lee says that one of the biggest challenges for the MBV is finding enough different textures to use in creating the collage. He also notes that making the collage is an artistic challenge in which the artist is editing the illustration to make the information clear to the reader.


I was struck by the difficulty of making tactile graphics and the resulting beauty of these collages.

—Whitney Watson, Senior Exhibition Designer