What my collaboration on creating teaching tools for children with visual impairment taught me about the accessibility-first design approach in socio-cultural contexts

Rama Deshpande
Complete assembled reproductive system model kits with headphones connected.

My collaboration with Jnana Prabodhini’s Institute of Psychology began when my mother, who oversees their “Introduction to Touch” movement, approached me for help in creating more interactive learning material for children with different learning needs, such as visual impairments. As a designer interested in accessibility and adaptive technologies, I was very keen to work on this project.

A pilot program started in 2014 by Jnana Prabodhini’s Institute of Psychology and women’s wing ‘Stree Shakti Prabodhan- Samvadini’ to make children aware of safeguarding oneself from abuse evolved into a bigger movement called “Olakh Sparshachi” (Introduction To Touch), considering the profound need for larger awareness. The Jnana Prabodhini Institute of Psychology’s “Introduction to Touch” Movement helps children between the ages of 7 and 14 to learn and understand sexual health, privacy, adolescence, reproduction, sexual abuse, consent, and safety. The curriculum is designed to make the content more engaging by using games, stories, and pictorial representations to keep the interest and attention of the children throughout the sessions.

This movement primarily focused on lower-income and underprivileged or underrepresented communities in the city of Pune. The primary setback they had while extending this movement to children with visual impairments was that it was not possible to use any visual aids like diagrams and there were no 3D or tactile resources available to teach children about topics such as anatomy and physiology.  As I started to work on this project, I realized that I had to consider the socio-economic and cultural contexts to create solutions that can be accessible to these communities. Social movements such as these are aimed at creating inclusion between communities and bridging the gaps between different sections of society. I needed to think about how to work  on a subsection of these communities that have visual impairments, without creating a further sense of divide among them.

I chose to focus on teaching anatomy and physiology because understanding how your body works is an important step in feeling safe and comfortable about the changes that bodies go through during adolescence. For children with visual impairments, it is important that they get a sense of space about the internal anatomy through the learning experience. I had to make considerations regarding the resources available to them, such as smartphones and computers. One of the most important considerations was that the solution needed to be complete and stand alone without additional requirements for setting up or configuration so that they are ready to be used.

I started by researching precedents of existing solutions for people or children with visual impairment. I was very focused on adaptive tools and references that helped these people navigate the world better. During my conversations with teachers for the visually impaired, I realized that they use simple toys or make simple modifications to existing toys like using puffy paints or stickers to create embossed surfaces. One of their suggestions was using  wooden shape puzzles to help children with visual impairments learn about shapes and spaces and gain a spatial sense.

All these findings factored into my final output, which incorporates 3D and tactile interfaces along with audio narratives to teach children about human anatomy and physiology in the context of sexual health. “I created a “press and play” using shapes of different organs of the reproductive anatomy and have it trigger audio explaining the functions of those organs. I also added braille labels for each of those so that children could read and associate better.

I used 3D printing to create the physical different parts of the interactions and  Arduino Soundboard to trigger different audio explaining the functions and guiding the children through the learning experience. I ensured that there was a high contrast between the pieces and the base for those with low vision and ability to differentiate colors. I also added different textures to the surfaces of different pieces to help separate them easily through tactility. The final output has an audio jack to plug in headphones and works on regular AA batteries. I made it so that it can be opened up and if required the audio can be modified using a simple USB port. These can benefit the teachers greatly by keeping the functioning hassle-free and help them facilitate the learning activities smoothly.

Different pieces of the female reproductive system with conductive tape on the back.
Person placing the pieces to receive audio information of the male reproductive system.

Through feedback from the organization, peers and faculty, I realized that this tactile approach might serve as an anchoring activity more effectively than simply relying on traditional learning approaches like diagrams or audio narratives. This might better engage a range of students, rather than solely the visually impaired, an idea known as universal design.

This made me think of the example of curb cuts that Kat Holmes discusses in the book Mismatched1, which highlights the importance of considering accessibility early on in the design process. Curb cuts, originally designed to make sidewalks accessible to people who use wheelchairs, ended up being beneficial to anyone pushing a stroller, towing a suitcase, or riding a bike. Similarly, the interactive press and play could be used to teach anyone about anatomy and physiology, reversing the narrative of accessibility as an afterthought.

Even though there are powerful accessibility laws in place for websites and other public access systems like transportation and built environments2, there is a need to extend these to other systems including social movements. There is a need for advocacy, awareness, compliance as well as funding for inclusive solutions.

My collaboration with Jnana Prabodhini’s Institute of Psychology provided a unique opportunity to approach the design process from an accessibility-first perspective. By taking into account the needs of children with visual impairments, I was able to create a more inclusive and engaging learning experience that could benefit all children in the program. This highlighted the importance of considering accessibility early on in the design process, even in such movements that are meant for an intersection of society. An accessibility-first approach can benefit a much broader community than intended and bridge the gaps in knowledge, information, and safety between different sections of society.

  • 1 Kat Holmes, Mismatched (Page 31, 32), 2018
  • 2 Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Accessibility India Campaign, 2015
  • 1 Kat Holmes, Mismatched (Page 31, 32), 2018
  • 2 Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, Accessibility India Campaign, 2015

Rama Deshpande

Creative technologist | Play and Experience Designer
Rama is a creative technologist and designer from India, building engaging and interactive experiences to create a meaningful social impact.

While her professional work has focused on UX/UI and content design, her expertise extends to game design, alternative controls, fabrication, physical computing and soft circuits. Her practice aims to bring together the digital and physical worlds and create personable and embodied experiences.