In December, we attended an online seminar on “the Monarch: Tactile Access to Digital Learning” , organised by the APH. It was a very interesting seminar that introduced not only why graphics and digital literacy skills are important but also their own multiline Braille tablet and how it could be used in education.
They first introduced tactile graphics literacy. It is evident that graphics is largely used by the sighted in their daily lives, from images shared and used by websites and social media, to weather forecast or navigation relying on visual maps, or in education or the news where graphs are used in many topics from maths to geography or history to convey information. As often cited a picture “is worth a thousand words” and is a useful tool to convey several dimensions through a single medium. Yet, today, the blind and visually impaired still have limited access to graphical content. There are several challenges to this access, first, technological means to provide such access to printed and digital graphics, and second and maybe most importantly, education and teaching skills to apprehend and understand tactile graphics. As cited by the speakers, "historically, by the time students with visual impairments enter school, they have not received enough instruction in the development and use of their tactile skills or had enough opportunities to touch and explore their world" . Indeed, one may not realise but tactile graphics literacy requires fine motor sensitivity and dexterity (for the exploration and perception of the elements), efficient use of carefully constructed knowledge (to associate the perceived graphics and meanings with knowledge) and a variety of tactile-cognitive strategies, thus many skills that need to be learnt and developed.
As the world is also increasingly getting digital, where a lot of content and tasks are becoming dematerialised (e.g. bank account statements, bills, online services, etc.), they also underlined the importance of developing digital literacy skills. Yet, to access digital content, technological means are again necessary. Single line refreshable braille displays have been available for a while, and have already had a positive impact on braille and digital literacy skills, such as improved knowledge of braille letters and contractions, increased fluency, more access to information, greater confidence and adaptability, enhanced problem-solving skills and enhanced collaborative work. However for graphics, 2D refreshable braille displays are necessary to keep the spatial layout, which is also important for full-page access of texts, for e.g. to convey layout, spatial and organisational formatting (headings, etc.). This is where the Monarch, and similarly the work done in the ABILITY project, comes into play, as currently there are very few full-page refreshable braille displays.
Thus next, the speakers introduced the Monarch tablet and how it could be used in schools to develop the necessary skills for tactile graphics and digital literacy skills. In particular, they provided suggestions to teach the concepts of zooming and panning, such as a masking frame. They also shared the tablet specifications, which also confirm the list of requirements for the future ABILITY tablet (see our deliverables in WP2 in the Deliverables tab), such as the need for a minimum of 10 lines, recognition of gestures on the pin display, etc. They also shared information about the new braille file type, adapted for 2D pin displays, the eBRF that is coming soon. We will definitely keep an eye out for this.
To sum up, the Monarch is a very nice initiative and we hope that the ABILITY tablet will provide similar capabilities as well as new ones, thanks to our combination with a standard multimodal tablet equipped with localised haptic feedback. If you are interested, follow our progress on the website or on the social media!
 Stephanie Walker, Leslie Weilbacher and Hunter Summerlin (American Printing House). The Monarch: Tactile Access to Digital Learning. Online seminar: https://www.aph.org/events/the-monarch-tactile-access-to-digital-learning/
 Adkins, A., Sewell, D., & Cleveland, J. (2016). The Development of Tactile Skills. TX SenseAbilities Fall/Winter. Available online: https://www.tsbvi.edu/tx-senseabilities/issues/fall-winter-2016/the-development-of-tactile-skills