Web site opens new vistas for blind studentsWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Blind students throughout the country now have access to inexpensive instructional tactile materials thanks to a new Purdue University Web site.
"For the first time, individual schools can afford to provide their own learning materials for blind students," says Sue Wilder, Purdue's director of Tactile Access to Education for Visually Impaired Students.
"The drawings already on the Web site are among the first instructional materials using a new technology that is less expensive and easier to use than older tactile diagrams."
Within the past year, a new medium, capsule paper, has made it possible to create tactile graphics from a computer file. The images are stored as Adobe Acrobat documents that can be transmitted over computer networks and printed on laser printers. After an image is copied onto it, the capsule paper is heated. That makes the areas covered with copier toner expand and rise.
The special paper costs a little less than $1 per sheet. The heating unit costs less than $1,500. Subscriptions to the Purdue files start at less than $100, and computer files can cost as little as $2 per download.
The Web site has three sample illustrations: a chicken egg, a mathematical line graph and the chemical structure of a carbon compound. The sample illustrations are copyrighted by the university, but are free distributed.
The service evolved from a project initially funded three years ago to help two blind students take chemistry classes.
Wilder worked in the chemistry department when the tactile project began. "Fred Lytle, a professor of chemistry, worked out a way to automate the transcription of mathematical and scientific formulas during his spare time," Wilder says. "Someone told him that because of the complexity of Braille code in math and science, it couldn't be automated. He took that as a personal challenge.
"About the same time, Dave Schleppenbach, a chemistry student, was trying to find out if Braille texts for math and science could be produced in-house for a lower cost than the $5,000 to $10,000 per book that major publishers said they would charge.
"They were successful in using personal computers to automate a lot of the transcription. The work we do here is the applied result of that research."
Last January, the Office of the Dean of Students created TAEVIS as a new division to provide alternatives to the traditional print formats for students with visual impairments.
The staff takes illustrations, graphs and charts from textbooks or instructor materials and reduces the information to the essential elements. Staff members use computer programs to create new graphics and translate text to Braille. These new learning materials eventually are shared over the Web. The technology allows visually impaired students to have most of the same written materials their sighted peers have.
Purdue staff members from TAEVIS and other departments built the on-line library of more than 2,500 tactile diagrams and models for the sciences over the past four years.
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