3D Printing Inclusion: Support Visual Disabilities
Learn how 3D printers can support those with visual disabilities in education, workplaces, and everyday situations with affordable tactile aids!
3D printing can quickly produce infinitely customisable solid, tangible objects that withstand repeated handling. As such, the technology is ideally positioned to help those living with limited vision.
Additive manufacturing and 3D printers are well known for supporting people with physical disabilities by producing prosthetics and medical implants. They can do the same for visual impairments, but this application doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Read on as we explore how 3D printing supports visual disabilities, both in theory and in practice, and how it makes homes, schools, and workplaces more inclusive and accessible.
How 3D Printing Helps People with Visual Disabilities
With limited vision, people living with visual disabilities must rely on their other senses — particularly touch. 3D printing is in a prime position to help the visually impaired by providing them with customisable tactile objects.
3D-printed tactile aids can allow partially or fully blind people to access information and experiences that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to come by. They can get their hands on objects and models that may be too large, small, inaccessible, or dangerous to come by in real life.
As an example, imagine describing an elephant to a blind child. With a 3D-printed model of the animal, it’s much easier to get the child to understand the elephant’s large ears and long trunk and tusks.
3D printing makes all manners of tactile aids more accessible to the visually impaired in two ways —low-cost production and ease of customising and sharing.
First, 3D printers are much cheaper and smaller than traditional equipment used to produce tactile aids. High-quality 3D printers are compact and sell for as little as a few hundred pounds, making them suitable for even private homes.
Second, prior to printing, 3D-printed objects exist only as digital CAD or STL files. They are easy to create and customise with free 3D modelling applications with only a basic skillset in using these programs.
STL files also have small file sizes, which makes them highly shareable. Anyone who has created a useful tactile aid can share it online, making it possible for people all over the world to download the STL and 3D print it.
But how can we realise these benefits in the real world? Let’s take a look at some practical examples of how 3D printing benefits disabilities children, students of all ages, adult professionals, and more.
Letting Children Be Children
It’s essential that children get to be children. 3D printers can help them do that, allowing children with visual disabilities to play and learn as those with full vision.
Reading books is crucial for children, both for entertainment and education. Although visually challenged children can learn to read braille, most children’s books contain pictures which they naturally can’t appreciate. Various projects, like Build a Better Book (BBB) from the University of Colorado, are solving this problem through 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
BBB has used 3D printers to produce affordable children’s books that feature raised 2.5D reliefs on the pages, above braille text. This way, children who can’t see are able to feel the approximate shapes of the objects in the story and learn what they’re like in real life.
However, BBB — and many other projects like it — aren’t limited to books. In a similar vein, they have created tactile board games and dice that use raised details and different textures to mark the game pieces. Such innovations allow visually impaired children to enjoy fun games with their friends and families, no matter the players’ visual ability.
Yet, 3D printing helps with more than fun and games. Many partially blind children rely on their strong eyeglasses to see — but children being children, these glasses can break. It can take days or weeks to get replacement frames, which can cost a lot.
The staff and students at Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired turned to 3D printing to help students get new frames. They use 3D scanners to digitise students’ glass frames so that they can print emergency replacements in case of accidents.
And best of all, older students interested in science and engineering operate the printers to help out their peers!
Supporting Education at All Levels
Visual impairments often prevent students, whether in Year 1 or in university, from using most printed learning materials. Even the 2.5D tactile graphics mentioned earlier aren’t ideal for communicating complex concepts, particularly in maths and science.
3D printers can produce fully three-dimensional objects and models that allow students with visual disabilities to learn more effectively. According to the Diagram Centre, research has shown that 3D models keep visually impaired students more invested, which improves their learning results.
For example, imagine a blind child attempting to learn geography. Handing them a globe or a map will not help, as to the child’s fingers, it’s nothing more than a smooth ball or paper.
Armed with a 3D printer, a teacher can make maps with each country distinguished by lines or varying textures. The child can now learn the shapes of different countries and their size and location relative to each other as a visually abled child can.
Both individual teachers and organisations have set up websites to share 3D printable teaching aids. For example, the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh launched the 3D4VIP project that shared 25 objects designed for learners with visual disabilities. 3D4VIP has since become a part of the Europe-wide Tactiles.eu project.
Improving Work & Research Opportunities
Workplaces present a new challenge to visually challenged people. Although braille and computer voice programs can help those with visual disabilities work, there are situations where novel approaches are necessary.
One famous example of using 3D printing to help the visually impaired in a professional setting comes from the collaboration between partially blind post-doctoral student Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer from Yale University and biochemist Bryan Shaw from Baylor University. Guberman-Pfeffer struggled with reading research papers, as interpreting the figure graphics was extremely slow with his limited vision.
Together, Guberman-Pfeffer, Shaw, and other visually impaired scientists developed 3D printable tactile lithophanes. These small, rectangular plates visualise biological research data, such as protein structures, in a way that blind and sighted scientists can examine together.
The research team worked to make the lithophanes as small and thin as possible to reduce material costs and printing time while still keeping them practical. They are much cheaper to produce than comparable thermoformed graphics and braille textbooks used before, which can cost thousands of pounds apiece.
During tests, Guberman-Pfeffer and Shaw discovered the lithophanes helped visual disabilities chemists perform as well as their sighted colleagues — if not better. Similar solutions could also increase inclusivity in other workplaces and universities.
Experiencing Life Through Touch
In addition to the above situations, 3D printing can provide the visually impaired with general life experiences they would otherwise miss. 3D-printed “photographs” are one way to achieve this.
For example, picture a blind mother having the first ultrasound of her first baby. With a 3D printer, the ultrasound image can be transformed into a tactile blueprint that allows the mother to “see” this once-in-a-lifetime image she otherwise couldn’t.
Some museums have also embraced 3D printing to allow visually disabilites to “view” masterpieces from famous artists. By printing raised or textured versions of classic paintings, blind people can experience, for example, the smile of Mona Lisa.
Last but not least, 3D printing can simply help the visual disabilities find their way around. Tactile maps can help blind people more easily navigate their homes, schools, workplaces, and public spaces. Such maps have been used to help military veterans and students alike.
Right Technology for the Right Tactile Aids
Any 3D-printed tactile aids can greatly improve accessibility and inclusivity in childcare, schools, and workplaces. However, 3D printing isn’t a monolithic technology, and different kinds of 3D printers are better suited for different kinds of aids.
Fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printers, such as Ultimaker or BCN3D, are a suitable choice when producing simple tactile quickly and cost-effectively is the primary focus. FFF printers use melted plastic filaments to build objects in layers. They are generally simple to operate and affordable, making them accessible to schools or care facilities.
Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers use focused laser beams to harden liquid resins into solid objects. They can produce extremely fine and smooth surface details, which makes them ideal for producing detailed tactile aids for work and research purposes, for example. However, the resins are generally more challenging to handle and may be toxic, so SLA printers may not be suitable for use around young students, for example.
Yet, these are only two options. 3D printing is a versatile technology that can help transform the lives of people with visual challenges and improve inclusivity in schools and workplaces.
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