NSF Funds Project to Automate Conversion of Graphics to Tactile Form for Blind Students in STEM

October 14, 2004

The University of Washington (UW) has been awarded a $749,188 grant from the National Science Foundation (grant #IIS-0415273). This funding will be used to find the best ways to represent in tactile form the graphical images found in scientific, engineering, and mathematical books and papers, as well as in digital formats, and to automate as much of this work as possible. Completion of the project will result in the ability of more students with visual impairments to pursue these fields in high school, in college and in careers.

For many years, conversion of standard text to Braille output has been automated using Braille translation software along with refreshable Braille displays and Braille embossers. Tedious hand work is usually required, however, to convert graphical images into a tactile format. This cumbersome process presents a significant barrier to students with visual impairments who wish to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The current project will explore ways to automate the conversion of graphics from printed/electronic form to tactile format so that transcribers can efficiently convert graphical images to tactile form for students who are blind and so that blind and sighted users can also automatically translate common types of graphical images like bar and line charts found on web pages.

Dr. Richard Ladner of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering is the Principal Investigator on this NSF-funded project. Drs. Melody Ivory-Ndiaye, of the Information School, Rajesh Rao of Computer Science and Engineering, and Sheryl Burgstahler of Computing & Communications are Co-PIs. Dr. Ladner explains, "The transformation of graphs and charts to a tactile form requires the clever use of existing and new image processing and understanding techniques. Multicolored images must be transformed into very low resolution, with few colors, images to be accessible tactually. In addition, all the text in the image must be enlarged, relocated, and converted to Braille. Solving these problems is a key component of the research." Dr. Ivory states, "We are most interested in developing a tool which fits within transcribers' current work practices and enables them to meet the demand for image conversion in an efficient manner." Dr. Burgstahler reports, "In our outreach projects we work with students with all types of disabilities who are preparing for STEM college programs and careers. Blind students with whom we work face significant barriers because of the challenges in converting graphical images to a tactile form. An outcome of the current funded project will be to make STEM content more accessible to these capable students."

For more information about this project, consult http://tactilegraphics.ischool.washington.edu/.