Blind students throughout the country can take advantage of a new online service from Purdue University that helps them read scientific graphs, charts, and diagrams normally geared toward a sighted world.

For the past two years, Purdue’s Tactile Access to Education for Visually Impaired Students (TAEVIS) program has generated thousands of scientific diagrams to aid blind students. The drawings have puffy, raised lines and Braille labels, bringing visual information to those who can’t see.

Those diagrams–which take countless hours to generate–have now been made available on the internet, giving blind students everywhere a chance to visualize math and science concepts in a whole new way.

“It’s exciting; it’s breaking frontiers,” said Sue Wilder, director of the TAEVIS program. “It’s really challenging the system that currently exists.”

Worth a thousand words

Up until the early ’80s, Wilder explained, blind students were strongly discouraged from pursuing science careers. “They were simply told it’s too visual, it’s too expensive, go take a liberal arts course,” she said.

Eventually, a special Braille code was developed that eased the translation of mathematical and scientific information. Textbooks could be translated, but the illustrations that filled the pages of these books were marked with a simple Braille tag: illustration omitted.

“That information was not being transmitted to the blind student,” Wilder said.

But two years ago, a special type of paper hit the market. It’s backed with plastic and coated with a heat-sensitive chemical. A drawing is printed onto the paper in black ink, then the paper is run through a heater, which people in the TAEVIS office call “the toaster.”

The heat causes the black ink lines, Braille letters, and markings to bubble up, leaving a raised image.

“It really gives the blind student, the Braille readers, equal access to the material,” Wilder said. “This way, the students get to absorb the data, analyze it, and draw their own conclusions, which is a more complete learning experience.”

Cary Supalo, a 23-year-old blind student working toward a double major in chemistry and communications at Purdue, agreed. “As they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words,” he said. “From an access standpoint, it’s made my life a lot easier.”

Saving time and money

The main roadblock in providing the special diagrams for blind students is the cost and time involved. The TAEVIS office is bustling with nine full-time employees and five part-time students working with 20 computers and a $40,000 Braille embosser.

Photocopying the diagrams from a standard textbook onto the special paper doesn’t work, because the line widths are incorrect, the colors create confusing patterns, and the lack of Braille labels means the material is nearly impossible to read and interpret. So TAEVIS staff members redraw the diagrams and add Braille characters to explain them.

The program is funded by Purdue, receiving $500,000 a year to service Purdue’s three blind students and one student in Illinois.

“It is a huge expense for schools like Purdue,” Wilder said.

That’s where TAEVIS Online comes in. The web site is subscription based–costing less than $100 to subscribe–and allows schools anywhere to download the more than 2,500 images TAEVIS has in its library. Each download costs about $2.

Once an image has been downloaded, it can be printed onto the special paper, called capsule paper, with a standard laser printer and run through the “toaster.” The capsule paper is about 70 cents a sheet and the “toaster” costs less than $1,500.

Wilder believes schools that don’t have the time or resources to re-draw scientific diagrams can save time and money by accessing the TAEVIS site. “Why should anyone else have to draw it once we’ve drawn it?” she asked.