All Articles by Camilla Sterne

2 Articles

See California Like Never Before: MAD Lab creates its largest low vision and tactile map yet

Photo: A close up shows the raised tactile features and brights blues and greens of this accessible map of California.

In the era of Google, reading a map can be deceptively simple. The 664 miles from say, Redding to San Diego, can seem like a simple calculation of hours, minutes, or transit stops – but truly understanding a place’s geography is not so straightforward. That’s why our state’s most reputable sources for accessible education tapped LightHouse to create a map worthy of the institution: encompassing the mountains, rivers, desert expanses and the varied, beautiful patterns of California.

Maps give us the bigger picture, show us how the earth unfolds and inform us how to traverse it – all opportunities blind people crave equally with their sighted peers. Unfortunately, most maps are not accessible. But after months of work, LightHouse’s MAD Lab is proud to present a three-foot large print, braille and tactile map of the entire state of California. It is their biggest tactile map yet.

Commissioned by the State Braille and Talking Book Library in Sacramento, the map will be part of a temporary display at the California State Capitol Building in January. It will later be moved to its permanent home at the Braille and Talking Book Library in Sacramento.

The map is 40 inches tall and 34 inches wide and was printed in six individual sections that make up the completed map. It was printed on the LightHouse’s new UV flatbed printer. High contrast coloration and large print facilitate viewing for people with low vision, and a selection of tactile symbols and fill textures denote cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, forests and deserts.

The whole map of California.
The whole map of California.

The state map went through many iterations in the design process, partially because the MAD Lab designers were met with the challenge of creating background fill textures for lakes and forests that, when touched, didn’t compete with symbols for specific landmarks.

“We had to figure out how to create varied textures, so you can tell there are different features, but also fade into the background enough so mountains and rivers could be felt on top as distinct landforms,” says Designer and Accessible Media Specialist Julie Sadlier.

By scaling down the size of the texture, Julie says they were able to achieve this. The first full draft of the map was printed in early December. The LightHouse’st Frank Welte was the first blind person to see the map after it was assembled.

A close-up shot demonstrates some of the fill textures Julie speaks of, like the circular green texture indicating a forest.
A close-up shot demonstrates some of the fill textures Julie speaks of, like the circular green texture indicating a forest.

“I’m a California Native, so I’ve seen some tactile maps of the state before but this one was probably the biggest tactile map of California I’ve ever seen,” says Frank. “It was fun to explore parts of California with which I’m not familiar, like the Northeastern part.”

And though exploring California is a perk, the overarching goal of the display is to raise awareness about the work of the Braille and Talking Book Library and its role in braille literacy and services for the blind and low vision community.

“One of the hardest things in the network of libraries serving the blind is getting the word out about our work,” says Director of the library Mike Marlin. “We provide a free service, so this display is a really helpful outreach tool. It gets our work in front of legislators and the public.”

Frank too, hopes the map encourages more institutions and organizations to make tactile maps and other material available to their communities.

“I think it is wonderful for tactile graphics to be given high visibility, so that the general public can appreciate their value as we in the blind community already do,” he says.

MAD Lab is an important resource in collaborating with organizations to make these kinds of accessible tactile tools available. The MAD Lab has earned a reputation for producing fabulous tactile media of all kinds, including raised line drawings, tactile graphics and tactile maps like this one for Alcatraz, and other GGRNA maps – for everything from Burning Man to BART.

For a rate sheet or an informal quote on a business project, contact MADLab@lighthouse-sf.org or call 415-694-7349.

High School Students Collaborate to Create First-Known Braille Yearbook for their Blind Classmate

Photo: A smiling brunette Maycie reads one volume of the yearbook stacked on top of its three additional volumes. CREDIT John Burgess/The Press Democrat

A school yearbook is a contradictory bit of nostalgia, a time capsule of days you either yearn to forget or wish you could relive. Regardless, it’s a trip down memory lane that everyone should have a chance to take.

For better or worse, 18-year-old Maycie Vorreiter ordered a yearbook every year. And yet, for the Enchanted Hills Camp veteran, receiving the standard print yearbook was never very useful seeing as Maycie, now a graduate of Windsor High School, has been blind since birth.

But early this year, the yearbook’s Editor-in-Chief Charlie Sparacio decided is was time Maycie received a yearbook she could really use. After winning $500 at a 2015 summer yearbook camp, the 18-year-old editor cooked up the idea of surprising Maycie with a 2015-16 yearbook printed entirely in braille. Advocates for the blind say this may be the first-ever braille yearbook.

What does a braille yearbook look like?

“I was so surprised. Honestly, it was the last thing I was expecting,” says Maycie. “What would it look like? I had this picture in my head of it being 10 to 15 volumes.”

The entire Windsor High School yearbook fit neatly into four volumes and, though it ended up costing more than $500 to source, could easily be printed by an agency like LightHouse at an affordable rate. There’s no traditional writing or design on the cover or inside the yearbook, just heavy white paper with a black spiral binding and a small label on the cover. Photographs were omitted from the braille version, but photo captions were included with lists of the students pictured in each photograph, allowing Maycie to have the same knowledge as her friends of who made it into the pages of high school history.

Maycie has enjoyed many summers meeting other blind students at Enchanted Hills Camp – in fact, she met her best friend there when she was 7 – but in a mainstream school setting, it’s important to be able to talk about the same stuff as the other students.

Though every school creating an annual braille yearbook is (quite literally) a tall order, Maycie thinks it’s a gesture that should be extended to each blind or visually impaired student in his or her senior year of high school.

“It was one of those really awesome moments that I would want to relive again, because it was done in braille and it has never been done before,” says Maycie, recalling the moment she received the yearbook in October. “My hope is that in the future other visually impaired students will get a braille yearbook for their senior year, too.”

After graduating from Windsor High, Maycie enrolled at the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany, CA. Though she says mobility can be particularly challenging in the East Bay’s busy streets, she says she’s starting to get familiar with the city and learn the tricks of navigating on her own.

Braille equals literacy

Maycie is part of the less than 10 percent of the blind population that use braille – a number that LightHouse has long worked to increase. She has been reading and writing braille since she was 3 years old and used Perkins braillers and Braille note taking devices throughout high school. Braille, she reminds us, is an invaluable skill for blind students.

“I’ve used braille pretty much forever,” says Maycie. “I don’t ever want to give up braille. Braille is my way of reading and writing, and I don’t ever want to lose it.”

The LightHouse’s MAD Lab specializes in making materials like Maycie’s yearbook accessible – for clients small and large. Any media that facilitates independent education, communication and navigation for the blind community is fair game in our book.

We offer braille translation, audio recording and large print production, including conversion to DAISY formats for audio, in addition to the many forms of embossed and 3D graphics that we create on contract for consumers around the world. Recent big hits include the Apple iOS9 braille manual (available at our store), which consists of five volumes measuring 6 ½ inches high when stacked and weighing close to 10 pounds. The MAD Lab is currently translating the iOS 10 braille manual, which, at 82,164 words, will be larger yet. It may seem like a lot of weight, but that’s how important literacy is to the blindness community.

The MAD Lab produces a wide range of tactile media, including raised line drawings, tactile graphics and tactile maps like this one for Alcatraz, and other GGRNA maps – for everything from Burning Man to BART.

For a rate sheet or an informal quote on a business project, contact MADLab@lighthouse-sf.org.