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Primo: A Personal Odyssey of Inclusive Learning

My journey with Primo, an interactive tactile learning tool, began as a fervent endeavor to foster inclusivity and accessibility within educational spheres, especially for students grappling with blindness or low vision.

My aspiration was clear: to render learning more accessible and inclusive for all students.

Surprisingly, despite the staggering number of 2.2 billion blind and low-vision individuals worldwide, 80 percent in the US are unable to read Braille—a tactile reading system crucial for their literacy and employment prospects. Additionally, in my interviews, 8 out of 11 blind and low-vision individuals disclosed a lack of exposure to tactile images during their formative years in school or elsewhere. For those recently experiencing vision loss, the allure of understanding shapes and objects through touch was palpable, while those born with low vision or blindness expressed a deep-seated curiosity to comprehend the world through tactile means.

Diving into research, I uncovered two primary reasons for the widespread inability to read braille: the prevalence of retained vision and the educational system’s emphasis on sighted learning methodologies, neglecting tactile literacy. Mastering braille demands a considerable investment of time and the development of “tactual sensitivity”—the ability to discern objects or changes through fingertip sensations. 

Most importantly, all the materials come from sighted communities and are given to the blind and low-vision community, resulting in a very one-sided interaction. Additionally, these materials take a long time to be delivered to blind and low-vision students due to the process involving multiple steps, learning software, materials, making appointments, and meeting with experts.

With the research, I aim to craft interventions for learning through touch that can involve both the blind and sighted communities with a rapid production system, making the learning experience more interactive and engaging. To achieve this, I had to listen to people from the community first.

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With these revelations as my guiding light, I embarked on a year-long odyssey brimming with zeal, yet fraught with challenges. Chief among them was the daunting task of finding like-minded individuals who shared my fervor for inclusive education. As a newcomer to the blind and low-vision community, I navigated this uncharted terrain with creativity, seeking out events like the NYPL Accessibility Technology Fair, accessible museum tours, weaving class, and embroidery sessions. 

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It was here that I encountered a diverse spectrum of individuals—from former art educators turned entrepreneurs to museum curators dedicated to enhancing accessibility, visual impairment teachers who teaches student with visual impairment, and visual impairment teachers dedicated to educating students with visual impairments, among others.

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Among these luminaries was Chancey, an accessibility technology expert at the Andrew Heiskell Library whose insights proved invaluable. She not only illuminated the intricacies of tactile graphics and material selection but also shared her own journey as a blind advocate for tactile literacy.

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Yet, it was the serendipitous encounters with Rizz and JJ that truly shaped my trajectory. Rizz, a blind cartoonist, shared my excitement about making images more accessible to the blind and low vision community. Together, we invested in and exchanged ideas on enhancing tactile graphics. (I made tactile graphics with Rizz’s cartoon and send them to her, it was her first time having tactile graphics for her own work.)

Meanwhile, JJ, a seasoned expert in braille and tactile images, provided indispensable guidance and emotional support, steering me through moments of uncertainty.

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With consistent communication and feedback from advisors within the blind and low-vision community, I honed my prototypes, bringing me steadily closer to the final product.

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The journey wasn’t without its share of lessons. Foremost among them was the paramount importance of communication—imbued with kindness and empathy. Navigating conversations with sensitivity and respect became my lodestar as I gleaned insights from the diverse voices within the community.

Throughout my odyssey with Primo, I learned the transformative power of connecting with kindred spirits who share similar passion. Despite initial challenges, perseverance bore fruit, fostering not only personal growth but also a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and communities. Design ceased to be a mere tool; it became a conduit for empathy and understanding.

In the future, I hope and dream of creating spaces where students with diverse visual and physical abilities can learn, grow, and empathize with one another, fostering a culture of kindness and understanding.