Most of us start to draw at a young age and it can be an important skill especially in math and science.
However, for people who are blind, getting that early exposure to drawing is difficult. A Burlington company called E.A.S.Y. is working to change that by giving the blind much needed tools to draw.
They call their tools the inTACT sketchpad and eraser. The sketchpad bright red or blue and roughly the size of an iPad. A magnetic frame secures a special piece of plastic, and a stylus is used to draw. Whenever lines or shapes are drawn, the plastic pops up so the image can be felt.
Josh Coffee, president and co-founder of E.A.S.Y., says there's been a lack of affordable tools up until now.
“There was clear need in the community for a product for tactile drawing that was cost effective that was easy to use," Coffee explains, "that kids could pick up and engage with, like their sighted peers do with crayons and regular paper.”
E.A.S.Y. was started as a senior design course at the University of Vermont.
In 2011, during his senior year, Coffee was working with two of engineering professors on developing tactile drawing tools. When the course ended, they decided to take the project a step further.
“The answer was clear, it was simply too good to let it languish as an interesting academic project. So we formed a company,” said Michael Rosen, co-vice president and founder.
He said after founding the company, it took until 2014 to get their current products on the market. While there was another tactile drawing board prior to the inTACT sketchpad, it didn’t have an eraser, so if a student made a mistake, they’d have to start over.
According to Coffee, the other drawing board was also more expensive, clunkier and not as user-friendly.
He said that the lack of a simple drawing tool for children that are blind was too important an issue to ignore.
“Draw early, draw often,” Coffee said. “If you do that kids will be familiar with drawing. They’ll be comfortable interpreting graphics that are tactile. They’ll be comfortable drawing their own graphics. And then when they get to geometry class or calculus or to an art class in high school, they’ll have those basic skills their sighted peers develop and take for granted at an early age.”
Carlton Walker, an educator, says the sketchpad helps in school. Walker is manager of Braille education programs at the National Federation for the Blind. Her daughter, a freshman in high school, is blind.
"She loves science, she loves math,” Walker said. “She had heard people say that blind people can’t do math, blind people can’t do science, which is bonk.”
Walker says one key aspect is that the inTACT sketchpad is easy for both blind and sighted people to use, allowing for more collaboration.
“The sketchpad allows her to really compete in those classes," Walker explains. "[It] allows her to express what she is thinking to her teacher or her peers and allows them to describe it back to her again through that sketchpad."
Now a year after they’ve started selling the sketchpad and eraser, EASY is gaining more national attention.
In October, they received a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Health. They’re using the grant to develop a new prototype of a printer to print tactile graphics and translate conventional graphics to tactile graphics. With the inTACT sketchpad, eraser and printer in development, the next step is to go digital.
“We live in a digital age and to not have access to [computer generated] graphics, it really puts blind students at a disadvantage," Coffee says. "Especially where almost all of education is moving towards digital disbursement and collection.”
As EASY moves forward, they hope to make the tools for people who are blind to work across any platform, whether it’s digital drawings for a PowerPoint or a picture for their grandparents.