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An experimental framework to learn how the visually impaired perceive tactile art.

Theatre of Hands

Collaborators: Belaku Academy and Medha Agarwal


Skills: Research, Ethnography, Participatory design, Experimentation

Target Audience: People who want to design for inclusivity

One of the final outputs


This project was born out of my desire to understand how the visually impaired create abstractions. The method to understand this was to try and understand how they piece together art in their minds. Being a visual designer, I rely on elements of design like lines, shapes, form, colour, space and textures composed using principles of design like contrast, emphasis, movement, repetition and balance. But what would these elements and principles be in a tactile medium? The outcome of this pursuit was a design for an experimental framework to help visually impaired children learn art and express themselves through it. It has been an organic process that evolved through many stages over the period of three months. It was developed based on long term engagement and collaboration with a group of visually impaired children from a blind school in Bangalore called Belaku Academy.

Empathy stage

My initial question was to understand how the visually impaired perceive art. As part of design thinking exercise, I employed a body mapping exercise to empathise with the visually impaired. I blindfolded myself and conducted a few day-to-day activities. After reading "The Promise of Empathy: Design, Disability and Knowing the other, I realised this approach was harmful. It had the potential to allow the designer to rely on their personal experience and subvert the lived experience of the blind. Used only as a process, empathy was not enough. I had to go beyond empathy.The result was a nested approach where empathy was used as a reflexive practice achieved by using various tools like Ethnography, Participatory Design and Action Research.

“Empathy allows us to talk about what it is to be the other, but does not raise the question ‘what it is to be “with” the other’

-Vinciane Despret
Research Tools

I decided to begin by visiting a blind school, called Belaku Academy. The empathetic process involved spending time with the visually impaired children by engaging in their daily routine, in the spirit of Ethnography. But only observation would not have sufficed. Participatory methods had to be employed for the children to spontaneously engage with the activities and hence sharing their thought processes. The overall structure was that of action research as I evaluated the insights at each stage effecting change in the behaviors of the ‘empathisers’ as well as the ‘empathised

Developing a creative Space

Based on the insights from the preliminary research, it was clear that most of them had never been exposed to creating art in this form. I had to begin by first teaching them how to use tactile materials and their possibilities before they could create something on their own out of it. But the question in front of me was So how do I go beyond imitation and teach without prioritising visual accuracy over tactile exploration? To achieve this, I designed art classes for the V.I (Pick a ring). It was divided into three parts
1.Material exploration:
2.Story Telling
3.Creative Self Expression

Exhibit Design

At the end of the workshop weeks, we setup an exhibit of all the children's work. Everyone was very excited to show each other their work and a formal exhibit space celebrating their creations was a novel and gratifying experience for them. Insights taken from this were used to make a better exhibit design as an inclusive space.

" The mis-en-scene of the blind is always inscribed in the theatre of the hands."

-Jaque Derrida
Key insights

From all of these exercises and exhibits, these were three of the main take aways:-

1. Abstraction is innate but it can be taught and improved.

2. Touch sips where vision gulps.

3. Like a film, meaning making happens in the fugue state between consecutive tactile experiences.

Future Scope

These insights can help in better design not just for the the differently abled but for everyone. Any design that engages all the 5 senses the most is likely to be more successful and fulfiling. Hence understanding how tactile abstraction works can help build products with richer experiences. Additionally, this project also demonstrates how one can approach empathy as a reflexive tool. The project also demonstrates methods to teach and engage the limitless cognitive and creative abilities of visually impaired students in artistic pursuits.

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