Sensory Reading, an Art to be Explored

For blind and visually impaired (1) readers, their ears are their eyes. Their favoured way to access literature is through audio books, a fact which is not well known by the non-blind community. Also unknown is the fact that many people in the blind community are not able to read Braille and that only about one to five percent of books published worldwide are accessible to the blind or visually impaired population, according to the Spanish National Organisation of the Blind (ONCE). Moreover, of this small percentage, most tactile books are aimed at children. Philipp Meyer, a student of Interaction Design from Denmark, decided to challenge all these conventions when he published ‘Life’ in 2014, the first comic for blind adults. In this article, Aida Cercas and Noelia Martinez introduce us to the world of sensory arts and literature.


Aida Cercas & Noelia Martínez

It would seem that Braille has undergone a strong resurgence recently, or so it might appear from its application to many objects in daily use. However, the use of this alphabet is dwindling (2among the blind population. The regulations that promote the use of Braille on everyday objects, such as the European directive 2004, have not included strategies to promote learning of the alphabet.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, only 1% of the nearly 2 million that are visually impaired are Braille users. In Spain, the majority of blind people access literature using digital audio books, although this format has suffered from a loss of quality since the financial crisis: “Before, the books were narrated by people, but now, because of the cuts, the voices are synthetic. After a while it becomes unbearable“, said blind psychology student Alicia Canalejas in an interview with El Mundo.

Despite the efforts by international organisations like The Treaty of Marrakesh to improve the accessibility of books for blind people, it has been innovative and pioneering projects, such as Philipp Meyer’s comic or Remedios Rabadán’s adaption of Picasso’s work, that are contributing to guarantee the right to read in a wide range of formats. 

[cml_media_alt id='4963']Cosmopolita Scotland Disabilities Comic Life 10[/cml_media_alt]
Image of ‘Life’ by Philipp Meyer

In 2014, Philipp Meyer studied the possibility of creating a short tactile comic for the blind – a highly visual and seemingly complicated format to adapt for visually impaired people. “I wanted to find out if it’s possible to create a short comic that is readable for people without eyesight.” explained Meyer. ” My plan was to develop some kind of tactile story on paper (…) I started my project by going to a library for people with reading disabilities called Nota (Nationalbibliotek for mennesker med læsevanskeligheder). I expected to find a public library where people sit and read Braille books. That was not the case.” The Danish organization believed in the project and offered Meyer a contract that included the possibility of getting in touch with blind people and using Nota’s facilities.

To start the project, Philipp first had to understand how the world of tactile representations works and how people who are born blind perceive the world. In order to achieve this, he read various research studies about the subject and collaborated with Michael Drud, a Braille proofreader at Nota who is blind from birth and has a keen interest in the visual world tactile illustrations. Through these investigations, he discovered that, to avoid confusion, “objects need to be drawn simply and clearly, that there should be no shadows included in the image and that it is best not to draw the objects in perspective but either from the front, the side or the top.

[cml_media_alt id='4958']Cosmopolita Scotland Disabilities Comic Life 5[/cml_media_alt]
Image of ‘Life’ by Philipp Meyer

Meyer’s comic, which he titled ‘Life’,  reduces the images to basics and its graphics in each panel are limited to tactile circles. Meyer looked for simplicity because the perception of a tactile image is opposite to visual perception. A sighted person sees the both the full picture and the details at once. However, a blind person first feels the details that will help them to understand the whole picture. Also, if they don’t have experience with this type of reading, they need to understand first what the image represents. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for them to understand the whole image.

Multi-sensory cultural experiences

[cml_media_alt id='4966']La esencia de Picasso_Remedios Rabadan[/cml_media_alt]
‘The Essence of Picasso’ by Remedios Rabadán

The biggest challenge faced by authors who aim to develop comics for the blind is getting readers to perceive purely visual elements such as colour and outlines (3). Despite these difficulties, there are even examples of tactile adaptations of paintings for the blind, such as Remedios Rabadán’s book “The Essence of Picasso”, a project that has overcome this challenge with a great deal of imagination. The author attempts to move the blind reader by bringing them closer to 12 paintings by the famous Spanish artist in a multi-sensory way. She used the technique of micro-encapsulation of flavours and fragrances, establishing a code of scent-colour combined with tactile images. This way, the reader feels and relates to the form of Picasso’s dove, for instance, through the scent of orange blossom. The aim is primarily to stimulate the reader, as no one can say for sure what a work of art  smells like. A reader who does not know Picasso’s work will be able to touch it and evoke, through smell, feelings that the author has connected to the painting. 

[cml_media_alt id='4950']Portada de 'El libro negro de los colores' de Menena Cottin y Rosana Faría[/cml_media_alt]
Front page of ‘The Black Book of Colours’ by Menena Cottin & Rosana Faría

In “The Black Book of Colours”, Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria invite the sighted reader to step inside the world of a blind child and experience colour through the lack of it. Colours are discovered and felt through embossed (4) illustrations. In addition, every two pages there is a description of the colours written in Braille and printed words as they are understood by the main character, Thomas: It says: “Brown crunches under his feel like fall leaves. Sometimes it smells like chocolate, and other times it stinks”.

In December 2014, the writer José Grajales and the graphic novelist Bernardo Fernández published the trilogy “Sensus, the universe in his eyes”, the first Mexican comic book in Braille. The book tells the journey of an astronaut who must learn to be part of a community of eyeless beings, after having an accident and ending up on a planet where his sight is not useful. Although the project was received with enthusiasm by the blind community, readers are still asking for more inclusive books with content more related to the comic literature. “I would like to stories that include us in the fantasy that surrounds superhero comics and not only stories to raise awareness”, says Marco Antonio Martinez, a Sensus reader, in an interview with El País.

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Sensory languages

Life and Sensus are both comics that tell stories with a beginning, middle and end. The reader is placed away from the scene and reads in third person. However, their subject matters and the way both books were developed is totally different. 

[cml_media_alt id='5363']Front page of 'Sensus' by Jorge Grajales y Bernardo Fernández ‘BEF’[/cml_media_alt]
Front page of ‘Sensus’ by Jorge Grajales y Bernardo Fernández ‘BEF’

Philipp Meyer broke more rules with the way he chose to tell a love story, developing a unique, embossed, dotted code. He built the story using 24 comic panels  containing tactile circles. Braille is used only once in the book, to explain how the circle system works. “I realized that doing a comic by simply creating a tactile scene/ environment that can be touched doesn’t seem quite right. It would be a poor transformation of the comic medium for a blind reader (…) I think this is quite remarkable and shows how powerful the comic medium actually is. Out of simple circles carefully positioned in panels people create a love story. Not only that, everybody understood the story, people even made interesting interpretations of it and noticed things I haven’t even though of while creating it. The words used to describe the story were not circles but peoplechild or death,” says Meyer.

Sensus, in contrast, uses Braille at the end of the book and above some panels containing non-tactile, graphical outlines. “It is important to give us the two parts of the story, we only stayed with the textual part and we don’t have the description of the images”, said Itzel Romero to El País.

Braille can be a literary resource used to describe graphical images, if they are not tactile, and to allow for the story to be understood and enjoyed. However, it is not the only resource and its use is not as common as we think. The challenge to promote reading among the blind is in making the process of creation, the themes and the adaption of the books more inclusive. Visually impaired people have the same need to access information as sighted people, independently of the format. Accessibility to reading should be a universal, unquestionable right.

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Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Visually impaired (person).

Definición: partially or completely blind.
Ejemplo: “For blind and visually impaired readers, their ears are their eyes.”; “Para los lectores que han perdido total o parcialmente la visión, sus oídos son sus ojos”
Traducción: persona con problemas visuales, persona con alguna discapacidad visual.

(2) Dwindling.

Definición: to become smaller; diminish.
Ejemplo: “the use of this alphabet is dwindling among the blind population”; “Sin embargo, la utilización de este alfabeto es cada vez menor entre la población ciega.”
Traducción: decreciente, menguante.

(3) Outline.

Definición: the line by which a figure or object is defined or bounded;contour; a drawing that is only a line, without shading or modeling of the form.
Ejemplo: “[…] is getting readers to perceive purely visual elements such as colour and outlines”; “La percepción de elementos puramente visuales como el color y el trazado gráfico”.
Traducción: trazado, dibujo, diseño.

(4) Embossed.

Definición: to raise or represent (surface designs) in relief; to decorate (a surface) with raised ornament.
Ejemplo: “Colours are discovered and felt through embossed illustrations.”; “Los colores se descubren y se sienten a través de ilustraciones en relieve.”
Traducción: estampado/tallado/grabado en relieve.

Have worked in this article:

Authors: Aida Cercas y Noelia Martínez

Edition: Noelia Martínez

Proofreader: Alex Owen-Hill

Translation: Noelia Martínez

Use of Spanish for English Speakers: Noelia Martínez (Not Just Words).

Images from Philipp Meyer, Menena Cottin y Bernando Fernández ‘BEF’. Picture of ‘The Essense of Picasso’ given by Remedios Rabadán to Fundación Montemadrid.

Autor: Noelia Martinez

Periodista con especialidad en estudios africanos y gran experiencia en interculturalidad (Escocia, Filipinas, estudios africanos, España). Emprendedora autónoma, fundadora de Not Just Words, empresa proveedora de servicios de traducción (ING>ESP), comunicación y redacción de contenido. Twitter @peli_1982 o Linkedin.

Specialised journalist in African Studies with great experience in intercultural issues (Scotland, Philippines, African Studies, Spain). Self-employed entrepreneur trading as Not Just Words providing translation (EN>SP) communication and content writing services. Twitter @peli_1982 or Linkedin.

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