Galvanised by his desire to improve the lives of the visually-impaired, Shahzad Zaidi has been burning the midnight oil for the past five years in order to develop “tactile graphics”, which, according to him, help them ‘see’ through their hands.
He has created over 100 low-cost learning aids and games for the visually-challenged. These include Urdu and English alphabet books with pictures, a science book which depicts a solar system and cross-section of a cell, colouring books, maps and games such as tic-tac-toe.
Zaidi started designing these learning aids after his son, Ali Ghazi, lost his eyesight because of Stevens-Johnson syndrome. He recalled how Ali was once asked to remember the names of different shapes as a homework assignment. Zaidi felt that it was pointless for a visually-challenged person to simply remember the name of a shape without having a mental image of it. “It was then that I created a book filled with shapes for my son,” he said.
Initially, Zaidi experimented with sheets of transparency film, each of which had a shape’s name written on it in Braille. A cardboard cutout of the shape itself was pasted on the sheet so that it would stand out in relief. “My idea was to prepare representations of objects that could easily be perceived through the sense of touch,” said Zaidi. He explained that he used to guide his son’s finger over a shape and then on its name written in Braille.
“The idea electrified me and I was bent on preparing things that my son suggested,” said Zaidi. He also contacted a number of institutes, including the National Federation of the Blind in the United States of America and Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom, to exchange ideas and gain knowledge on the subject.
Over the years, Zaidi learnt, without any help, the art of embossing fine details of complex objects on a transparency film without using cardboard. A Camarasaurus skeleton is one such refined object that he has managed to emboss on a transparency film – the minutest details in each and every bone can be felt.
After several years of research and experimentation, Zaidi had learnt how to produce these low-cost tactile products in bulk for the benefit of the visually-challenged. In Pakistan, where tactile graphics are relatively unknown even among the stakeholders of special education, introducing it becomes an embarrassment for Zaidi when it is misperceived as “textile graphics”.
“The government and private stakeholders are apathetic towards special education while individuals like Shahzad Zaidi, who are painstakingly working on their own, can’t afford the mass production of tactile products,” said the principal of Ida Rieu School, Qudsia Khan.
She said that the tactile graphics enable the visually challenged to perceive two-dimensional imagery, which is an essential part of many subjects, including science and geography. Referring to a 32-year-old tactile book that she owns, Khan said that such graphics are easily available in developed countries and help visually-challenged students grow familiar with images of objects. These graphics require special printing techniques whose costs are beyond the reach of an individual or institution, and in absence of governmental or philanthropic support, blind students in Pakistan often grow up without any exposure to these learning aids.
Khan said that even a slate designed for writing Braille is imported from India at the cost of Rs250 to Rs300 and then sold for Rs1500 to Rs2000 in the local markets. “Why can’t we produce them within the country? The same goes for the tactile graphics.”
In her view, individuals like Zaidi need patronage. “To my knowledge, nobody is ready to sponsor him in his endeavors and I cannot say how long he can keep doing this without getting frustrated.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2012.