Transensational Objects: A pedagogical experiment on inclusive design

MIT Architecture intersession class worked with the Perkins School for the Blind toward new methods for accessibility

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Tactile Drawing, a project by course instructors Maroula Bacharidou and Athina Papadopoulou, used to demonstrate class methods. Image courtesy of Maroula Bacharidou and Athina Papadopoulou.

By Maroula Bacharidou (teaching fellow, MIT Department of Architecture) and Athina Papadopoulou (PhD candidate in computation, MIT Department of Architecture)

Architecture pedagogies tend to prioritize vision over the other senses. This vision-centric approach often makes us neglect aspects of accessibility and inclusivity in the spaces and objects we design. To explore inclusive design strategies for rendering spaces and objects accessible to the blind and visually impaired, during the 2019 MIT Independent Activities Period (IAP), teaching fellow Maroula Bacharidou and PhD candidate in computation Athina Papadopoulou — both members of the MIT Department of Architecture — developed and taught the inclusive design class Transensational Objects. The course title describes its method: the design of objects based on the translation of visual spatial properties into tactile or auditory properties and qualities, accessible to the blind.

The opportunity for offering this class was provided by the MIT Department of Architecture in the context of its Experiments in Pedagogy (a series of classes and activities that took place this academic year with the purpose of celebrating the department’s 150th anniversary), and the International Design Center, which hosted the class. Transensational Objects was a pedagogical experiment, addressing questions and methods beyond the established architecture curriculum.

From the early development of the class, the instructors consulted with educators and specialists at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, who played an important role in shaping the research questions, workflow, and outcomes of the class. During the three weeks of this project-based class, students had the opportunity to visit the Perkins campus multiple times to discuss with specialists the spatial experiences of the blind and associated contemporary challenges. The team of specialists — which included occupational therapists, art educators, researchers, and engineers — took part in brainstorming sessions and discussions focused on assistive technologies and communication methods for the blind.

While at Perkins, MIT students toured the campus to experience the sensory qualities that help the blind students orient themselves in space: the echo of spaces that are built in different heights or with different materials, the tactile symbols that are engraved on the walls, and the smells coming from the flower gardens. They also had the opportunity to learn about the history of Perkins: the different modes of tactile communication developed throughout history, and significant contributors to the education of the blind. Finally, they visited the different specialized spaces on campus: from the gym, where they ran blindfolded around the special running track; to the playground with the multisensory bend that also functions as a musical instrument; to the fabrication shop where members of the Perkins staff make customized furniture and assistive devices for its students.

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Tactile Graphics, a project by MIT graduate student Alan Lundgard. Image credit: Gerard Patawaran, courtesy of the course instructors.

Specialists from the MIT Assistive Technology Information Center also contributed to the development of the class, providing an overview of existing assistive technologies and feedback to students in the class reviews. Guided by the course’s instructors, assistive technology specialists, and Perkins educators, students identified spatial problems related to the everyday lives of blind individuals, pertaining to issues of navigation, spatial organization, information access, and artistic experience. Using the campus of the Perkins School for the Blind as a site of intervention, they developed objects of inclusive design — transensational objectsto address these problems.

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Tactile Navigation, a project by MIT undergraduate Michelle Xie. Images: Gerard Patawaran, courtesy of the course instructors.

The students, from various MIT departments, were encouraged to explore how computational tools and fabrication methods could benefit from inclusive design; class instructors were specialists in computational design. Students experimented with electronics, laser-cutting, multi-material 3D-printing, casting, and even knitting to develop sensory-inclusive objects, interfaces, and systems. Jill Qua, a graduate student in Integration Design and Management, developed an interface to make dance performances accessible to blind people by translating dance movement to vibration patterns, proposing a solution that could enhance the experience and participation of blind individuals in art performances. Michelle Xie, an undergraduate student in Architecture, developed an interface to help blind people orient themselves in public spaces to find the person they are meeting, proposing a solution to an everyday problem for many blind individuals. Jackie Chen, also an undergraduate student in Architecture, developed a spatial organization system using 3D-printed textiles to help blind people to orient themselves in space using tactile cues.

Jackie Chen, also an undergraduate student in Architecture, developed a spatial organization system using 3D-printed textiles to help blind people to orient themselves in space using tactile cues.

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MIT undergraduate Jacqueline Chen (far right) works on her Tactile Organization project with class co-instructor Athina Papadopoulou. Images courtesy of Maroula Bacharidou and Athina Papadopoulou.

Along with exploring tools and methods, students examined broader questions on inclusive design, architecture, and the senses: How does our experience change when translating spatial sensory information from one modality to another in order to render design accessible? Which aspects of inclusive design can be addressed in a general manner and which should be customized to an individual’s needs? How can we develop inclusive design solutions that move beyond navigation and information to address aspects of sensory experience?

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From left to right: Jillian Qua, graduate student; Maroula Bacharidou, class co-instructor; Dave Power, President and CEO of the Perkins School for the Blind; Alan Lundgard, graduate student; Athina Papadopoulou, class co-instructor; Kevin Hartigan, Director of Volunteer Services and Tours, Perkins School for the Blind; Michelle Xie, undergraduate student; Jacqueline Chen, undergraduate student. Image credit: Gerard Patawaran, courtesy of the course instructors.

David Power, president and CEO of the Perkins School for the Blind, followed the development of the class from its beginning and joined a class session in December. Power expressed his interest in continuing to work with MIT on issues of inclusive design from the perspective of design and technology disciplines: “It was a really exciting opportunity for us to work with MIT on the issues of design for accessibility. There is so much interesting new technology never before available for the blind to solve problems of information access, navigation, and other kinds of problems. This is hopefully just the beginning because there is so much opportunity for design in our field.”

More information about the course is available.

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