Intenionally Adapting for Accessibility: Drawing with Students Who are Visually Impaired (QuickDraw)

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 27 seconds

What happens when you have a valuable but very very visual activity and you have people in the room who are blind? (I say blind and not visually impaired here, because someone who has low vision may be able to do this without as much adaptation).

I believe that accessibility is an attitude. Sure, there are laws and there are technical moves you can make to make your class more accessible to people who have various disabilities (see my playlist here), but there are also situations that require creativity and imagination.

I’ve been using the game QuickDraw in my classes for years to demonstrate pattern recognition as an intro to how machine learning works. I’ve written about my use of QuickDraw already.

If you haven’t played it before, you should! It is a game by Google where you are given a word and given 20 seconds to try to Doodle it, while the Google AI tries to guess what you’re drawing (supposedly it doesn’t know what word you can see). Basically, Google used this game to train its AI on how people Doodle certain objects. It works in many languages and playing it can uncover lots of interesting things about machine learning, including the potential for bias.

Anyway! What is new is that this semester I had multiple students who were visually impaired. I have sometimes given alternative activities when I thought there was a tool or activity that was inaccessible. But this time, I tried to imagine finding a way to make this work with students who were visually impaired. 

I have to admit that I was inspired that one of my students said she could draw and deal with things like graphs, so this broadened my imagination slightIy, but I knew her experience was not common (many born blind will never have held/used a pen or pencil). I also want to admit that I did not get this right the first time. At first, I asked a different blind student to show me how she would draw some shapes on our interactive whiteboard. That didn’t work well, partly because of the whiteboard itself, partly because of other reasons.

Eventually, I settled on a pair technique. A sighted person (for now, me) sitting beside one who is visually impaired. When QuickDraw suggests a word, before I click on the button to start drawing it (20 second timer), I ask the person who is visually impaired to tell me how they would imagine drawing it, and then I would follow their instructions and we would see if QuickDraw recognized their drawing. When we finish, the game shows us how other people had doodled the same thing, and I would look through how other people had drawn the same items we had drawn and describe to them how others had drawn it and we would discuss.

Some really interesting things came up in this exercise:

First, sometimes, the visually impaired person (VIP) would ask me to draw something that was actually undrawable as a doodle. I don’t remember the details now, but perhaps one time we were drawing beach and they said sand. Of course there is sand, but you can’t draw sand alone as a doodle, it needs more context. So I prompted further  and interestingly they added things like a starfish rather than umbrella or boat. I am guessing when they go to the beach, they touch things like starfish, but don’t interact with boats necessarily, or see them, obviously?

Second, the VIPs would sometimes focus on details of something that were not strikingly visible, so not the way a sighted person might draw it. For example, when doodling a bike, they wanted me to focus on the seat and the peddle, probably because that was the part they would have touched if they were experiencing a bike, whereas a sighted person would focus on the large wheels, since those are the most unique visually striking aspects of a bike.

Finally, I was most surprised by how much fun we had, how much we laughed, and how the students themselves came at end of semester and commented on how valuable this experience was for them – and they mentioned fun.

There are a lot of things I adapt in my class so that students who cannot see can still work independently. With a lot of new technology, most things are possible this way. But with extremely visual activities, we can still find or pave a way, and I actually kind of liked the discussion element of it, that we were negotiating how to draw something before drawing it, and the laughs. When sighted students do it on their own,  it was more of a personal reflective experience. This kind of transformed the activity, made it more social and involved some critical thinking, too, as we discussed why and how we would include certain elements versus others.

I’d love to hear more stories about how people adapt activities that seem impossible to make accessible for people with certain disabilities. I wonder if I could ask one of my former students to record a video with me demo-ing how we did this live.

Featured image is a screenshot from QuickDraw, the screen after you finish that shows you how other people drew the same thing, in this case, a cellphone

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