A New Language Could Help Bring Comic Books to the Blind

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Photo: Stuart Fox

Thanks to advances both high- and low-tech, more experiences previously inaccessible to the blind are now moving within reach: This past spring, for example, Twitter added a feature that translates tweets into Braille or audio text; an iPad app makes it possible to type emails in Braille from a tablet; and visually impaired kids have their own picture books, with images printed in 3-D beneath Braille words.

But there are still some pockets of sighted life that neither Braille nor text-to-speech technology can reach. One of them is comic books: Words, whether spoken or Braille, can describe setting and action and dialogue, but they can’t fully convey what it’s like to read a comic.

“Comic books have a language,” says comic artist Ilan Manouach. “They have specific devices” to convey certain actions or emotions, like “a lightbulb, [or] a drop of sweat,” that get lost when a visual story is translated into a fully language-based one.

But Manouach believes he’s found a way to overcome that particular hurdle: His latest project is Shapereader, a tactile language designed to give the blind their own comic books. Unlike Braille, it’s rendered in visuals rather than letters and words: Shapereader is made up of 210 “tactigrams,” distinct textures that each evoke a different person, action, emotion, or other story element. “Dogsled,” for example, is a series of interlocking diamonds; “to rest” is a pattern that looks a little like wheat; “anxiety” is a zigzag; one character is represented by a patch of horizontal lines. (You can check out more tactigrams on the project’s home page.)

A page of tactigrams from the shapereader comic Arctic Circle. (Ilan Manouach)

The first comic to use the language, a book called Arctic Circle — Manouach was inspired to develop Shapereader, he says, after a trip to the Arctic “where my whole visual landscape consisted of layers of dense snow imprinted by different animal traces” — will be on display in Seattle in September.

Unlike the typical comic book, Arctic Circle isn’t exactly something that can be rolled up in a backpack and taken on the subway: It’s made up of 57 wooden plates, collectively weighing in at more than 200 pounds. Still, it’s an interesting concept with an admirable goal: to help transform a beloved method of storytelling — one that’s been largely closed off for millions of people — into something more universal.