Anticipate, Empower, Explore - Reading Kit Design for Visually Impaired Children in Australia

Paul Morris

Paul Morris started his career as a designer and commercial illustrator before moving into television for a period in the late eighties. His major professional interests include design explorations around corporate branding and, through involvement with the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust and the Dromkeen Society (Children’s Literature Art Museum), the art of children’s picture book illustration. Paul lectures in Graphic Design and Illustration at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus.
His most recent research aims to deliver reading material to visually impaired children in a more inclusive manner, at the same time as targeting the non-professional carer or parent of the child in a confidence building and supportive approach.

Little Grub image

The Little Grub Reading Kit is a re-development of existing kit forms that hold books and other reading materials for blind and visually impaired children. This paper explores the idea of the kit as a holding device and how it interacts with, informs and becomes part of its changeable contents, as well as how users interact with it. The kit challenges the stereotypical design, delivery and use of past and present institutionalised products, both in form and function.

This re-design of existing reading kits is not only aimed at young visually impaired children from 0 to 8 years of age, but their parents, carers and siblings.

The task of delivering early intervention services to visually impaired children is a collaborative effort involving professionals and families. Of particular concern, is the visually impaired child in remote populations throughout Australia. Here, parents undertake a crucial role in the implementation of professional programs and their delivery to their children. Much of this program content is implemented by the parent, using and interpreting professional information in the home environment. The physical material that is provided, such as tactile reading materials, audio stories and tactile story book characters and objects, are developed for and aimed directly at the child. The Little Grub Reading Kit has been designed to communicate to the parents and family, as well as the child, with a view to increasing the mutual understanding and confident use of the materials housed within and with the aim of building confident use of the material.

This point is echoed in a personal communication with Pia Petterson, a designer based in Finland, who at the time was working on a set of books designed for Finland’s only library for the visually impaired, the Celia Library. In Peterson’s description of her research she says:

I want the books to be nice and colourful. Even if only a brother, sister, parent or teacher who help to read the books will enjoy the look of it, if it’s nice for them, it will probably be nicer to listen to for the child.

[Personal email 8/9/03]

Old fashioned and unfriendly looking products can still be found in early intervention service delivery today. Or in the case of reading material for visually impaired children the content may well be of high quality, but not so the holding device. Observing the gap in quality of the holding device and its contents in kits throughout the world has had a real impact on the final design of The Little Grub Reading Kit.

A container that is designed to work with, extend the effective use of and become part of its contents is more than a container; it becomes a kit as a single unit. It can extend the effective use of reading materials if designed well. It can make sense of where things are located, encourage use of housed elements and maintain ease of use. The internal contents of the kit become integrated with the external container. It is also important to recognise the immediate visual communication a kit of this type establishes with the parent or carer. Convenience, confidence of use and a sense of fun are all attributes that have been built into the final design.

The Little Grub Reading Kit is a collection of existing tools and objects for reading and learning. No attempt was made in the design process to develop a totally unique housed element or group of new elements; instead each existing part has been assessed for potential modifications to allow for a more effective use. These individual items do exist in isolation; however, until now, they have not been carefully and thoughtfully combined in a purpose built container that becomes part of the reading and learning process.

It is the way in which this reading kit form communicates to its audience that is at the heart of this research. With Australia’s diverse range of communities and people, the ability for the child or parent/s to customise or add to the kit to express a sense of ownership and connectedness to a community or home, is one of the many features of this new design. With this in mind the kit has an internal pocket and external clip, for a toy for personalizing the kit for the child.

There exists very real potential for the visual identity of aids of this nature to send an overt message of ‘disability’ to the world. This is especially relevant when the aid is seen along side the user. Figuratively speaking, this powerful connection can see the aid become a kind of prosthesis. The Little Grub Reading Kit recognizes that, because of the highly portable and public nature of reading kits for visually impaired children, this overt message of disability is problematic. Here the institutionalised operation and stark visual identity of past aids has been re-designed to become an everyday object that is inclusive, highly customisable and approachable. It is the breaking down of this ‘institutionalised’ image that enables many positive aspects of reinterpretation and interaction, ultimately resulting in a more positive experience for both the carer and child when using the kit.

Outside of kit

The research is also concerned with the bystanders’ interpretation of the kit. The aesthetic value of the redesign has enhanced the practical functions of the kit, further encouraging the child to take ownership of the space within it, as well as how s/he interacts with it. The diminished image of the institution is replaced with the enhanced personal identity of a toy or gift. Through this more accessible design, the kit encourages more effective use by the non-specialist carer, who has most contact with the child. The non-professional may feel unable to provide effective delivery if provided with a clinical or bland collection of elements.

The kit contains the following elements:

• Raised line drawing board (plastic sheets for placing over a soft magnetic sheet for scribed drawing)
• Playful counting beads/abacus
• Clip for personalizing the kit
• Textured surfaces
• Bells (for child’s anticipation of use)
• Standard drawing/magnetic surface (with paper holding device)

Little Grub Kit

• 2 ways locking devices (allows parental control over internal access)
• Pocket for personalizing kit
• Pockets (for Audio devices)
• Magnetic drawing shapes
• Drumstick (for use on external textured surfaces)
• Pockets (for books)

Apart from more expected contents as listed above, the kit also employs the use of elements that are not so specific in use, but allow for contemporary reading and learning methods. The Little Grub Reading Kit contains an MP3 amplifier and speaker set that attaches to mobile phones, Nintendo DS and iPods, to allow listening to podcasts and spoken books.

As the child grows the kit can be altered aesthetically. For example, the bead frame can be removed, allowing the kit to look less likely to suit only the very young child. It was a conscious decision throughout the design process to allow the internal and external surfaces of the kit to be as flexible, changeable and customizable as possible. The Little Grub Reading Kit is an alternative design that is practical, contemporary and, importantly, inviting.


Paul Morris

Volume 13, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June 2009

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"Anticipate, Empower, Explore - Reading Kit Design for Visually Impaired Children in Australia" © Paul Morris, 2009
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