Visionary technology: Westport Library's 3-D printer helps blind children read

Every Friday morning, Micki McCabe spends time at the 3-D printer at the Westport Library making an array of plastic items like a crescent moon and cow.

Those are some of the characters featured in the popular children's book, "Goodnight, Moon," a book many parents and their young children know by heart.

McCabe, using funding from the Norma F. Pfriem Foundation, is working on making books for blind children more tactile using the items she crafts with the cutting-edge printer.

She's putting the 3-D characters into picture books for young blind children, using two free programs available on the Internet.

McCabe is working to make the books more enjoyable, more than just some bumps -- the braille -- on each page. Her work will give visually impaired children and their parents a way to touch the objects mentioned in the story as the story book is read aloud.

McCabe, whose office is on Imperial Avenue, is an educational consultant with the Connecticut Braille Association.

"We have been getting advice from teachers about what works best," she said. And that, she said, is starting very young blind children with hands-on lessons, even before they learn braille. "We know there are benefits, but we are looking at the best way to present it," she said, adding she's been working on the project since this spring.

It's a concept that has been explored by Tom Yeh, an assistant computer science professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who has been using 3-D printers, like the one McCabe is using, to take braille books for children to the next level.

Yeh and his team created the Children's Tactile Book Project, and they are working with the Anchor Center for Blind Children, a preschool in Denver, to better understand the needs of visually impaired toddlers.

Yeh's team has used the printer to create a 3-D version of "Goodnight, Moon," a book Yeh chose because of its popularity. He said he got several copies of the book when his son was born.

Yeh, in a telephone interview this week, said they want to use the growing field of 3-D printing to create picture books that blind children can experience. "I wanted to be able to do something meaningful -- to bring the context of the book to life," he explained, adding he and McCabe have been in contact with each other and he's aware of her work in Westport.

The main idea is to represent 2-D graphics in a 3-D, tactile way on a scale appropriate for the cognitive abilities and interests of young children, according to information provided by the university. It said the team combines this information with computational algorithms -- essentially step-by-step instructions for mathematical calculations -- providing an interface that allows parents, teachers and others to print their own customized picture books using 3-D computers.

The idea of using tactile materials in books for the blind isn't new, said McCabe. For years, felt and other textured items were used, but those are flat.

The 3-D items, she said, have more form, more texture and more layers.