Samuel Gridley Howe and Universal Design

Listen to Samuel Gridley Howe and Universal Design

The disability rights movement coined “universal design” as the aspirational ideal that describes a world built for everyone. Certain designs—like stairs or ink-printed pages—define people who cannot access them as disabled. But the world can be designed differently.

Although universal design is a mid-twentieth century concept, Samuel Gridley Howe, first director of the Perkins School for the Blind, was after something similar: a page anyone could read. Braille already existed, and Howe had seen it on a trip to Paris. But Howe created Boston Line Type because he believed that braille—or any so-called "arbitrary" system—isolated individuals with visual impairments from a predominantly visual society. Howe preferred letters that might “be easily read” by sighted people because, otherwise, “people will not be interested in the subject, and Blind children never will be taught except in Institutions.” Howe believed he could design a universally accessible page.

The sketchfab interface below contains additional hidden links picked up by screen readers. The starting element is a link and ending element is the text "to rotate."

Description of the Eclipse of the Moon

This page contains a diagram titled “Eclipse of the Moon.” It appeared in an 1836 raised-print book that adapted diagrams from a popular, ink-printed textbook on physics, astronomy, and other physical sciences. Two lines show the sun’s cone of light; dots mark the moon’s orbit; and parallel and perpendicular lines illustrate the earth's shadow obscuring the moon. Howe’s diagrams communicated information: here, how a lunar eclipse happens. They also made common visual representations tactilely legible for blind and low-vision readers in a form Howe hoped would be universally accessible. This diagram is printed one and a half times larger than its original.


Seeing and Feeling Tactile Pages 

If you have been able to print the object, consider how it felt to touch the lunar eclipse. What did you notice after you saw or read about the page that you didn't notice at first?

In designing Boston Line Type and his embossed diagrams, Samuel Gridley Howe wrote that the best way to evaluate their success was by “consulting the blind themselves.” But he also conceded that, “if seeing people insist upon settling it,” they should do it “in the dark, and by aid of their fingers.”

If you are able to print or touch these pages, compare how they feel to you with how the blind and low-vision readers from the nineteenth century describe using raised-print books.