Touch Ability Games & Puzzles Designed for People with Deaf-Blindness (California Lutheran University)
Jane Hankins, Melody Rodriguez, Teresa Sandoval, Haleigh Salvage, Esther Garcia de la Cadena, Deanna Fierro, Crystal Smith, John Thomas, Marie Orechoff, Olivia Hart, Melissa McGehee, Carolina Hernandez, Laura Celic, Julia Ochoa, Alicia Steph, Victoria Castellon, Melissa Wolny


A Series of Tactile Games for People with Deaf-blindness
Touch Ability is a series of games and puzzles designed specifically to be accessible to people who are deaf-blind. They were created to have a variety of play options and also to allow the player who is deaf-blind to compete on an equal level with a player who is hearing-sighted.


Our client “Paco”, was a popular sixth grade boy who was blind from birth with a rare genetic condition. This also caused a hearing loss, for which he wore hearing aids. Paco attended general education classes with a one-to-one support aide/braillist, and itinerant services for orientation and mobility, vision, and deaf and hard of hearing. His grades were excellent in all his classes. Upon transitioning to middle school, however, Paco began to have some difficulties adjusting socially. Many of the students at the school were new. Many of his old friends had new friends that they were excited to hang out with. Paco was often found sitting by himself in some quiet corner during most recess and lunch periods.

One of the teachers at the school started up a game club for students every Wednesday during lunch period in her classroom. Paco agreed to join. Prior to his arrival, Paco’s vision specialist went through the games and made some modifications. Clear braille labels were placed on cards and game pieces. Game boards were modified with pipe cleaners, Wikki Stix, and puff paint to make them 3-dimensional. But still, things did not go smoothly.

Paco had a moderate hearing loss. In a quiet setting, he could hear pretty well with his hearing aids. In the classroom, he used an FM amplification system for the teacher’s voice. In a noisier environment or with multiple people talking, Paco had a much harder time understanding what was said. His one-to-one aide in the classroom filled in for what Paco missed due to his hearing and vision impairment. Since the purpose of the game club was social interaction, having Paco’s educational aide sitting next to him was not considered ideal and made the other students feel constrained.

As a result, during multiplayer games, Paco could not hear what the other players were saying and did not feel part of the group. There were long lulls in between turns, during which there was no input. Paco was bored, and once even fell asleep.

He could not hear clearly when the other players were telling him to do something. He could not tell when they were bluffing.

When Paco touched game pieces on a board, he frequently moved the pieces. Game pieces were easily lost or out of reach.

He could tell what cards he was holding in his hand but every time someone laid down a card, he would have to feel it to know what it was. When others could see what cards the other players had lain down, Paco had to keep touching them because he would forget.

Most games were taking significantly longer to play and Paco was not enjoying the experience. Some players were welcoming and helpful, but others became impatient or annoyed, and some avoided joining groups that Paco was a part of.


We set out to create a series of games that Paco, (and others with visual and auditory impairments,) could play that would be completely accessible. Our goal was to make the games challenging, fun, and appealing to players with all ranges of vision and hearing, since increased social interaction was our ultimate goal.


By presenting ideas and prototypes at workshops and conferences, we were able to gather input from over 100 professionals in special education, orientation & mobility, and assistive technology. Alterations were made based on these comments and the improved versions were presented at the First International Deaf Blind Expo (IDBE) in Las Vegas, Nevada in August, 2014. There we received in-depth feedback from 19 attendees who were deaf-blind, 7 attendees who were deaf-sighted, 1 who was hearing-blind, and 21 who were hearing-sighted in addition to being relatives, program directors, or teachers of people who are deaf-blind.

Some of the most important feedback we got from the IDBE was the following:

  • Magnetic game pieces help prevent loss
  • It is good to have differences in texture but also a difference in levels helps to define shape
  • It is best if the game can be practiced alone, like a puzzle, to gain competence
  • Portable is good
  • Variety of play options is best, leave it open for the players to make their own rules
  • Encoding—by naming the patterns, players who are sighted have to recall from visual memory while players who are blind recall from tactile memory, making the competition more fair
  • Simultaneous competition—if all players are striving for the same goal at the same time, there is no lull between turns

These are a few of the games we ended up with based on the feedback we received.

Tactile Fractals magnetic triangles in metal case

Six-sided cubes with a different tactile texture on each surface. Create or duplicate 3-dimensional patterns.

Materials: wooden play blocks, black paint, scrap book paper, wood glue

Cost: $ 1.55 for 9 blocks

Tactile Fractals

Tactile Fractals

Acute triangles have different textures and heights and combine to create different patterns. Combine sets to increase the number of patterns even more. Magnetic pieces stick to metal carrying case.

Materials: Magnetic adhesive sheet, adhesive foam, scrapbook paper, metal tin

Cost: $ 1.59

AnTrax game

There are a number of ways to play this. You can place all the pieces making sure there are no dead ends, or create a trail from one side to the other. With a partner, play it as a game where one goes horizontal while the other goes vertical, and each of you tries to thwart the other’s progress across the board.

Materials: Cork coasters, adhesive felt

Cost: $ 1.05


Chevron pattern
Tent pattern
We introduced the games to Paco through his vision specialist. We allowed him to first explore them without any rules.

Beginning with HaptiCubes, after initial exploration, he began stacking them, like a child with blocks, then knocking them down. Next he started to put them all facing the same texture facing up, then creating patterns.

It was a similar experience for AnTrax. He almost immediately started making a maze. We had received input from orientation and mobility specialist that this would be good for his spatial planning skills. Paco seemed to enjoy the challenge when he was left with two puzzle pieces that wouldn’t fit and he had to rearrange the other pieces to make it works.

Tactile Fractals was the most complex of the games but it was also the one we thought had the greatest potential for social interaction. It took Paco a little while to catch on to it but after showing him one pattern, he discovered two more on his own and was very excited. We told him we knew of eight patterns and said he could keep the game for the week to see if he could figure them out.

After practicing the games on his own, Paco was ready to go back to the game club. The other members were interested in the new games with the bright colors and interesting textures. Two of Paco’s friends from his old school started playing with him. Since Paco had practiced, he was able to show them how. Some of the others watched and caught on quickly but Paco was still easily the best, and most of the other kids waited to have a turn to play him. There was none of the awkwardness that there had been previously.

We made additional copies of the games so more students could learn and play. Paco was able to interact with the group and this led to more friendships.


Mirrored mountains pattern
Specialty games for the blind do exist in such catalogs as the American Printing House for the Blind. They usually have instructions and markings in braille, but they are often not very appealing to people who aren’t blind, and can cost as much as $250 for a simple board game. The original idea behind this project was to generate a series of games that could be created inexpensively by teachers, therapists and program directors for their clients who are deaf-blind. At the International Deaf Blind Expo we found out what the attendees really wanted was a fun product that they could purchase for a reasonable price to play with their friends who had differing levels of vision and hearing.


Special thanks to the Bapin Group, the sponsors of the International Deaf Blind Expo; all those who participated in our survey and gave us feedback about our games; the many, many professionals who offered advice from RESNA, California Educators of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, California Deaf-Blind Services, Washington State School for the Blind, Helen Keller National Center, Dr. Christine Roman: and our faculty advisor, Dr. Maura Martindale, Department Chair, Special Education and Deaf and Hard of Hearing, California Lutheran University.

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