Neal McKenzie is an Assistive Technology Specialist for the Visually Impaired Department at the Sonoma County Office of Education, which works with Blind and Low Vision students K-12. He helps his students use 3D printing technology in order to make their education more accessible and more comfortable.

A short time after starting his work with visually impaired students, Neal began to realize that 3D printing could be a fantastic tool to greatly enhance the learning experience for his students:

“About 5-6 years ago me and the Braillist I worked with were starting to read different articles and posts about 3D prints being used for different blind and visually impaired people all over the world. We started really talking about the ability to create and print real-world, 3D tactile models in house and how that could benefit the specific population we are able to work with. The possibilities were exciting!”

Neal working with students using a BrailleThing 2.0
Neal working with students using a BrailleThing 2.0

After doing some serious research and coming up with a proposal to integrate 3D printing into their curriculum, Neal was able to purchase a LulzBot TAZ 5 to start his 3D printing journey.

Starting with TinkerCAD, and with basic PLA filament and ABS filament, Neal began to design functional, useful tools to help his visually impaired students:

“In a short-term, more everyday scale, my prints help the students I work with to be more independent and access a specific concept or assignment like a tactile math graphing system or Braille learning tactile game. This saves me, the teachers, and our awesome Braillist a lot of time producing these things over and over and gives our kids less dependence on us. Long term, designing these prints gives me the experience to look at a problem of access and be able to have 3D printing as a possibility in a bag of so many different tools. Also long term, creating a 3D print that bridges that gap to access allows you to have the print ready to go or at least have a solid concept to build on and/or personalize.”

Specialized cane cart holders Neal designed
Specialized cane cart holders Neal designed

In 3D designing and working with students and other educators in the Visually Impaired groups in and around California, Neal has seen some positive changes in the teaching process and the students themselves:

“I would love to think my 3D prints have helped level the playing field to access. I walked into a classroom to work with a blind student who was finishing up a math lesson that was being directed by the classroom teacher. He was keeping up with the lesson using a 3D printed math manipulative I had designed for him. I was also just observing a younger student who has a visual impairment along with Cerebral Palsy writing his name using a 3D printed guide I had designed for him which helped him reach his Individualized Education Program goal and gave him a huge confidence boost. My favorite prints are those that are used in a more inclusive manner. For example, I work with an 8th grade blind student who was handed a problem-solving assignment that used trains, cars a tunnel and a barn. The assignment was a word problem with a few images on a sheet of paper. I 3D printed all the pieces and put them on a tactile track, which included instructions in Braille and print. The student loved being to work through this problem in a hands-on and tactile way that he and his sighted peers could both use side by side which made this assignment totally inclusive. I am able to have a lot of these experiences on a weekly basis, which is really fulfilling and motivating for me.”

Neal's 3D designs available on TinkerCAD for download
Neal's 3D designs available on TinkerCAD for download

While Neal is extremely excited about what 3D printing is bringing to his classrooms now, he does see room for more growth in methods and processes for visually impaired students:

“I really hope to see the use of 3D printing in my field continue to grow and be viewed as a legitimate tool for those who work with the blind and visually impaired. It makes so much sense to me that the ability to produce these limitless tactile models and working with students with visual impairments goes hand in hand. Also to see more collaboration with the maker movement as a whole and accessibility.”

“I would love to see more 3D printers with simple audio output that would make them accessible for those with visual impairments, and 3D modeling software that was completely built with accessibility in mind. There are some that work ok with screen readers right now, but none I know of built specifically for accessibility and are easy to jump right into.”

For more information on Neal and his programs, check out some of the links below:

Video tutorials on some of the 3D instructional tools Neal uses:

Great video by Autodesk Education highlighting Neal and the work he does in Sonoma County:

A great article about how Neal prepared for the ‘Big Ask’ to get approval for 3D printers in his classroom is here (credit to Jessica McDowell of the Perkins School for the Blind):

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