Ever since the invention of Braille — and even before that — blind individuals have relied on touch as a means to learn.
That's why educators and researchers decided to apply the same method of learning to sex education, with the help of 3D-printed models of human genitalia.
The only problem? The current commercial models available run at least $450 apiece. Public schools — where 90% of blind students attend — simply don't have the money to spend on these models, especially when public schools typically only see one or two blind students a year in their classrooms.
Dr. Gaylen Kapperman and Dr. Stacy Kelly, professors and researchers at Northern Illinois University, reached out to Benetech, a non-profit that creates technology for social benefit, to collaborate on more affordable models that educators can use in classrooms.
"It has been a well-accepted axiom in the vision community that individuals who are blind need to 'touch' models of objects to enhance genuine learning," Dr. Kapperman told Revelist in information provided by Benetech. "In the area of sex education, that translates to the use of models which replicate the female and male genitalia."
"After hearing about the barriers blind students have [to] accessing sex education, we thought that we might be able to leverage 3D printing technology to create models that are faster, cheaper, and customizable to meet their needs," said Dr. Lisa Wadors Verne, Benetech’s program manager of education, research and partnerships.
The way educators plan to implement the 3D models in the classroom are to give visually impaired students the opportunity to learn with the models beforehand. Later, they will join their sighted classmates, who primarily learn through photos and videos, for the rest of the sex ed curriculum.
This enables blind students to learn in a way that works better for them without feeling excluded from their fellow students.
The use of realistic penis and vagina models that students explore through touch may seem, naturally, a bit controversial for some, but not only do schools for the blind suggest it, they encourage it.
Jeff Migliozzi, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind, said it’s crucial to be direct and explicit when explaining sex to blind students, including "explaining about the body parts, explaining how they work, explaining what they look like, explaining where they are exactly … and [using] the correct names."
And, yes, that includes using models to teach.
"Knowledge is power, and knowledge about one's body means that you have control over one's body," Migliozzi said. "We want them to know that this is what people are talking about."
Benetech and NIU plans to introduce their new 3D-printed models into pilot classrooms in the spring of 2017.