Opening New Worlds: Enhancing Accessibility in Picture Books for Blind and Visually Impaired Children

An infographic titled "How the System Works Braille." It features a generator cell explaining the dot positions and a visual of the braille alphabet. There is a woman reading a braille book drinking coffee to the side of the alphabet.
Image of a white woman smiling with shoulder length brown hair.  She is wearing a maroon sweater and a black and pink scarf.

Gabrielle Popp (she/her) is a teacher of the blind and visually impaired at Lincoln Park Public Schools. This is her 16th year teaching. Gabrielle holds a masters and educational specialist degree in special education leadership. She is passionate about bringing equity and access to blind and visually impaired students.

A few years ago, I was introduced to the Diverse BookFinder at an educational seminar, and I was eager to bring the beautiful books back to my students and classroom. However, as a teacher for the blind and visually impaired, I faced a significant obstacle—I couldn’t share many of these titles because very few were available in braille. Unfortunately, this is an all too common reality my students face, and it is particularly true when it comes to books with diverse characters.

What The Research Says

Coleman and Harrison (2022) examined this problem in a recent study, “Cultrual Diversity in Children’s Braille Books”. They analyzed the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled and Seedlings: Braille Books for Children, two popular catalogs of braille books, to determine the availability of braille books with diverse characters. The National Library Service catalog had 22 books that feature characters of color and Seedlings also had 22 books that feature characters of color. Of these books, only two were picture books. The majority were easy readers, independent readers, and non-fiction biographies. If a young child who is blind or has low vision would like to read a picture book with a non-white character, they would only have two choices available to them from these publishers. 

– Coleman and Harrison (2022)

What is Braille and Why Is Braille Important?  

Braille is a system of raised dots that can be read tactually and is used by people who are blind or have low vision. Braille itself is not a language, but rather a code in which many languages can be written and read. Embraced by a global community, braille facilitates literacy for thousands worldwide. The braille code used in the United States is Unified English Braille (UEB).  

Braille holds immense importance as it serves as a crucial tool for individuals who are blind and visually impaired, granting them access to written information and fostering literacy. As a teacher of the blind and visually impaired, many of my students are braille readers and learners; braille is a key to independence and inclusion. 

Creating an Accessible Library 

Due to the limited amount of braille picture books, teachers of the blind and visually impaired must often take a DIY approach to accessing quality picture books, especially picture books containing diverse characters. When you walk into the office of a teacher of the blind and visually impaired, you often hear the clicking of a Perkins brailler (a manual braille writer similar to a typewriter) or the low hum of a braille embosser (a printer that renders text as tactile braille cells). Teachers use both of these devices to create braille transcriptions. Oftentimes teachers of the blind and visually impaired do not have backgrounds in language arts and may have had limited exposure to the breadth and diversity of picture books that are available. The Diverse BookFinder is a valuable resource, enabling teachers to discover titles that offer comprehensive representation, and allowing students to see themselves authentically and wholly portrayed. 

After attending the seminar on the Diverse BookFinder, I knew that I wanted to create my own library of braille transcriptions for picture books with diverse characters, but I also began to wonder if braille was enough. Images in picture books provide valuable context, teach essential visual literacy skills, and often extend the text. Not only were my students unable to read these beautiful books due to lack of access, they were also missing out on these essential skills and pieces of the text. I believe that accessible text along with intentional image descriptions is the way to create equitable early literacy experiences for students who are blind or visually impaired.

The Proudest Blue 

Recently, I transcribed and created image descriptions for the picture book “The Proudest Blue” by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali; a first day of school story about two sisters, Faizah and Asiya. Faizah relates her experiences and feelings on the first day her older sister, sixth-grader Asiya, wears a hijab to school. Coleman and Harrison’s study found zero picture books in either the National Library Service or Seedlings catalogs with Muslim American characters. Knowing this, I chose “The Proudest Blue” as one of my first entries into the library. 

Here is the first page with braille and an image description:

The picture is of Faizah and Asiya’s mother, a middle aged brown woman wearing a plum colored hijab and wearing a burgundy dress with light red swirls.  She is holding a pastel pink hijab out to her daughter. Mama is smiling and looking happy while standing in front of a brown dresser and to her right on the wall are ring hangers with various colored hijabs. There is braille over the text.

Guidelines for Image Descriptions in Picture Books 

The goal of an image description is to describe all relevant and important visual information to understand the image. Image descriptions provide a more equitable and supportive learning environment. Teachers, librarians, or anyone working with young children can create inclusive storytimes by providing image descriptions while doing read-alouds. When coming up with image descriptions, here are some details to consider adding: 

  • Who is in the picture: Include information such as race/ethnicity, gender, hair color, and age range. If animals are featured, write the species name or breed, such as tiger or beagle. 
  • Setting of the image: Include details about where the image takes place. What kind of room are the characters in? Is the subject standing in front of something? Knowing the setting of an image can help with providing additional context for what is going on. 
  • Color(s): When describing colors, use shade names such as cobalt blue, periwinkle, burgundy, lime green, metallic gold, or similar names. 
  • Expressions and emotions: How does the subject (or subjects) look in the picture/photo? Do they have a neutral expression? Are they smiling? 
  • Item locations and descriptions: It helps to describe item locations from the top down and left to right in reference to the primary subject, if there is one. 
  • Interesting details: What makes an image unique or interesting to look at? What additional descriptive information can help a user understand what is going on? 

Further Resources to help with image descriptions:

All children deserve to experience the joy of a picture book and have themselves represented in what they are reading. I urge teachers, librarians, and parents to keep accessibility at the forefront when planning read-alouds and story times. Image descriptions can easily be woven into lesson plans and together we can urge publishers to add braille transcriptions to children’s books, so all children can have access to literacy. Accessibility is the cornerstone of inclusion, ensuring that everyone can fully participate in and benefit from various aspects of life. It transforms barriers into gateways, fostering a more equitable and enriched society for all.

Diverse Picture Books Featuring Blind or Low Vision Characters 

My City Speaks


by Darren Lebeuf and Ashley Barron

“A young girl, who is visually impaired, finds much to celebrate as she explores the city she loves. A young girl and her father spend a day in the city, her city, traveling to the places they go together: the playground, the community garden, the market, an outdoor concert. As they do, the girl describes what she senses in delightfully precise, poetic detail. Her city, she says, “rushes and stops, and waits and goes.” It “pitters and patters, and drips and drains.” It “echoes” and “trills,” and is both “smelly” and “sweet.” Her city also speaks, as it “dings and dongs, and rattles and roars.” And sometimes, maybe even some of the best times, it just listens. Darren Lebeuf uses his keen observational skills as an award-winning photographer to poetically capture sensory experiences in this charming ode to city life. The rhythmic, lyrical text makes for an appealing read-aloud. Ashley Barron’s vividly hued cut-paper collage illustrations add compelling visual interest to the text’s descriptions. Though the main character is visually impaired, she travels around the city and enthusiastically enjoys its many offerings, and actively contributes to the lyrical bustle of city life by putting on a violin performance in the park. The author’s use of limited but evocative language can help children develop an aesthetic awareness and can serve as a perfect jumping-off point for children to use their senses to specifically describe, and appreciate, their own surroundings. The story and illustrations were reviewed by a blind sensitivity reader.” — publisher

Any Child/Teen

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