3D printed genitals to help educate students with vision impairment about sex

Post date: 
Monday, 13 March 2017
Photo of a 3D printer

Sex and relationship education is compulsory from age 11 onwards in the UK. However, students with vision impairment (VI) can struggle to access lessons as information is often presented through pictures and videos. America may have found the solution.

A study by Northern Illinois University (NIU) in the US, sought to learn about sex education needs and experiences of adults with VI when they were students at school. They found that 61 per cent of respondents said “their visual impairment had an impact on the way they were able to participate in sex education” and that they had to rely on the teacher’s explanation because it was difficult to learn from the teaching materials.
 
Other key findings include:
  • When participants were asked where they learned about sex education outside of the school curriculum, the most frequent response was from their friends, followed by significant others, and family members.
  • When asked where they learned about sex education outside of school, the most frequent response was the internet, including X-rated fan fiction, followed by books, television and movies, and radio talk shows.
  • When asked what sex education topics should be taught in school, topics most often mentioned were the physiological processes of sexual intercourse and the consequences of having sex, including emotions related to sex and contraception.
  • When asked to describe the kinds of teaching that would effectively convey that information, the overwhelming majority of participants stated that the use of realistic anatomical models was needed.
Dr Gaylen Kapperman from NIU reached out to Benetech, a technology company known for creating alternative accessible education materials, to see if they would be interested in helping address this issue.
 

“3D models are the only types of models that make any sense to blind and partially sighted people,” says Kapperman. Many people believe that if you provide raised lined 2D tactile pictures of sex organs that, people with VI will be able to understand this information. Kapperman responds that this method makes “no sense whatsoever to blind and partially sighted people”.

In order to make the lessons more meaningful for students with VI, Benetech believe there needs to be more realistic models. And if constructed accurately, these models could be beneficial for sighted kids too. NIU, Benetech and LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired collaborated on the design and developed three prototype models that were tested by students with VI at NIU. These are now ready to roll out to middle and high school pilot classrooms in the US this spring.
 
The problem however is that commercially available models are expensive and most schools are unable to afford to purchase the material needed for an effective sex education program for students with VI. Dr Lisa Wadors Verne, Programme manager at Benetech, wanted to leverage 3D printing technology to offer educators the opportunity to provide accessible sex education materials “faster, cheaper and customisable”.
 
Teachers will have the opportunity to print the files or buy them. The pilot involves schools with and without 3D printers so they can learn more about how teachers acquire the models. Different files can do better on different printers, so part of the work also involves capturing specs so Benetech is able to provide better guidance on this in the future.
 
Benetech hopes that these models will be an effective teaching tool for teachers to communicate sex education in a way that works for students who have VI. If the pilot is successful and funding is available, it will look to design up to 15 more models to support sex education for kids with and without disabilities.
 

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