3D-printed sex organs help blind students learn about sexual health

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3D-printing technology is letting blind students experience comprehensive, accessible sex ed for the first time ever.

3D-printed sex organs help blind students learn about sexual health

By Katie Dupere

Advocates and researchers collaborated to create more than 18 3D figures that model sex organs during a various states of arousal. They range from a flaccid penis to a dilated vaginal opening, allowing students to “feel” their way though sexual health lessons.

While it may be a NSFW (let alone not-safe-for-school) endeavor, these models are game-changers for blind students who often need to learn about sexual health through verbal instruction alone.

Sex ed classes overall often rely on dull videos and static illustrations, and while that type of stale education is a disservice to all students, it presents a unique problem for blind students.

“That approach does a blind student no good whatsoever because they, of course, cannot see the pictures and videos.” Dr. Gaylen Kapperman, a professor at Northern Illinois University who was involved with the project, told Mashable via email.

Studies show that 61% of blind adults or those with low vision say their vision status had a negative impact on the way they were able to participate in sex education.

It’s a gap advocates and researchers at Benetech, a nonprofit organization specializing in tech for good, set out to solve by creating these models of various penises and vulvas.

“3D models are the only types of models that make any sense to blind people,” Kapperman said. “Many people believe that if you provide raised-lined 2D tactile pictures of sex organs that blind people will be able to generalize this information. [That approach] makes no sense whatsoever for blind persons.”

But these models don’t only break sex ed barriers for blind children. Researchers say the models could make the instruction more meaningful for sighted kids, too.

The project’s goal is to eventually provide open-source 3D printing files for teachers. This means school districts would only have to finance the materials and printers to make the models.

Many experts predict the technology will become a staple for schools anyway. Once a school district owns a printer, 3D printing is a low-cost way to create models for classroom instruction, making it ideal for schools on a budget.

A sizable 90% of blind students attend school with sighted children, relying on modified lessons to fully absorb material. But there are only about 61,700 blind students in the U.S. Buying commercial models of genitalia already on the market can cost up to $500 per model — something low-funded schools would likely be reluctant to do, especially when only a handful of blind students may ever pass through their district.

To develop prototypes, Benetech partnered with LightHouse for the Blind and Northern Illinois University, where the models were first tested on blind college students. The project was funded entirely by a private Benetech donor.

Now in the second phase of the pilot program this spring, the models will make their ways into the hands of middle school and high school students — the target demographic.

By the end of the 2017 school year, researchers hope to have feedback from students on the current prototypes. Then they’ll release files with detailed printing instructions for classroom use.

Benetech plans to offer pre-printed models to accommodate schools without 3D printers, for a fee much lower than commercial models.

“It is our hope that these models will be an effective teaching tool for teachers to communicate sex education in a way that works for students who are blind and visually impaired,” said Dr. Lisa Wadors Verne, program manager of education and partnerships at Benetech.

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