2000 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2000 Table of Contents


Paul Blenkhorn and Gareth Evans
Centre for Rehabilitation Engineering, Speech and Sensory Technology
(CRESST), Department of Computation, UMIST,
PO Box 88, Manchester, M60 1QD, UK,

This session discusses the requirements and practical use of painting, drawing and coloring programs for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD). Firstly we discuss the limitations of using software designed for adults and more able children with clients who have PMLD and present a brief history of the development of appropriate packages in the UK. We then discuss four basic activities that may be accomplished when supported by appropriate software. These are 'Splattering', Drawing, determining Picture Structure and Picture Creation. We then give examples of five programs and explain how these can support the various activities. Finally we discuss the special requirements of switch users. The session will be illustrated with the demonstration of software developed by the authors.


Many children enjoy painting and coloring and these are often used as both educational and recreational activities. For some people with disabilities the painting and coloring activities can only be carried out by using a computer that is suitably adapted for the user. There are a wide range of painting programs and an even wider range of a drawing and drafting packages available. The vast majority of these are designed for adults, although some excellent packages are designed for use by children. However, few of these are designed for children with PMLD and may be inappropriate for use with such clients for the reasons given below.

Firstly, many packages have visually complex interfaces that are conceptually too 'busy' for children with PMLD. Secondly, they may not support the type of activities that children may wish to undertake, such as coloring or the easy creation of abstract images. Thirdly, the interfaces may not be suitable for children who cannot use a conventional mouse and may access a computer through touch screen, joystick or switch. Finally, users may have additional disabilities such a low vision. Therefore, the software packages for this client group must take account of their abilities.

This paper firstly presents a short overview of the development of appropriate programs in the UK. It then discusses the type of activities that may be carried out using painting programs before presenting a brief overview of a set of software packages that support these activities. In the description of the activities we assume that the user is using a touch screen, but he/she might also use a mouse or a joystick. We give special consideration to switch users in the section at the end of the paper.


From the mid 1980s a number of painting programs suitable for less able users started to become available. One was The Research Centre for the Education of the Visually Handicapped (at Birmingham University) program Touch 'n Paint (for the BBC micro with 4 colors). It had a wide range of painting activities such as filling in existing pictures and outlines, and options to gradually reveal parts of them (see Blenkhorn 1986 and 1986a in the References Section). Touch 'n Paint was primarily designed to be used with a touch screen which that had recently become available. A later development by Nick Howard (for the Acorn Risc Computers and published through SEMERC) was the program Doodle - see References Section. Again Doodle worked well with a Touch Screen, but added instrumental sounds to the painting activity - this proved to be very popular with many users.

In both packages the 'paper' color could be set to enable the color contrast to be set appropriately for particular users. Indeed for many users painting on a screen is very attractive. For users with poor sight the bright, emitted light from the screen, possible used in a darkened corner of a room, or maybe even a dark room, produced bright and vibrant images that can be easy to see.


We present a set of four activities that may be supported by paining/coloring programs. It may appear by the presentation given below that these activities follow a sequential developmental order, for example, once a user is proficient in 'Splattering' he or she may move onto 'drawing'. However, in practice, the activities may be combined and the process may well be iterative with simple 'drawing' activities followed by more complex 'Splattering' activities.


Conceptually 'Splattering' is the simplest activity - it is analogous to either placing blobs of paint at a piece of paper, finger painting or using stamps. When the user touches the screen, a colored area or picture appears on the screen under his/her finger. Often the activity is configured so that a sound is played when the user touches the screen, with a different sound being played for each different color. Splattering can be set to a number of different levels of complexity. At its simplest, a shape appears with a random color when the user touches the screen. Later, the activity may be configured so that the size of the colored area is dependent on position on the screen. In addition, the pitch of the sound and its left-right position in the stereo image can be related to screen position. The user may be given more control of the image by allowing him/her to select colors, sizes and shapes of the colored areas.

Line Drawing

In this activity the user leaves a trail of color by moving his/her hand across the touch screen - this is analogous to drawing with a crayon. At its simplest level the user simply 'scribbles' on the screen with the color of the trail being set automatically. These activities can work well if the color changes as the user draws. The are many ways in which this type of activity can be enhanced. For example, the use of one, two and three axis symmetry and appropriate color changes can produce very interesting kaleidoscopic effects. Alternatively, the lines drawn may be restricted in some way - for example only reflecting only horizontal and vertical change to provide interesting effects and an interesting focus of discussion between the user and his/her teacher/carer. The user may be given increasing control over the activity so that he/she can select colors and effects and eventually, print, save and load images.

Picture Structure

Activities of this type are designed to develop an understanding of picture structure, in effect, that a set of bounded areas together form a recognizable image. One activity of this type is analogous to a child's coloring book. In this an image is made up of a set of bounded shapes, which together form a larger picture. This can be duplicated on a computer system. At the simplest level, when the user selects an area, the area is filled with a predetermined color. Later, the user may select the color with which he/she wishes to fill an area. Rather than the area being automatically filled an alternative approach is to consider the user's finger as a pen and allow them to color the areas manually. Again, the user will be able to select color and, later, pen width.

The are a number of other ways in which an understanding of picture structure can be developed. One approach is present the user with a image consisting of one color and allow them to reveal the picture either a block at a time or by removing the covering color under the users pen - in a similar way to revealing the contents of a scratch card. An alternative activity is to present the user with a complete image and allow the user to remove portions of it. Either by selecting a single area to be removed or by removing all areas that have the same color as the selected area.

Picture Creation

This is the most open ended of the activities and provides the user with the means to create a complete picture from scratch using a combination of the activities given above together with the ability to draw graphical shapes. The facilities of the software that supports this activity need to be configurable to match the user's ability.

Description of Systems

These systems have been produced by the authors and are commercially available.


Splatter allows a user to splatter colored shapes onto a background. At its simplest level the colors are random; at a more complex level the user can select the color that he/she wishes to use. Each color has a fixed sound associated with it. The set of colors used, including the number of different colors, the color of the background and the association of sounds with colors can be configured by the user's teacher/carer. Backgrounds that are appropriate for the user can be imported as Windows metafiles. Activities that have been produced, and are which are available with the software include paint 'splatters', Mondrain style painting using lines and blocks, human and animal shapes. This style of package gives the user relatively little control over the finished image except for the colors used. However, they do allow the user to produce pleasing results.

Knockout and Reveal

Knockout and Reveal enable users to show/hide different parts of pictures. Reveal allows a user to gradually reveal a covered picture by selecting parts of the screen. The system can be configured so that the picture is fully revealed or so that only a fixed number of blocks are visible at a given time. This is particularly useful for some visual training activities such a 'closure'. Block size is configurable and pictures may be imported to reflect the user's interests or relevant teaching themes. Knockout allows a user to remove areas from a picture. The system can be set to remove a single area or all areas with the same color. After a set of area have been 'knocked out' touching the screen again will show the areas again. This activity has proved very popular with users.

My Noisy Coloring Book

This package is designed to simulate a paper coloring book. The user can select the set of images and choose that he/she wants to color. When the user selects an area, it is filled to the currently selected color. This is the same as using the flood fill option in a standard painting program. The palette of can be configured by the teacher in terms of number and the set of colors presented. The set of images to color can also be selected by importing Windows metafiles. The software also supports blending of colors. If an area is colored, touching the area with the new color selected will cause a new color to be produced that is based on a combination of the two colors, with the bias being toward the original color. Subsequent additions will cause the color to be further blended.


Kaleidoscope is designed to support a wide range of painting styles and user abilities. At the lower end of the ability range it provides activities that are similar to splatter in that user can stamp patterns on the screen. However, unlike splatter these can be based on bit maps and can be multi-colored giving a textured appearance. The user can select different stamps and these can be placed on or off a grid depending on how the activity is constructed.

Kaleidoscope supports a wide range of Line Drawing modes where the user's finger is followed by color. A wide variety of effects can be achieved in terms of color (different shades, random colors, alternating colors, etc.) painting styles (directly following the finger/pointer, rotating around the pointer, following fixed horizontal and vertical paths) and page styles (one, two and three-axis symmetry). In many of these modes it is impossible to produce images that are not visually attractive and yet the user has a large degree of control as to what appears. The degree of control can be set by the user's carer/teacher who can select activities that give the user control over colors, line thickness and styles. Kaleidoscope can be configured to allow a user to color images with a pen.

Kaleidoscope ultimately provides the user with a full, painting package that gives the user complete control over colors, effects and backgrounds.

Switch Access

Switch users with PMLD are necessarily restricted in the degree of control that they have over painting and coloring programs. However, activities that support Splattering and an understanding of picture structure can be readily supported.

Splatter supports switch users by placing the colored area in a random area of the screen. If a user can use two switches, a second switch can be used to select a color. Knockout and Reveal both provide access for switch users through scanning. Knockout scans through the component areas of an image, whilst Reveal scans through the set of removable blocks that cover the image. My Noisy Coloring book provides access in a similar way to Knockout with the areas that may be colored being cycled through in turn. It also allows the user to select colors and functions such as cleaning the image. In all three programs the experience of switch users is almost exactly the same as users who access the packages by other means, but with the additional cognitive overhead of scanning.


These packages (and others developed in the same range) are being used in a significant number of schools. They have been used for education, creativity and for fun. Feedback is most encouraging and a working group of interested teachers and carers (CAMI - computers and the Multi-Impaired) has been set up in collaboration with Condover Hall School for the Blind. One significant point raised by this group is that many painting programs provide so many colors that children can't name them --a problem that didn't exist in the systems of the 1980s. Clearly this isn't always a problem and so all of the packages described here have the option to set the size of the palette and the colors in it. One challenge which we intend to address is how to make a 'full' painting program (Kaleidoscope) at least in part accessible to children and adults with profound disabilities.


Blenkhorn, P. L. (1986) Microcomputer Software Using a Touch Sensitive Screen. The British Journal of Special Education. December, 4, 161.

Blenkhorn, P. L. (1986a) The RCEVH project on computer assisted learning. The British Journal of Visual Impairment, IV(3), 101-103.

http://www.promedia-semerc.com/ current at 23/9/99

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2000 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.