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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education


Electronic Text and the Law: Making Math Accessible for Students with Disabilities

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Students with Disabilities have a right to accessible math textbooks and instruction materials. Despite the presence of legislation affording this in the United States, we do not see universal access to mathematical modules in colleges, notes Lucy Greco.

Recently, the Governor of California signed two bills (bill 1 and bill 2) calling for the creation of an open-source library for electronic text books and mandating the creation of open-source text books for the most commonly used textbooks.

This is a huge step forward in accessibility for college students. However, I was greatly disappointed to see some of the clauses included within these bills. In the fall of 1999, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 422. Today, these new bills use some of the same language that was used then. However, this language is still not valid today.

In 1999, a landmark bill was passed that enforced the rights of students with disabilities to access their text books at no additional cost. This law required publishers to provide accessible copies of the textbooks or give permission for universities to do so. Back then, a line was included within that bill that may have been valid at that point in time but is no longer valid today;

“…instructional material or materials does not include nontextual mathematics and science materials until the time software becomes commercially available that permits the conversion of existing electronic files of the materials into a format that is compatible with braille translation software or alternative media for students with disabilities.”

This clause was not altered two years ago when the language of this bill was updated to include captions for online videos used in university courses. As well, this is still found in the most recent bills.

When AB 422 was originally passed, this clause may have been appropriate. But it was not appropriate two years ago and is even less appropriate now. There is a great deal of technology available that does permit production of accessible math and sciences. I would like to explore the few I am aware of so that you may be better informed and know that there is no longer any policy excuse for failing to provide accessible content in math and sciences.

Image: A young boy standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematical equations

Image: Description: Young boy standing in front of a blackboard with mathematical equations

To begin with mathematics, for a person who is blind or visually impaired, math has always been a very challenging field. When looking at a mathematical formula, a person needs to be aware of not only the individual numbers but also the symbols and positioning of each of these items on the page. When the formula is as simple as 1+2, the numbers and symbols are easy to understand. But if the formula is even slightly more complex, for example 1/2 + 1/3 (the addition of 1 by 2 and 1 by 3), the individual must be aware that, first of all, these are fractions, that the number ones are both denominators and numbers three and the two are numerators. This is normally done by placing the two fractions side-by-side with the + (addition symbol) between the two. Then it’s obvious that the ones are on top with the division bar / indicating they are positioned directly over the two and three. Doing this in braille or speech is extraordinarily difficult. This is a very simple mathematical problem. Imagine how complicated and difficult it would be to read algebraic equations or chemical equations or advanced calculus audibly! Try and imagine how a statistical histogram or graph could be conveyed either audibly or in braille. When AB 422 first passed, there may not have been technology to do this.

Today, there are many such technologies. They are not yet perfect, but they do exist. The Duxbury braille translator includes the ability to produce Nemeth code braille math (the Braille system for math). A braille transcriptionist who knows the Nemeth braille code and understands the mathematical formulas in the original print form is able to create braille documents for a student who knows how to read Nemeth braille.

Image: MathDaisy Design Science, a California-based company developing, marketing and supporting software for scientific and technical communication, has affordable, easy-to-use tools for alternative media production. These tools allow the creation of mathematical formulas in a variety of ways. With the additional plug-in MathDaisy, the alternative media-production person can create a digital, accessible information system book or DAISY. DAISY books present audible math in a much more understandable way. By using one of two DAISY players, ReadHear by GH systems or EasyReader by Dolphin Computer Access, mathematical formulas can be presented audibly in a more easy-to-follow and understandable form.

This still requires a lot of learning by the user. But it means that students with learning disabilities as well as blind students can get an audible, usable form to learn mathematics.

A few years ago a product called InftyReader was released. This product allowed the optical character recognition of mathematics so that it could be scanned from the textbook and saved to a variety of file formats. Math ML (mathematical markup language) has also become a much more popular way for mainstream mathematicians to create content.

There’s a very interesting and successful library of JavaScript called MathJax that has some very good built-in accessibility. The MathJax library makes mathematics easier to read using assistive technology. It also provides simple techniques to enlarge the mathematical formulas without breaking the layout of the formulas.

Other companies are doing some very interesting research on how to present math accessibly and I look forward to seeing what they come out within the next few years. Considering all the choices described above, how can we accept that accessibility technology is not yet available?

As an educator of assistive technology, I feel this is partially my responsibility as I should be doing a better job of reaching out to policy makers as well as my students so that they are all aware that these technologies exist. I also think I need to put more effort into sharing information so educators are aware that the tools exist to take the next major step in making math accessible to students.


Related Resource

Related Blog: From Classrooms to e-Accessible Classes: Making e-Learning Inclusive by Lucy Greco | Read article.

Related Publication: Web Accessibility Policy Making: An International Perspective published by G3ict, The Centre for Internet and Society, and The Hans Foundation | Download free report.

Related Event: G3ict presents at 2012 ASHA Annual Convention at Atlanta, Georgia, USA on November 15-17, 2012 | Details.