April 2017: Access to Math Using the Nemeth Code

Contributed by Robert Jaquiss
Editor of Independence Science Newsletter

The importance of the use of Nemeth Braille when teaching math and science to students who are blind or visually impaired has proven itself to be a valuable tool in providing science access. Dr. Abraham Nemeth, a totally blind mathematician, understood the importance of having a concise way of conversing mathematical content in Braille. He experienced frustration while growing up because he knew he had a love for numbers and mathematics. Unfortunately, the Braille system in the first half of the twentieth century did not support mathematics. Thus, he developed his own personal code that later served as the foundation for the Nemeth code for Mathematics and Science Notation (1972) revision. He learned at a very young age that it was important for blind kids to have an understanding as to what print looked like, including what print mathematical symbols look like.

He adopted several conventions in the Nemeth code that communicate this information. For example, the dots 4, 5 for superscript and the dots 5, 6 for subscript can indicate a direction based on where they are placed in the Braille cell. Superscripts are written to the top right of a base number or term and subscripts are written to the lower right of a base number or term. The Braille indicator provides a sense of direction. Further, Dr. Nemeth’s use of dots 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and dots 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 for the open and close parenthesis symbols provide a sense of opening and closing parenthesis as sighted kids experience with print. The comparisons may not always be one to one, however, there is implied meaning throughout the Nemeth code.

Further, since Dr. Nemeth was familiar with LaTeX and he knew this is a mainstream form of communication for mathematicians, he could emulate rules of LaTeX into the Nemeth code. When a Nemeth code Braille reader learns LaTeX, many parallels are easily identified. It is this very valuable useful feature that can easily be overlooked by persons who are not involved in STEM education.

It is this advantage over other proposed Braille math systems that helps the Nemeth code function as a Braille math system. The Nemeth Code for Mathematics and Science Notation has proven itself time and time again to be one of the most powerful access tools for students who are blind or visually impaired. Blind STEM professionals use this Braille math system every day in their professional lives. If we continue to see the value of the Nemeth code, it will be used. When we turn our heads towards the practicality of Nemeth code and consider starting with a new system, much of this practicality will likely be lost upon another new system. Dr. Nemeth was himself a genius with a vision for Braille literacy in mathematics.

Note: For those readers wishing to learn more about using LaTeX to embed equations in Word documents; see the article by Dr. John Gardner at: http://www.access2science.com/jagqn/WordLatex.html.