June 2017: Approaches for Making Math More Accessible to the Blind

Contributed by Robert Jaquiss
Editor of Independence Science Newsletter

Math presents many challenges to access for students with visual impairments. One ideal solution involves the use of hardcopy Braille textbooks with proper Nemeth code and/or UEB math representations along with the appropriate raised line drawings. One modification to this approach to teach students the appropriate Nemeth or UEB math symbology that they may not already know is to use an audio form of the book. A book from Learning Ally can prove to be a good compliment to the Braille book. The audiobook can provide verbal descriptions of raised line drawings which may provide added context for the Braille reader to comprehend what is being communicated.

Further, the Braille textbook complimented with math educators using Abraham Nemeth’s, “Math Speak,” rules while they are teaching can allow for non-ambiguous verbal re0presentations of math expressions. Simply reading what is written on the board does not make it accessible as there can be numerous ways to interpret how an algebra expression can be represented. Clearly indicating specific quantities, numerators, denominators, and other key aspects of equations MUST be done to ensure better comprehension by students who cannot see what a teacher is writing on a white board in a classroom. Use of these conventions does take some training, but once practiced, better learning for all students can occur.

There are several web based and physical graphing calculators that offer graph sonification and other text-to-speech supports to assist in making math content more accessible. However, providing refreshable Braille with proper formatted Nemeth code math expressions can be a challenge. One additional innovation, that has been around for some time, but might not be as widely known is the following access solution.

 Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader can be used with a free downloadable program called, “Math Player,” from Design Science. This can be found at: www.dessci.com. Once NVDA and Math Player are successfully installed on your computer, setting Braille output in NVDA to U.S. 6 dot computer Braille will allow you to have spoken equations while receiving Nemeth code formatted refreshable Braille on your display. Other solutions are also available, but this appears to be the most common one used now. If MathML equations are imbedded into a Word document, or on a website, the Nemeth code Braille should be properly rendered. This approach does require more verification as to the accuracy of both the spoken and refreshable Braille equation representations. For now, this solution might assist some of you in making math content more accessible to your Braille reading students.