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Making STEM Accessible

There are many aspects to study in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that are easily accessible for students with vision impairments and learning disabilities that affect reading.  Any screen reading technology will manage the text.  The problems arise when diagrams, graphs and equations are used.  While no technology is perfect yet, things are progressing at a rapid pace and there are already many work-arounds that are making STEM more accessible than ever before.

While many individual solutions are dependent on the assistive technology (AT) the student is most confident using,  LexDis has a wealth of strategies, guides and advice as well as a simple, easy to read table showing how to make STEM information accessible, cross referenced by AT, disability and information-type.

Descriptions of STEM content

Descriptions of diagrams are an essential element of making STEM texts accessible for students with a range of disabilities who may be using a variety of assistive technology (AT).

As a starting point for content specific to STEM, The National Center for Accessible Media (US) has published Effective Practices for Description of Science Content within Digital Talking Books, which describes, chapter by chapter, how to describe elements such as bar, pie and flow charts, line graphs, Venn diagrams, scatter plots, tables and equations.  The site contains a wealth of research and advice on making all forms of digital media accessible to people with disabilities.  In a simpler format, you can find similar information from The Diagram Centre.  However, both of these sites only offer information on how to describe existing texts, not how to create accessible content in a live setting, nor how students can respond in like format.

STEM accessibility for students with mobility and psychosocial disabilities

Accessibility for students in STEM subjects may not all be about the equations and diagrams.  Professor Graeme Earl of the University of Southampton talks about another aspect of making STEM accessible to students who may not be able to participate in working out in the field, in his case in archaeology, though the same could be applied to geology and some study in civil engineering. The University have shared both a video and a transcript of his ideas.

STEM for students with Colour Deficiency

The Institute of Physics (IOP) has published a short guide for supporting students with colour deficiency with study in STEM subjects.  IOP suggests labelling all colours that are necessary for a student to identify, using black borders around colours and using black or blue on white as much as possible.

Mathematics content for students who are Blind or have a Vision Impairment

There are some basic and free solutions that may be a starting point that will suit most students. 

It may take a little learning for the lecturers, but students in a post-secondary setting will be familiar with free Microsoft compatible applications such as MathType, an application that allows the creation of mathematical notation for inclusion in desktop and web applications.  Equations can then be read aloud using MathPlayer, another free application.  These are both a step beyond using Microsoft’s built-in text to speech. 

As another option, STEMreader can read aloud MathML (specification for mathematical and scientific content on the Web) and LaTeX (typesetting system for the production of STEM documentation) equations using text-to-speech.  STEMreader has a handy demo page, so lecturers, disability staff and students can trial it to see if it meets their needs.

What seems to be the most common practice in universities is to publish mathematics in LaTeX, because lecturers find it easier to use.  While the LaTeX code can be read aloud, it is just that – code, and unless the student has learned the code (much like learning a new language), they will be unable to access the content using a non-visual desktop access (NVDA) AT software package until it is published in HTML or MSWord.  To get the information from LaTeX to MS Word, the easiest process is to copy and paste into MS Word and then use MathType to convert the content to maths objects. Alternatively, if you want to use HTML, then you can embed LaTeX equations in an HTML file and use MathsJax to convert the LaTeX material into MathML content.

Where a student uses voice activated dictation using software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate rather than use a keyboard to enter equations, Scientific Notebook can be used as a scientific word processor with MathTalk enabled to perform the full range of functions required of students needing to work with complex mathematics. 

Wiris Chemistry toolbar is based in MathML that is compatible with NVDA that allows students to work with Chemistry formulas.

EquatIO is the ‘new kid on the block’, released in 2017 and based on marketing materials appears to be revolutionary.  Produced by TextHelp, EquatIO allows the user to type or handwrite virtually any mathematical expression directly on their keyboard or touchscreen and because it can write directly into MS Word, students could share the lecturer’s screen and ‘read’ the content live during a lecture using  STEMreader for example.  EquatIO is also completely compatible with the Desmos software used to create graphs, which most students who are Blind or who have a significant vision impairment will know how to use before completing their schooling.  EquatIO is available to download free of charge for teachers.

Where AT falls down is where PDF files are used.  Currently, AT cannot read aloud any maths equations in PDFs and readers using NVDA must rely on descriptions provided through Alt-text.  Another accessibility issue is that technically, e-readers should support MathML through the ePub3 standards, but in reality very few do.  Simple advice to lecturers who use equations and prepare materials in LaTeX is to advise them to keep the original .tex files and make them available to students who rely on NVDA and to refrain from using PDFs entirely.

Finally, higher education and training providers need to be aware that some students, mostly adult entry, will be most comfortable with Nemeth Code, or Braille for Mathematics.  Although Nemeth Code is American, many blind Australians became used to it because this was what their devices were programmed for.  While adjustments must be made if this is the only AT a student is used to, they would benefit from intensive training in the use of more modern AT as it is more instantaneous and flexible.