#### Have you ever struggled to display algebra or complex math online? Do you want to design your online STEM course to make it more accessible to people who are blind? Are you curious how to get popular screen readers like NVDA or JAWS to read equations properly?

#### If so, then this post may be for you.

#### STEM courses are increasingly being offered online as a cost-effective way to educate large numbers of students (Chirikov et al., 2020; Xu & Xu, 2019). However, online environments impose unique constraints on our ability to design these environments for the needs of our learners.

### The Social Model of Disability & The Failures of Modern Media

Gravel et al. argued in 2015 that it is “our learning environments, first and foremost, that are disabled” (as cited in Nieminen & Pesonen, 2020, p.5). To better understand the accessibility of the internet, I reviewed Jung et al. to unearth some hard facts about the media landscape today.

They report an astounding finding: “All 30 visualizations we sampled from major news outlets did not contain alt text associated with the visualizations…Similarly, the IEEE VIS & TVCG collection did not include any text alternatives to the figures” (2022, p. 1098).

The researchers cite the Washington Post, New York Times, and fivethirtyeight.com as exemplars of modern media. The findings are even more alarming once you realize that the IEEE Visualization Conference brings together industry and academic experts in the field of visualization, and the IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (TVCG) publishes peer-reviewed articles on this subject bimonthly.

Given this snapshot, it’s safe to say that neither academia nor major media are rising to the challenge of making data, visualizations, or even images accessible to the blind and visually impaired online.

### Accessibility Online

Accessibility online is often done using major screen readers. What here is the problem exactly? Simply put, the internet was not designed to display mathematical notation in the way that we commonly interact with it in the classroom (usually on a chalkboard or a whiteboard, which has zero spatial restrictions).

If we consider PDFs, one of the major ways of publishing literature, the software doesn’t display mathematical equations correctly because it lacks the notational flexibility to divide the same blank page into the correct set of layers and symbolic relationships.

Thankfully, Microsoft Word’s Equation Editor closes this gap substantially. Professors familiar with mathematical notation will find it easy to write equations correctly. But NVDA, the most commonly used screen reader that is also free, struggles to work well with it.

You might imagine that Microsoft Word’s built-in screen reader, called ReadAloud, would read equations written in the editor just fine. However, this is not the case, and strange bugs are commonplace.

The other major competitor to NVDA is JAWS, but it is not free. While universities might retain licenses for JAWS to service the needs of students with disabilities, this is not true for all institutions. Since the software is expensive, there is a substantive financial barrier for learners.

This encouraged us to design a solution that worked well with NVDA and JAWS.

### Enter LaTeX

LaTeX (pronounced ‘lay-tech’) is the art of converting mathematical notation into code and vice versa. It is designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation, and it’s free!

So how does it work? Suppose we imagine a math professor has written an equation using Word’s Equation Editor. In that case, we can convert it into a script by selecting the option to read the equation as ‘linear’ instead of ‘professional.’

The output can be read in any HTML document so long as the LaTeX is bookended with characters to identify the LaTeX to the web browser. This is ( and ), respectively.

If you have worked with Moodle or any other content management system, there’s often a text editor equipped with the function to write in HTML, aka the ‘source code.’

Then, when you publish your web doc, the LaTeX gets converted back into the original equation. This is how you make math accessible online.

There are two major benefits to this.

- The primary benefit is that blind or visually impaired learners can read the equations with the correct level of specificity via their screen reader of choice. Since the math has been hard-coded, fewer bugs, confusing expressions, and errant terms occur.
- It’s worth mentioning that sighted users benefit from this accessibility as equations are now interactive and can be enlarged.

To understand how wrong this can go, Microsoft’s screen reader, ReadAloud, may switch languages part-way when reading equations written using Microsoft’s own Equation Editor. This is a jarring experience and renders the equation illegible. The omission of a single word can change the _______ of the whole sentence.

The drawback is that LaTeX is a language and as such, requires a learning experience designer or programmer to familiarize themselves with its terms and syntax in order to resolve equations that don’t complete the conversion into LaTeX script successfully. Given that a basic understanding of the math is also required, unfamiliarity with the scripting language could result in broken equations and interminable bugs.

### The Importance of Alt Text

The other important piece to an accessible math course is the importance of alt text, which is the invisible ink of the internet. Chart data, graphs, spreadsheets, pie charts – data visualizations can be central to a message but without any alt text describing the trend, data, or message, the learner relying on a screen reader is effectively shut out of the conversation.

How can we improve this practice? By using a good standard provided by Jung *et al.* (2022): For a detailed walkthrough, please consult the video included as part of this post.

- Describe the chart type (i.e. line, pie, graph, etc.)
- Provide a brief description.
- Prime the reader for the detailed description (i.e. ‘Detailed Description:’
- Describe the axes and the general trend(s)
- Use plain language and,
- Avoid double quotation marks (“) as this ends the alt text. Substitute single quotes (‘) instead.

By following these guidelines, you too can be better than the Washington Post, the New York Times, and FiveThirtyEight. I believe in you!

Out of curiosity, I wanted to verify Jung *et al*.’s findings since they published their paper two years ago.

A review of the first images I could discover on the websites of the Washington Post, 538.com, and the New York Times revealed that only the New York Times had since made the images for their stories accessible. There’s no explanation for the Washington Post however 538 has a more difficult task at hand since the amount of data contained in any one of their visualizations is more than you could listen to in an afternoon.

For researchers and practitioners interested in further research on this topic, this is a good place to start.

As we learned, the internet was not designed with people who are blind in mind. Educators are encouraged to craft their online learning spaces to be as open and accessible as possible to all learners.

For STEM courses, we learned that Microsoft’s Equation Editor is quite helpful for producing somewhat legible equations for screen readers. It works quite well with JAWS, but for NVDA, the commonly used free screen reader, you will have to convert the equations into LaTeX before you publish them in a web document (e.g., HTML).

If you are brave and want to learn how to code, LaTeX is free, and you can certainly pick it up. It will reduce the bugs you encounter when publishing accessible equations because it gives you more control over how screen readers will interpret the math.

Despite these advances in accessibility, there are still two key issues that make higher-level STEM courses difficult to produce. For one, you may struggle to conduct an expert review. While it is possible for you to produce accessible math online, the Venn diagram of experts in a particular STEM subject who are also blind or visually impaired is vanishingly small.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22. We lack expert review for online STEM courses, especially for accessibility, because those types of courses have historically not accommodated the needs of blind learners.

The second issue involves the linguistic nature of math. When a professor reads out an equation, certain relationships or nuances in the notation are omitted since it is assumed that the learner can read and verify the equation for themselves at the same time.

A classic example of this is the molecular formula for water, H_{2}O. Generally, we do not say out loud that the 2 is a subscript of the H as that might be perceived as pedantic. However, for learners with visual impairments, complex equations with numbers that describe both the number of atoms as well as the general composition of the molecule, the output from the screen reader might be incoherent.

Simply put, as an equation’s complexity increases, the subtle omissions required to describe it with brevity can distort its overall meaning.

More work is needed to help standardize how STEM professors read out equations. This will help educators and learning experience designers craft more accessible online learning environments. However, this is easier said than done.

Complex equations can take quite a long time to read out, and this is especially true if you are trying to explicate all of the relationships involved. This may lead to cognitive overload as the beginning of the equation fades from short-term memory before it can be converted into meaning by the learner.

If you’re doing substitutions, it can be confusing when you consider transcripts, particularly if you’re trying to transcribe something very verbose, which can become almost unintelligible if the equation is long enough.

This is to say that there are very real constraints on the professor’s ability to produce legible content and on learners’ capacity to sit through and digest that content.

***

I hope this article and the attached video will give you a lot to think about when designing an online learning environment that is accessible to people who are blind. While this is a niche topic, it is important to push accessibility forward to reduce ostracization and improve our potential for stimulating rich minds.

##### References

##### Chirikov, I., Semenova, T., Maloshnok, N., Bettinger, E. & Kizilcec, R. F. (2020). Online education platforms scale college STEM instruction with equivalent learning outcomes at lower cost. *Science Advances, 6*(15). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay5324.

##### Freedom Scientific eStore. (2023). *Job access with speech (JAWS)*. Freedomscientific.com. https://store.freedomscientific.com/collections/software-for-school.

##### LaTeX Project. (2023). *LaTeX – A document preparation system*. https://www.latex-project.org/.

##### Nieminen, J. H. & Pesonen, H. V. (2020). Taking universal design back to its roots: Perspectives on accessibility and identity in undergraduate mathematics. *Education Sciences, 10*(1), 12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci10010012.

##### NV Access. (2023). *NVDA version 2023.1*. nvaccess.org. https://www.nvaccess.org/download/.

##### Tseng, W. (2023). *Access8Math*. Nvda-project.org. [add-on]. https://addons.nvda-project.org/addons/access8math.en.html.

##### W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). (2023). *Images tutorial. *W3.org. https://www.w3.org/WAI/tutorials/images/

##### Xu, D. & Xu, Y. (2019). *The promises and limits of online higher education: Understanding how distance education affects access, cost, and quality*. American Enterprise Institute (AEI). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED596296.pdf.

#### Related articles :

**Universal Design for Learning: Multiple Means of Representation****Universal Design Principles and Their Application in Education****Universal Design for Learning: Multiple Means of Engagement****7 principles of 21st-century learning and elearning****Democratizing Higher Education Through Online Course Delivery****Creating inclusive online training courses: follow the guide!****Choosing the colours of an online training****4 Tips for an Engaging Online Learning Experience****Education for the 21st Century: Test Your Knowledge!****Online training in empathic mode**