Subject Area Accessibility Study in Mathematics

For help, contact: Karen Sorensen

Making Math More Accessibility at PCC Described by AudioEyes.

Fall term 2012, the Distance Learning department and two Math Departments at Portland Community College financed release time for two math faculty, Scot Leavitt and Chris Hughes, to study how to make math content more accessible for online students with disabilities. Since it is blind students that encounter the most serious accessibility problems with online math courses, that is who the study focused on mainly.

Download the full report on Accessible Content Creation in Mathematics (completed April, 2013). See below for updates since the report was published.

The Rule of Four

The rule of four is one of the most useful guiding principles both in teaching, and from the perspective of accessibility. Explicitly, when a concept or idea is introduced and discussed, we try to do so in four different ways:

  • algebraically
  • numerically
  • verbally
  • graphically

Depending on the student who we are working with, and the particular accommodations that the student has, one or more of these different descriptions may be harder for the student to access than the others. For example, if we are accommodating a student that is hearing impaired then the verbal description will need to be accommodated. This can be achieved in a number of different ways which include: using a sign language interpreter; captioning videos and other audio content. A student who is visually impaired may have more difficulty accessing each of the different descriptions except the verbal.

Specific Best Practices for Math

Graphs

There are many ways to create graphs, including Winplot, Excel, Graph, pgfplots, PSTricks, etc. Any graph or graphic, regardless of how it was created, will always be read as an image by a screen reader. As such, appropriate alt text must be included for electronic documents and web pages.

Printing a tactile graph on embossed paper is a very time-intensive process. When working with a visually-impaired student it is possible that Disability Services may ask the instructor to choose which are the most important images, as not all images may be printed.

Math/Science in word documents

For MS Word, use the MathType plugin to create math and science equations, formulas and notations. Do not use Microsoft's equation editor.

  • If you convert to a PDF or export to a webpage, save the original MS Word source document which Disability Services may ask for.
  • For LibreOffice, just use the native equation editor which easily converts to an accessible format.
  • Math/Science in PDFs

    Math and science equations, formulas and notations are not screen reader accessible in a PDF, so save the source file with the original MathType or LaTeX equations. Disability Services will ask for source files when there is an accommodation need..

    Math in PowerPoints

    For MS PowerPoint 2013, use the MathType 6.9 plugin to create math and science equations, formulas and notations. Do not use Microsoft's equation editor.

      • If you convert to a PDF or export to a webpage, save the original MS PowerPoint source document which Disability Services may ask for.
      • If you are using older versions of PowerPoint or MathType, put the PowerPoint content into a Word document and use MathType to write the equations.

    Math/Science in D2L web pages

    Use the D2L equation editor which will output MathML

    • For additional information on accessible mathematics in Desire2Learn, see the Accessible Math white paper in the Desire2Learn resource library.

    Math/Science in online publisher content

    Proceed with caution when dealing with publisher-based content. It should be carefully vetted for accessibility. Contact Karen Sorensen to help you evaluate publisher content for accessibility.

    And consider switching to WeBWorK which is a much more accessible online homework site.

    Math/Science in Tests

    • TestGen is not recommended. It does not export to an accessible format; unless instructors wish to re-generate the mathematical content (using MathType or LaTeX), TestGen should be avoided.
    • Make sure any tests or quizzes follow the specific document type rules listed above.
    • If a student has a time extension which would make taking the test unreasonable to complete in one sitting (imagine taking a six-hour exam in one session!), the instructor should split the test into multiple parts so that the student can take the different parts on different days.

    Updates since the report

    Please note: At the time of the study, Internet Explorer supported the MathPlayer plugin from Design Science that allowed the JAWS screen reader to read math equations correctly. Currently IE 10 and greater no longer support this plugin and no other browser with or without a plugin (that we know of) support proper vocalization of math equations. We will have to rely on other outputs, such as braille and the Central Access Reader for the student at this time.

    What this means to the instructor: Continue to develop math for the web using the tools outlined in the full report and below and output as MathML for the web. That is still the standard, and a solution for screen reader ability to vocalize math properly will be developed around MathML as the language.

    Recommendations

    The following recommendations are intended as guidelines; bear in mind that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and that these recommendations may change as we all learn more.

    • Instructors need to keep source files (.docx, .tex, .odt, etc) readily available.
      • Disability Services can convert most source files into the necessary format, be that .brf, .xht with MathML, enlarged print, etc. Without the source files, converting content to an accessible format is significantly harder and much more time intensive. For online classes, the source files should be saved to a single, consistent folder within every D2L course.
    • Instructors can create graphs and images however they prefer, but all images need alt text.
      • Disability Services can print graphs and images on embossed or heat-sensitive (swell) paper.
    • Instructors should work ahead of schedule and try to be prepared at least a week in advance.
      • Having a week’s lead time will allow Disability Services to convert content into an alternative form in time for the student to use the material in class.
    • Instructors should consider splitting longer tests into smaller parts for students that are allowed a time extension (such as a double time extension).
      • If a student has a time extension which would make taking the test unreasonable to complete in one sitting (imagine taking a six-hour exam in one session!), the instructor should split the test into multiple parts so that the student can take the different parts on different days.
    • Instructors relying upon online homework systems should consider migrating to WeBWorK.
      • WeBWorK is significantly more accessible than any publisher’s current online homework system.
    • New course developments and takeover courses relying upon MyMathLab and MyStatLab be put on hold.
      • This freeze will remain in effect until Pearson releases the updated, more accessible, non-Flash-based replacement and an appropriate book with accessible online, publisher-created content is adopted. (See the next recommendation.)
    • New textbook selections must consider accessible online content a top priority.
      • In order for SAC members to depend upon the online publisher-created content that accompanies an adopted textbook, nearly all of the online content must be accessible.