Math that feels good

Creating learning resources for blind students (nontechnical version)

A longer and more technical version of this story is available.

San Jose, Calif., January 16, 2020 — Martha Siegel, Professor Emerita from Towson University in Maryland, was working with a blind student who needed a statistics textbook for a required course. The Braille version of the textbook required six months to prepare, a delay which caused the student a significant delay in her studies. Siegel reached out to Al Maneki, a retired NSA mathematician who is blind, and the two of them decided to do something about it.

Focusing on math textbooks initially, Siegel and Maneki pulled together a collaborative team intent on solving the problem. “We were shocked to realize there did not already exist an automated method for producing mathematics Braille textbooks,” said Alexei Kolesnikov, a colleague of Siegel at Towson University and member of the team.

Technical hurdles

It wasn’t simply an issue of converting text to braille; several structural issues needed to be addressed. A typical textbook uses visual clues to indicate chapters, sections, captions, and other landmarks. In Braille, all the letters are the same size and shape so these structural elements must be described with special symbols. Additionally, complicated math formulas must be accurately conveyed, and graphs and diagrams need to be represented in a non-visual way. All of these issues have to be solved for when creating a Braille textbook.

Rob Beezer, a math professor at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, has developed a system for writing textbooks called PreTeXt which automatically produces print versions as well as online, EPUB, Jupyter, and other formats as well. “Our mantra is Write once, read anywhere” he says. In some sense, Braille is just one more output format. 

As for the math formulas, they are represented using the Nemeth Braille Code which are produced by MathJax, a software package originally designed to display math formulas on web pages. Team member Volker Sorge noted, “We have made great progress in having MathJax produce accessible math content on the web by making it audible, so the conversion to braille was a natural extension of that work.” Although online versions and screen readers can help, they don’t eliminate the need for braille formulas. “Having the computer pronounce a formula is not adequate for a blind reader, any more than it would be adequate for a sighted reader” commented project co-leader Al Maneki. Combining the new braille version of a formula with the existing audible online version provides a more robust learning experience for the student.

Free textbooks

This work is part of a larger, growing effort to create high-quality free textbooks for both sighted and blind students. Indeed, the books in this project, the braille versions, and the software used to produce the print, online, and braille versions, are all available for free. “This project is about equity and equal access to knowledge,” said Siegel.

Announcement in Denver

The official announcement of this work will be made at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Denver, Colorado during the following talks on Thursday January 16, 2020, at the Colorado Convention Center, room 506:

11:00am  Transforming Math Documents with MathJax Version 3, by Volker Sorge – Computer Science professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK, is the lead developer for adding accessibility features to MathJax, including the recent enhancements for producing Nemeth Braille.

11:20am  The PreTeXt-Nemeth Connection: Enabling Sighted and Blind People to Share the Mathematical Experience, by Al P. Maneki, senior STEM advisor to the National Federation of the Blind.

11:40am  Automated transcription of a mathematics textbook into Nemeth Braille, by Alexei Kolesnikov – math professor at Towson University in Maryland, and lead developer for the image processing in this project.  Ongoing work will create new ways for describing images with the goal of automating the production of non-visual representations.

Contact information

Media Contact

Genelle Heim
American Institute of Mathematics

Technical Contacts

Robert Beezer
University of Puget Sound

Alexei Kolesnikov
Towson University

Funding information

This work was supported by National Science Foundation grants DUE-1821706 and DMS-1638535, and a grant from the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, affiliated with The National Federation of the Blind. The Big Ten Academic Alliance supported the implementation of Nemeth in the Speech Rule Engine and its integration into MathJax. MathJax work was supported in part by Simons Foundation Grant, No.514521