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Inaccessible Math Changes Lives

Several math symbols and numbers

The lack of access to accessible math is a true impediment to individuals, such as myself, who are blind. Yes, there are many examples of people who are blind moving on to become mathematicians, software engineers, and other types of professions which require and use high-level math skills. But for each of these success stories, there are many others who may have been denied access to these fields due to the barriers caused by inaccessible math content. I would like to tell my story of dealing with inaccessible math in college, and how it affected my course of study.

It is important to mention that I was born with congenital glaucoma and was fortunate to have 2040 vision in one eye until I was 22, at which time I lost my remaining functional vision and became, for all intents and purposes, fully blind. After losing my vision, I worked with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services to study independent living skills, Braille skills, and to work on finding a job or educational program to develop skills for a future job. After 3-4 months studying the basics of living as a blind person - simple Braille, cane mobility, assistive technology, etc. - I opted to take advantage of the opportunity VR provided and pursue a degree in computer science. 

The issues caused by lack of accessible math became very obvious when I enrolled in my first math class: College Algebra I. The institution had no way to provide me with an e-text version that would provide accessible math and would be compatible with my screen reader. I was provided two solutions by disability services - a reader to help me read the material or a Braille version. Having only studied Braille for a few months, I was nowhere near proficient enough for the latter option. I opted for the first choice of having a reader work with me to read the material. 

It turns out that reading math content is only the first part. Once you have read the equation, you then need to work it in order to figure out the answer. This became another barrier - the tools commonly used to work equations and which were made available weren’t accessible. The best solution the institution and I (having been blind for only 2-3 years) could come up with at the time required a combination of typing equations into Notepad and attempting to work them with my screen reader. From there, the solution relied on the reader to operate the course-approved calculator, and (depending on the assignment type) either attempting to enter the solutions into the online assignment tool with my screen reader if/when possible, or having the reader also serve as a scribe and enter the solution online or write it down on paper. As you can imagine, it was an approach that left me wholly and completely dependent on working with the sighted reader/scribe. 

In the end I did make it through College Algebra I, having passed the class with a B grade. On average it took 12-15 hours a week working with the scribe in order to do it, and the thought of continuing to use this approach seemed daunting. In order to earn my B.S. in computer science, I still needed to take Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Statistics 341, Discrete Math, Algorithms, and Linear Optimization - all classified as math courses in the course catalog. If it took 12-15 hours per week with the scribe to get through the first (and presumably the easiest) course, then how many hours per week would I need to work with the scribe to get through those upper-level math courses?

After speaking with disability services and the chair of the computer science program, and not being offered any alternatives or other solutions, I finally decided to change majors. The program I switched to, and eventually graduated from, was the management information systems (MIS) program from the School of Business Administration. That course of study eventually ended up providing me with invaluable skills which I use in my work at Accessible360 everyday - consulting, project management, business operations, communications, web design, etc. So in many ways I am very happy I ended up transferring to the MIS program, but it doesn’t change the fact that in many ways I felt forced to do so.

The lack of access to accessible math changed the trajectory of my education and by extension the course of my life. I am fortunate to be one of the few for whom it led to positive change, but this isn’t the case for many other blind individuals. Fortunately, tools and technologies are constantly evolving on this front, and it’s become easier than ever to at least ensure math content can be presented in a manner that makes it readable for users. Tools such as MathJax, the Math Support Finder, and support for reading math content within some screen readers are already available, and future tools such as Project Lower Dots (proposed by Aaron Cannon, my colleague at Accessible360) have been proposed, which could help blind folks have access to math once and for all.

Contact Accessible360 today and find out whether or not your math content is readable using a screen reader! 

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