I didn’t walk into math classes worried about whether the homework would be hard or what the tests would be like. Instead, I was anxious about how as a student blind from birth; I would access the book, take tests, and access diagrams. What if I had trouble in the class? With few external sources on which to rely, would I find a tutor or instructor who could convey information to me non-visually? In most cases, the answer to these questions was a resounding no. My high school heavily emphasized math and science, so I always felt more behind and less capable than my classmates. The difficulty I had with math also limited me from taking several Advanced Placement science courses that many of my peers were able to take without a problem. However, as a college student, I have come to realize that rather than inaptitude, my struggles primarily stemmed from a lack of resources and positive societal reinforcement that my peers did not experience.
It is common knowledge in the blindness community that fully accessible math textbooks are hard to come by. While many papers, abstracts, and articles detail the problems with accessibility, reliable research involving a population of adequate sample size does not exist. However, based on the fact that very few blind students find success in math despite having comparable intelligence to their sighted peers, we know this is a common problem. Books in hard copy Braille are expensive and timely to prepare, not easily brought between destinations, and can sometimes make for difficult navigation. The logical solution for the blind population is to turn to electronic textbooks because students can receive auditory and refreshable Braille output, and in some cases, the student can run a Braille cursor under an unidentifiable symbol to read a literary description. Further, electronic texts are portable so students can take the entire book with them wherever they want as well as write notes inside the book. However, I currently know of only two sources that offer such books in a usable format. They are called Bookshare and Learning Ally, web based services dedicated to providing accessible EBooks to populations who require alternate means of accessing the printed word. In addition to the fact that they are not updated on a regular basis, these specially prepared books can contain errors and lack text descriptions of diagrams and images necessary for blind users to understand the content.
Sighted students have access to abundant stashes of electronic mathematical materials including eBooks found on commercial sites like Amazon, ITunes, and My Math Lab as well as countless articles, tutorials, power points, and YouTube videos detailing any mathematical concept you could ever imagine. Blind students do not enjoy this same access, and this could be detrimental to the learning process. Let’s take for example a common occurrence that took place during my career as a student. Let’s say I am doing a worksheet that requires me to simplify different types of exponential expressions, but I can’t remember how and I don’t have the volume of the hard copy Braille textbook with me that explains how to do it. I need to have this work in by tomorrow, so getting help from a teacher at school isn’t an option. I try to use the internet to find the information I need, only to find that information to be in graphics or flash content that I can’t access. I call a student in my class to ask for help, only to find that I still can’t understand because the student only knows how to present the information visually. By this time, I have spent hours on this one worksheet, and still don’t have it done. An accessible electronic textbook would have helped solve this problem.
To understand the access issues other blind students and I face, you need to start with a basic understanding of how blind people read and process this type of information. Again, I am unable to locate outside research on this topic, and this might be due to the common beliefs that Braille cannot adequately represent complex mathematical equations and that equations have to be written multidementionally. However, I believe that when jumping to these conclusions, sighted people aren’t willing to explore the possibility that they process information differently than their blind counterparts. It has been scientifically proven that blind peoples’ brains can rewire themselves to operate differently than those of sighted people. Though there are several scientific studies with adequate sample populations to represent this fact, the research and case studies depicted in a book called Crashing Through were what most interested me. The book uses personal accounts and outside research to tell the true story of Mike Mae who was blind since the age of three and got a surgery to restore his sight near the age of 40 only to find that he still could not process visual information. After several brain scans researchers learned that this was because his occipital neurons had reassigned themselves to do other tasks.
Now, let’s turn our attention back to how other blind students and I process information in a mathematical context. Based on my personal experience and the experiences recounted to me by other blind students, the main problem with electronic material is that blind people read math linearly whereas sighted people don’t. In most cases, we read math from left to right and top to bottom to make sure we are getting all the information on the page in a layout that our brains don’t have to reorganize. This is especially true for congenitally blind students whose brains have rewired themselves to process and manipulate tactile and auditory information rather than visual information. This means that blind people read fractions from left to right with parenthesis or special symbols to differentiate the numerator from the denominator, use replacement or special symbols to eliminate sub and superscripts, and employ various other linear representations for even the most complicated of notations. For sighted people, this method might be tedious or impractical, but for me and other blind students, this logical linear representation makes much more sense than a multidimensional representation. Even manufactures of screen readers will tell you that rather than create an exact auditory replication, they have to make programs that reorganize information into a more linear format to increase usability. Furthermore, we have difficulty interpreting graphics and flash content unless alt text is present. Alt text is information you can add to your content that only screen readers can access. This alt text can provide a blind user verbal or text descriptions of visually formatted equations and other graphical information. In this way, sighted users can access mathematical content visually while blind users can access that same content non-visually.
The low societal expectations for blind people in the math arena and the lack of awareness of the needs of blind classroom participants could take decades to fix, but providing accessible electronic textbooks is something we can do in the more immediate future to forward the success of blind students in math classrooms as well as lead them to financially stable and fulfilling Employment. As a student in the information technology field, I am looking forward to that day.