Written by Sharon Rosenblatt
April is National Mathematics Awareness Month, and I got back ‘in the classroom’ at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in San Diego. As a staunch accessibility and disability advocate, I’ve worked with a number of clients in education and the finance industries who are in the sticky position of finding their math content unreadable by students with disabilities. Often scanned in as PDFs, math formulas and equations are not read well, coherently, or even at all by screen readers. Some have toggled with solutions of tagging a formula as an image and then providing a textual description as alternative text, we realized there had to be a better way.
Alternative text is a textual description of something visual, like an image. Providing alternative text for a math equation is helpful, but not ideal. Math isn’t necessarily visual, so describing it in words and punctuation means that much gets lost in the translation. If math is technically its own language, shouldn’t we treat it as such?
Enter MathML: the dedicated encoding of math as a markup language, similar to its relative of HTML or XML. When used correctly, MathML can be used to encode both the presentation of mathematical notation for display, and mathematical content, for websites and documents, like those in EPUB. MathML is not a new language, but it is gaining traction as the shift to learning becomes more electronic and less in textbook.
MathML is important for accessibility and web standards because it allows equations to be stored as structured text, whether online or in documents. Especially relevant for accessibility, when online, it can be reformatted and expanded for low-vision users as a scalable graphic. Most importantly, is that if a screen reader can process MathML, a blind users can navigate and review parts of an equation, such as the top portion of a complex fraction.
Curious to learn more? I met with the DIAGRAM Center at the conference. Their website is a tremendous resource if you’re struggling how to relate math in an electronic formula to your students with visual disabilities. They have free online work pads and conversions into various formats.
While math accessibility is not perfect yet (geometry is still a major accessibility sticking point), I couldn’t help but think about how visual math is, and how hard it can be to initially translate back to a screen reader. MathML proves to be an efficient way to ‘speak’ math, and it’s providing new access. People with visual disabilities and other assistive technology users can now interact with online text books and eLearning where before it wasn’t possible. It promotes more education opportunities and career advancement. Definitely a winning formula!