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[Item from March 2001 JVIB]

Copyright 2001, American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, March 2001.

Signed report

Susan Osterhaus, Chris Weaver, and Marie Amerson with Mary Ann Siller, project coordinator

Since 1998, the AFB (American Foundation for the Blind) Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum has sought to identify ways to ensure that students with visual impairments receive learning materials in accessible formats at the same time their peers receive the materials in print. Various AFB Solutions Forum stakeholders have been active in projects that help provide accessible textbooks for children with visual impairments and make life easier for their teachers. One important development to achieve this goal is the creation of braille conversion software that is designed to work with files from a print math editing program.

The graphical nature of mathematical and scientific notation, along with special braille codes--such as Nemeth Code, the braille code for mathematics--needed to represent complicated formulas, have presented unique problems in the delivery of accessible textbooks for mathematics and science instruction. Existing software that converts print mathematics into Nemeth Code requires mathematics to be written in a computer language that is unambiguous in its presentation of mathematical structures in order to correctly generate Nemeth Code. However, many computer languages that are used to represent mathematics provide only a recipe to draw the mathematics and do not provide explicit information on mathematical structure, which is vital information for the production of accurate Nemeth Code.

Scientific Notebook (SN) is a print math editing program that scripts mathematics in a clear, unambiguous way that is ideal for transcription into Nemeth Code. SN has a number of automatic formatting controls for text elements, such as headers, displayed equations, and bulleted or numbered lists. Although these features make mathematics look pretty on print paper, the ability to detect and eliminate these additional structures is crucial to getting correctly formatted braille out of a Nemeth Code converter. In addition, SN includes a built-in scientific graphing calculator, which has a view screen that can be enlarged to 400%, used with a computer program that enlarges text, or used independently by a student with low vision to complete homework assignments.

Because adaptations to SN would make it possible for students with visual impairments to have large print and braille access to mathematics, a project to adapt SN with braille conversion (SN/conversion) software was started by volunteer Jack Medd with guidance from an AFB Solutions Forum stakeholder, the Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students (MAVIS) program at New Mexico State University. Chris Weaver, MAVIS program coordinator, continued the braille conversion software project after Medd's departure. In the earliest stages of the project, Susan Osterhaus, secondary mathematics teacher and teacher of the visually impaired at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and AFB Solutions Forum member, participated in a beta test of the SN/conversion software. Later, the software was tested by other teachers of students with visual impairments and Nemeth Code transcribers. The test used the software to prepare, from one print mathematics document, multiple copies in regular print, large print, and braille. Feedback from the beta test indicated that the SN/conversion software was user friendly and accurate and that it easily and quickly prepared the multiple copies in much less time than traditional methods.

The collaboration between MAVIS and the creators of SN has resulted in a converter that understands the source mathematics and produces excellent Nemeth Code by computer generator standards. Any program is susceptible to bugs, and decisions regarding natural language cannot be made by a computer program. Proofreading the output with a screen reader would help catch most conversion mistakes.

At about the same time Susan Osterhaus began testing the SN/converter, math professor Henry Gray from Metroplex Voice Computing approached her regarding the efficacy of applying the basic product to blind users' needs. Osterhaus and Gray are currently beta testing a speech recognition package for the SN/converter called Math Talk for the Visually Impaired. The combined Math Talk/SN/converter would feature a read-back feature that would allow blind students to independently use many of the SN features, including printing documents converted into large print and braille.

Neal Kuniansky from Duxbury, Inc. is collaborating with MAVIS. The stakeholders of the AFB Solutions Forum are beta testing a DBT WIN 10.3 version, which uses the MAVIS converter and allows a file to be prepared in SN and imports it directly into DBT for a final proofreading before embossing. In addition, Chris Weaver is working on a Nemeth Code back-translator, which will convert Nemeth Code into print and display the converted document in SN.

Weaver and Osterhaus report that the December 2000 issue of the Mathematics Teacher contains a review of SN, which should spread the news about SN to regular math teachers. The AFB Solutions Forum advocates math teachers' use of SN for their math materials, since SN provides teachers with an inexpensive, user-friendly way to furnish all of their students with high-quality, accessible documents.

This project related to SN and collaborative efforts to address accessibility of math materials is one example of the types of solutions endorsed by the AFB Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum--various stakeholders coming together to solve problems so that students with visual impairments will have the right learning materials at the right time.

For more information, contact: Susan Osterhaus, secondary mathematics teacher, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; e-mail: or Chris Weaver, program director, Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students (MAVIS), New Mexico State University; e-mail: .