Access to High-level Mathematics Using LaTeX

In my short time as a vision teacher and assistive technology specialist, I have come to appreciate the vast lengths that developers have gone to in order to produce the software and devices that allow our students to achieve a comparable level of access to day to day learning materials and instructional content.  Students who have low vision can achieve magnification and a variety of other visual improvements to access print and digital content.  Students who have low functional vision or blindness can take advantage of braille in hard copy and electronic formats, as well as access materials auditorily through screen reading software on a variety of common high-tech devices.

Now, my passion as an assistive technology specialist is to ensure that all of the students I serve are individually supported to the fullest of their capabilities so they can achieve to their optimal potential in life.  Included are those students who are high-achieving in their academic pursuits.  I have had a few students who are, with a lack for better description, brilliant.  Yet, even such students require support and introductions to new concepts; it is quite difficult to learn what you do not realize you need to learn.

Today, my rambling takes me to the topic of access to high-level mathematics for braille-reading students aspiring and hoping to prepare for academic pursuits in mathematics and related studies in college and ultimately their vocation.  These students excel at completing their mathematics through Nemeth code and the tireless support of teachers, etc. who prepare items like graphics, etc. to represent various concepts.  However, in a broad sense, I have witnessed most students resorting to a few, relatively restrictive solutions that do not appear to translate well into post-secondary mathematics and beyond.

Here is what I see most often in high school math settings, from an assistive technology and technology perspective:

  • Dictating answers to a scribe
  • Completing assignments using a Perkins braillewriter, perhaps assisted by a talking calculator like the Orion TI-84
  • Completing assignments on a braille notetaker, using its word processor and math braille features
  • Typing up answers on a computer in a personal shortform or other system to represent answers

To be clear, the above are not bad solutions.  For certain, if something works well for a student, careful consideration should be given regarding why and how to transition to a more long lasting method.  However, what I am concerned about is that the above solutions do not appear to rise to the level of efficiency and effectiveness of access that a high-achieving college student might desire to have.  For example, dictating answers implies that you are relying on others to complete work, manually brailled work is not easily or readily transcribed for sighted teachers, braille notetakers may not be compatible with certain aspects of the class routine, and individual methods of recording answers will require explanation of one's system in order for others to understand.

Hopefully, by now you see where I am trying to lead you to: The conclusion that our students may need to learn some kind of solution that will allow them to efficiently and effectively participate in the receiving, completing, and submitting of high-level mathematics.  In completing some research on my own, I believe the answer to be rooted in something called LaTeX.  (For those wondering, LaTex is pronounced "LAY-TEK.")

LaTeX is a mathematics markup, or typesetting, language that is used in the mathematics and science communities to represent all of the symbols, etc. that one might need to use in writing up some math.  Essentially, the LaTeX code was developed so that there might be a uniform, universal system for representing math that can be easily coded non-graphically using a keyboard and then accurately turned into their graphical equivalent if desired.  The great thing about LaTeX is that it can be coded in a basic word processor, within which a screen reader like JAWS or NVDA can be set to read all symbols and punctuation, providing full context to the characters present and being entered.

How LaTeX can be useful to a higher-education math or science major is that it is well known by professors; instead of figuring out convoluted methods of producing braille versions of their work for students, they could provide the LaTeX source materials for class work that the students can access on a computer for auditory access and even braille access through a paired refreshable braille display.  Provided the student understands LaTeX and its rules to representing mathematics, they can have a high-quality of access to the information being provided, like practice problems, etc.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that I have no skillset within the world of using LaTex.  However, it is on my to-do list.  I am certain that there are students that I am going to encounter who have the highest of aspirations, and I want to be prepared to prepare them for success in working toward their goals.  First off, I am going to be looking into quality learning tools and guides for LaTeX, and alongside those materials I hope to dive into figuring out exactly how screen readers need to be set in order to provide the level of auditory feedback students need to fully grasp the mathematics being presented.

I hope this post has brought new thoughts to your mind.  Do you have experience with LaTeX?  I and many others need your help!  Please share any resources you know of, and let's talk!

Here are some resources I was inspired by or found as I looked into the world of LaTeX: