Chris Weaver
Chris Weaver

New Computer Programs to Assist Blind Mathematicians

by Christopher Weaver

From the Editor: Chris Weaver is a sighted mathematician with a strong commitment to helping blind math students. He believes firmly in the Nemeth code for mathematics. I know him from his lively, informed, and sensible posts to the listserv sponsored by the National Association of Blind Students. Chris recently posted the following notice to that listserv and agreed to modify it slightly for publication in the Braille Monitor. The programs he describes will be of interest to anyone facing an upper-level math course. This is what he says:

     Here is a hopefully brief, readable description of our project. Several months ago I sent a previous draft to Curtis Chong, and he sent it back to me wanting the rewrite to be in English rather than Techno-Speak. So with much assistance from Kelly Burns of our staff, I have tried to make it more comprehensible. If this is either too technical or not technical enough, please ask questions. I am happy to answer anything.

     Our group is called Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students, MAVIS, for short. Sandy Geiger and I started as a pair of math teachers at New Mexico State University. We had a blind student in a class that we were co-teaching. Sadly, we could not provide her the same quality learning materials as we could our sighted students. Consequently, we started looking into developing software that could make our math curriculum accessible. After roping half of the Computer Science department; the National Science Foundation; and MacKichan Software, a local math software company, into our efforts, we have three accessibility programs in various stages of completion.

     The first is our scientific notebook to Nemeth code converter. MacKichan Software's Scientific Notebook is a high-quality, print math-editing program. It allows a user to write and save both text and math. When it prints out, the typesetting of the document is professional quality. Our converter can read the files that it saves and, from those, generate formatted Nemeth Code (Braille mathematics) which is ready to be printed on a Braille embosser (we use a Juliet). It can also be read on a refreshable Braille display. For this ability it won the 1999 International Conference on Technology and Collegiate Mathematics Award for Excellence and Ingenuity in the Use of Technology in Collegiate Mathematics. We are very proud of that award. Nevertheless, to ensure the best quality Braille, we are currently having Braillists test it for accuracy. A portion of it will be embedded in Duxbury sometime in the near future. MacKichan Software's Jack Medd made a significant enough contribution to the code of this converter that we consider him the author.

     Unfortunately, despite Jack and our best attempts, Scientific Notebook is not yet accessible, so blind users cannot use it to write print math. This left us with the question, "How can we make it easier for blind students to write print math?" We have two solutions. The first is our Nemeth code to print math converter. This program is not yet as finished as the scientific notebook to Nemeth code converter. This program is being developed by Gopal Gupta, Haifeng Guo, and me. It is not yet as finished as the Scientific Notebook to Nemeth Code Converter. However, it promises to allow users to write math on a Braille Lite or similar note-taker and then convert their writings to a Scientific Notebook file, which can be printed out on a laser printer.

     Users will have to use a very slightly altered version of Nemeth Code for the benefit of the computer, but the alterations will be minimal. One slight drawback of the program is that it does not leave much room for errors. That is, if you want it to work, you have to write good Nemeth Code or else get a not-very-helpful error message when you go to convert. We are working on that problem, though.

     Our third piece of software, in development by Arthur Karshmer and Josh Shagam, is our second attempt to make life easier for the blind mathematics writer with a sighted audience. We are attempting to make an audio math browser that could work in conjunction with a screen reader to make math editing packages like Scientific Notebook accessible. Our prototype gives users an overall view of the mathematics they are looking at and then lets them decide which details they want to study. Our research has shown that audio presentations of mathematics that don't allow users to select details at their own pace go in one ear and out the other. Our method allows users to go back over anything that they might have missed, much as they would with written mathematics. Also we provide sounds that give users hints about where they are within a mathematical expression. However, this software still needs much work.

     We also test other math access programs' innovations that we think might help blind readers and writers handle math. We are currently working with Duxbury, Oregon State University, Arizona State University, Metroplex Voice Computing, and others. If you are interested in more details, please write to me or call me. I will answer your questions as best I can.

     You can find me at Mathematics Accessible to Visually Impaired Students (MAVIS), New Mexico State University, Department of Mathematical Sciences MSC 3MB, P.O. Box 30001, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003, Voice: (505) 646-2664, Fax: (505) 646-1064, e-mail: <chrweave@nmsu.edu>.

     We also have loads of information available on the World Wide Web at <www.nmsu.edu/~mavis>.