Future Reflections Convention Report 2010

by Dr. David Schleppenbach

*From the Editor: As the world rushes into the Digital Age, new opportunities are opening for blind students of mathematics. Dr. David Schleppenbach of gh, LLC, is one of the innovative thinkers working to make math fully accessible.*

My experience has been in teaching math and science to students with disabilities. I have a degree in math and a degree in chemistry, and I also studied physical chemistry in graduate school. I guess I couldn't get enough of it and kept going back for more. [Laughter.]

I got interested in helping students with disabilities because my wife is blind. She ended up dropping out of college because she couldn't get access to the materials she needed. As a sighted scientist I thought that was ridiculous; in our modern era why couldn't materials be made so that a blind person could use them? That was fifteen years ago, and I was a lot more naïve back then. Now I realize how hard some of the challenges actually are.

When I was in graduate school about fifteen years ago we used research notebooks. The notebook was filled with notes, equations, and hand-drawn pictures in various colors, all blended together. It was all handwritten and very two-dimensional. This is how we were trained to document things when I was in school. We used print textbooks with pages full of equations and pictures. The print was very small. When I wanted to learn something, I went to a library, found a book, read it, wrote down a lot of notes, and hoped that eventually I would find out something. If you needed to find something that wasn't known, you had to hunt up someone who was doing research in that area and ask to see his notebook. Everything was recorded on paper. Millions of facts and figures on paper were buried in libraries.

Contrast that scenario with what I've been using lately--the iPad. I can draw a pattern on the screen. I can enlarge it or shrink it or move it around. On this little device I have the ability to do all of the things I used to do with pencil and paper. I can look up articles that are full of complex equations and charts. If I need to look up information, wherever I happen to be I can pick up my iPad and search.

Nowadays, in the digital world, information is becoming available in ways that were inconceivable even fifteen years ago. This development is of tremendous benefit to students with disabilities. I still can't hand an iPad to a blind student and say, "Use this, your problems are solved." But because mainstream society is putting information into this format, that day will come, and it will come pretty soon. At some point we will be able to hand an iPod to a student and she or he will be able to listen to it and have a tactile display. Whatever the student's preferred method of input and output, the system should work.

This degree of access will be possible because of the development of new standards and specifications for the exchange of information. You may have heard of the DAISY format used in the DAISY-formatted Talking Books. Formats such as DAISY are designed to help people convey information. They can include mathematical equations, pictures, graphs, and all sorts of other things. A wealth of technology is becoming available to people who want to access information in this way. One technique is called Math ML, Math Markup Language. It is used to encode equations, diagrams, and all sorts of other information for people with disabilities or for people who are not disabled. Journal articles by sighted scientists are written in Math ML so they can be emailed from one person to another or posted on a listserv. Access to information is now immediate. Colleagues can share information without having to walk to a library in another building or wait for somebody who's out to lunch.

After doing some work at Purdue and researching how to accommodate around difficult topics such as differential equations, calculus, and physics, I started a company. Our company produces products to help students with disabilities access information. We have a suite of products that is actually called Suite Talk--I didn't come up with the name! [Laughter.] The idea is for these programs to speak to the student. We worked for many years with Dr. Abraham Nemeth to develop a technology called MathSpeak, an open-source program that anyone can use. With MathSpeak the computer automatically converts mathematics into a spoken equation, a spoken string of words that is unambiguous and precise. This technology is profound. It means that one can procure a DAISY book, open it up, and listen to the text and the math. One can use the cursor keys to move around, attach a Braille display, and enter data back in by using the bookmark feature.

You can learn more about MathSpeak by visiting <www.gh-mathspeak.com>. Anyone can use this technology. To date two companies have adopted it in their products, our company, gh, LLC; and Design Science, which makes tools to help people encode and display mathematics. Most of our research has been done with students at the lower grade levels. We started with algebra and pre-algebra because we feel it's very important to convey certain concepts from the beginning. For example, if you don't understand the concept that a fraction has a numerator and a denominator, then it's really hard when you get further along in mathematics. Some of the Design Science tools are used for higher-level math, even by scientists writing journal articles. The program is really meant to cross the spectrum.

There are problems with any attempt at spoken math. Imagine trying to do long division with speech! We're starting to realize that maybe writing long division two-dimensionally isn't the best way to solve the problem. It just happens to be the way people are used to doing it, because of inertia. We've collaborated with university professors to work on better ways to teach.

MathSpeak is similar to a screen reader, but screen readers are expensive and difficult to use. We decided instead to break up the product for specific tasks. We have a book-reading product, a Web-browsing product, a product for taking tests, and a product for writing your own material. Each one is inexpensive and completely self-contained. All of the products have speech and Braille support built into them. To get a book into the program, you download it from any of a variety of sites or make your own book. We have a webinar at <www.gh-accessibility.com>. It shows you how to create your own math book by using either Microsoft Word or Open Office. I won't go into all of the details here, but by using tools that are all free you can create books with Math ML embedded in them, and they will play with our book-reading product. There is a Japanese product that will scan mathematics and convert to Math ML. Also, Windows 7 supports the creation of math, either by scanning or using a handwriting tablet. This way you can input math as a picture or by using a mouse, and it will be converted to Math ML.

This technology is becoming more and more available. The pieces are out there now. The only step remaining is to figure out the interface for each type of disabled student.