Future Reflections         Winter 2011

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Handling Math in Braille?
A Survey

by Alfred P. Maneki, PhD

Dr. Al Maneki teaches the students attending a meeting of the NFB’s National Association of Blind Students.From the Editor: At the 2010 NFB convention in Dallas, Dr. Al Maneki moderated a lively panel on access to mathematics classes by blind students. The response to the panel was enthusiastic, but it raised a number of unanswered questions. Al realized how little is actually known about how blind people handle the many challenges of math. With the help of Judith Chwalow, DrPH, and Mark Riccobono of the NFB Jernigan Institute, he has compiled a series of survey questions to help us learn more.

How do blind and visually impaired people read and do mathematics? I address this question to any blind person who has studied math at any level, or who uses math regularly in his or her work.

Technology makes Braille materials more available than ever before. However, it is unclear whether the greater availability of Braille extends to the field of mathematics. Even if mathematical materials are available in Braille, the question remains of how blind and visually impaired people actually perform mathematical tasks--solve problems; prove theorems; take tests; and write papers, dissertations, and books. How do blind and visually impaired people communicate mathematically with others?

As a blind person, I have studied and worked as a mathematician for my entire adult life. I have answered the above questions for my own situation. Yet it is clear to me that mine are not the only answers. We know that a number of blind and visually impaired people have done and are currently doing mathematics, but we have no systematic information about the methods they find most useful. To help the blind community, we need to gather answers from a number of people with a variety of experiences. We plan to organize and summarize these answers and publish the results in a form that will be helpful to teachers, parents, students, and blind adults.

With the help of Judy Chwalow, Director of Research at the NFB Jernigan Institute, I have compiled a set of questions that I would like to circulate as widely as possible. If you wish to furnish answers to some or all of these questions, please send your responses to me. While this is an informal survey, I believe that the responses we receive will prove valuable to many people.

Who Should Complete This Survey?

We would like to hear from any blind or visually impaired person who has taken or is taking at least one math or math-based science course at the secondary or postsecondary school level. We would also like to hear from any parent or teacher who has advised or assisted a blind or visually impaired child with at least one math or math-based science course. Furthermore, we are interested in students' experiences learning geometry or elementary school arithmetic.

There is no restriction on when or how long ago you or your child took a math course. We want to learn about the methods of handling math that worked best for you. We are equally interested in methods that were not particularly successful or useful.

If you or your child are considering taking math courses at any level, you should read these survey questions. They may help you get the information you need to complete your courses successfully.

Instructions

In your responses, please provide me with contact information (name, address, email, phone) so that I may reach you for possible clarifications and follow-up interviews. Please also include your age (closest to five-year multiples, i.e., 20-25, 25-30, etc.); the highest level of education you have completed; your primary reading medium; and your current employment status and job title.

You need not answer all of the questions, since some of them may not be relevant to your experience. You do not have to answer questions separately. You may provide a narrative summary for your response to this survey.

If you require additional information about these questions, please get in touch with me. You may contact me by email, phone, or snail mail. My contact information appears at the end of the survey.

You may submit your responses by email or snail mail (Braille or print please, no audio) to the addresses shown below. Please complete this survey by April 15, 2011. Persons taking courses after this date may respond later, as I anticipate a continuation of this survey.

Your answers will not be used to judge your mathematical strengths or weaknesses. Any personal information you may reveal in your responses will remain confidential. Names, mailing addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers will not be distributed.

Survey Questions

Here are the questions to consider:

1. What math or math-based science courses have you taken (elementary, secondary, community college/university, graduate school)? Specify the level of each course, and describe the subject matter that was included.

2. Were classroom lectures useful to you? Since mathematics is generally communicated visually, tell us as specifically as you can what you actually learned from these lectures. If lectures were not helpful, tell us what you did to compensate for the missing information.

3. Were you able to take classroom notes? If so, tell us what method you used: large print, hardcopy Braille, electronic or live notetakers, audio recordings, etc.

4. How did you handle reading assignments? Tell us about your use of Braille textbooks, recorded textbooks, large print textbooks, or the use of live readers or tutors.

5. How did you do homework assignments and take tests? Describe your use of large print, notetakers, hardcopy Braille, mental arithmetic, or dictation to a live reader. If you used Braille, describe your method of translating Braille into a medium accessible to instructors who do not know Braille. If you used Braille/print reverse translation software of any kind, describe how this worked. In your answer to this question, tell us about any additional devices and technologies you have used, i.e., older devices such as the Taylor Slate, Cube-a-Rithm Slate, Circular Slide Rule, and Cranmer Abacus; and newer devices such as talking calculators or specialized learning software.

6. Have you written papers containing mathematical content in an academic or professional setting? Describe how you did this, especially the use of human support.

7. How did you work with line drawings, graphs, or charts? Explain how these were described to you or produced in accessible formats. If you had to construct these items, tell us how you accomplished this task.

8. How familiar are you with the Nemeth Braille code? Describe the extent to which you use it for reading or writing.

9. Are there any tools/devices/aids that you wish you had had that would have enhanced your mathematical experiences?

10. How satisfied are you with your mathematical experiences? Are there other comments you would like to make about how blind and visually impaired people may read and do mathematics?

Conclusion

This is an informal survey. I am conducting it with the intention of using the results to help others who will be taking math and math-based science courses in the future. The results of this survey, after they have been compiled, may also prove useful to people who are accustomed to doing math in their own ways. These folks may find new ways of working more productively. It could further turn out that these responses will suggest altogether different ways of doing math, either by refining methods already in use or by suggesting the development of new techniques and technologies. I fervently hope that over time this survey will make it possible for blind and visually impaired people to learn and do mathematics more efficiently and with greater ease.

I plan to compile the first set of responses (received by April 15, 2011) into an article, ideally for publication in the newly established Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research. It is also my hope that this survey will be a continuing investigation. Additional articles pertaining to this survey will be published if they are warranted.

In preparing this article and survey, I received valuable help from Deborah Kent Stein, editor of Future Reflections, and from Mark Riccobono and Judith Chwalow of the NFB Jernigan Institute. Although they have left their marks on this article and survey, I assume responsibility for all shortcomings, errors, and omissions.

I thank you in advance for helping me with this survey. I look forward to hearing from you.

Al Maneki
Email: apmaneki@earthlink.net
(443) 745-9274 (Cell)
9013 Nelson Way, Columbia, MD 21045

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