Future Reflections Convention Report 2011
From the Editor: The Winter 2011 issue of Future Reflections (Volume 30, Number 1) included a survey designed by mathematician Al Maneki. The questions explored how blind students learn math and do mathematical calculations. At the 2011 NFB convention in Orlando, Dr. Maneki shared the survey's preliminary findings.
As I stated in my article that appeared in Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor, the germ for the math survey sprouted from the workshop I moderated at our convention last year in Dallas, "I Survived Math Class." I'm pleased to report that the responses I have received so far have been most gratifying. We received messages from several people stating that this survey was very much needed, and that even though they were not part of the survey population, they were very interested in the results. We heard from a few teachers of blind and visually impaired students, and we are keeping track of their responses. We even heard from a sighted professor of mathematics who expressed an interest in what we are doing.
Dr. Abraham Nemeth was kind enough to respond to my survey questions. He listed his age range as "90-95." He is obviously retired, but he went into some detail about his work experiences. Although he did not directly answer the question concerning familiarity with the Nemeth Code, I thought that it would be safe to include him in that category. I understand that he is attending this convention.
So far, we have received fifty-three responses. Of these, 30 percent are students; 72 percent are Braille readers (a much higher average than for the general blind population); 10 percent are large-print readers; and 18 percent use speech output. Sixty-four percent of our respondents rated their math experiences as successful, while 36 percent did not (in my opinion, a biased result).
Among our responders who are either not retired or did not list employment status, 89 percent are employed. (This is a much higher figure than that for the general blind population.) Eleven percent are unemployed--also a skewed result.
Among our employed responders, 75 percent use Braille, 17 percent use speech, and 8 percent use large print. The vast majority of employed Braille readers also use a mix of electronic speech, live readers, or large print.
Thus far, we haven't heard from many people who had unsatisfactory math experiences. While it is often difficult to reveal one's unsuccessful experiences, we need to hear about more of these to gain an accurate picture of the state of math education for blind persons. Whether your math experiences have been successful or unsuccessful, please continue to respond to this survey. We need to hear from more of you.
While we must be wary of drawing conclusions from small samples, I want to share some of the impressions I have gathered up to this point.
Some of our respondents were fortunate enough to have Braille textbooks. When Braille was not available, they used recorded textbooks or live readers. With recorded texts, they had to cope with the inconsistencies in which mathematical material was read and the ambiguities of having diagrams and charts described verbally. The most successful respondents did not hesitate to seek clarification from their instructors and to get help from classmates, live readers, or tutors. The most successful respondents were keenly aware of how they used class time to ask questions and to find creative ways to communicate their solutions to homework assignments and test questions.
Numerous respondents commented on the significant amount of extra time that was required for them to complete their math courses. If they did their homework assignments and tests in Braille, time had to be spent on translating their work into print. If they received assignments and tests in print, these had to be read to them, and they had to read their solutions back to their readers.
There is often a disconnect between the functions of math instructors and those of teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) or Disabled Students Services (DSS) staff. Some respondents complained that many instructors ignored the needs of their blind students, assuming that it is the job of the TVI or DSS office to teach math to them, even though this is not the case. We want and need a true partnership here. The math instructor should creatively think of nonvisual ways to teach; these nonvisual methods could also benefit sighted students. TVIs and DSS personnel should know enough math to ensure that materials are properly translated into Braille or recorded formats.
The vast majority of Braille readers claimed a degree of familiarity with the Nemeth code. I gained the distinct impression that Nemeth Code was taught as it was needed. This is as it should be. Some of the respondents said that, given rudimentary knowledge of the code, they proceeded to invent Braille symbols for their own use. This practice should be encouraged, because writing correct code can be cumbersome for notetaking. For our own notes, we can use any shortcuts we want. For reading textbooks produced for general distribution, we must use correct Nemeth Code.
More important than reading math texts is the need to work on exercises and problems to firm up one's mastery of math concepts. This area proved to be most difficult for the respondents. Electronic Braille notetakers don't work because math solutions require the simultaneous examination of multiple lines of calculations and expressions. Writing with slate and stylus was also unsatisfactory, since the page must be turned over to be read. Most Braille readers have found the best success with mechanical Braillewriters such as the Perkins, because embossing is right side up and the paper can be shifted from line to line without disturbing the position of the embossing mechanism. Large-print readers, even the few who know Braille, have used large print to write their solutions. Anyone who has developed sufficient abilities with mental arithmetic may simply dictate solutions to a live reader. None of the respondents, except for a few large-print readers, have expressed confidence in their abilities to construct diagrams and charts.
Technology, no matter how good, can only go so far in helping blind students learn math. Technology by itself will not make learning math easier. It will not turn any of us into brilliant mathematicians. But I think that there is a place for technology. The people who responded to my survey share my beliefs that:
1. We need a multi-line electronic Braille display;
2. We need smoother mechanisms to move from print to spoken math or from print to Nemeth Braille, and to go back from Nemeth Braille to print;
3. Just as we learn Nemeth Code incrementally with our math subjects, we should be taught enough LaTeX, the math typesetting software, to handle our math assignments;
4. Finally, math software such as Mathematica, Maple, and Sage must be made accessible to us, because the use of these tools in the classroom is growing.
I hope to get more responses very soon, and I hope that these responses will shed more light on the experiences we as blind people are having with our math courses. I've not yet decided how best to display a summary of responses while maintaining individual confidiality. I'm thinking about editing the more significant responses and posting them on my own web page with links from the NFB website. I believe that with additional responses, more articles will be forthcoming.
To conclude my report today, I want to quote the response I received from Sandi Ryan, a retired dietician from Ankeny, Iowa. I have her permission to quote her answer to my survey question #10, which asks for comments about how blind and visually impaired people may read and do mathematics. Here is what Sandi says.
"I feel that, as I approach my sixties, I understand a lot more about math and science than I ever thought I would. I had always been given to understand that blind people couldn't do math and science. I was fortunate to know a couple of blind electrical engineers, and they obviously had to do math! If I'd known, going in, how difficult my college career would be, I'd have backed out before I started. But I am glad I didn't know. I learned a great deal from surviving math and science classes. I learned the concepts, of course, but I also learned that I can be pretty creative and innovative when it's needed, and so can some sighted people who agreed to tutor me and used solid objects and hundreds of drawings to make sure that I understood what I needed to know. Incidentally, my tutors were always students--not in my class, but in the discipline I was studying. They took their valuable time to do things for which their payment was meager, to ensure my successful education. Several of them bought into my education as much or more than my teachers did. I am grateful that they believed in me when I wasn't sure I did! I have had a wonderful career as a registered dietician, and I look forward to the future because I have been successful!
"A woman at my university who ran the Handicapped Student Office stated, in a talk during Woman's Week, that not many disabled people are interested in math, science, technology, or engineering. I challenged her, and I still believe this is absolutely not true! I think many disabled people avoid these disciplines because they fear they cannot succeed. And I believe their well-meaning advisors and instructors encourage them to go in another direction. I would love to be around when there are so many blind and otherwise disabled science, technology, engineering, and math professionals that we aren't even pointed out as unusual! I doubt that will happen in my lifetime, but math and science are rewarding, and blind people shouldn't miss out on the rewards because they lack tools and education!"
Thanks to all of you here today. Thanks to our collective efforts in the NFB and the Jernigan Institute, we are turning Sandi's vision and our vision of a brighter math and science future into reality.