Braille Monitor                         July 2021

(back) (contents) (next)

The NFB Science and Engineering Division and the NFB National Association of Blind Students Joint STEM Zoom Conference Meeting Report for February 28, 2021

by Neil Soiffer, Gene Kim, Newton Nguyen, and Louis Maher

Louis MaherFrom the Editor: Most articles in the Braille Monitor can be read by anyone regardless their education or background. But some articles are for a specific audience, and this is one of them. If you are beyond learning or using mathematic beyond the simple four functions, this article may not be for you, but if you are a student who must take a course in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics and aren’t sure how to do it using today’s assistive technology, this piece is right down your alley. If you want to find a career path in STEM, you will get some real world examples of what works, how well it works, and what accessibility issues we need to work on before your grade or your profession depends upon it.

Thank you to Louis Maher for taking the time to write this up, and thank you to the two Federation divisions that offered the seminar.

The National Federation of the Blind's Science and Engineering Division (SED) and the National Federation of the Blind's National Association of Blind Students (NABS) held a joint Zoom conference on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) on Sunday, February 28, 2021. This is a summary of the presentations given at this conference.

Unlike most Braille Monitor articles, this article will not explain everything. Also, the article does not have references for all the devices and programs discussed here. The purpose of this article is to summarize many of the tools and techniques that allow the blind to be successful in their STEM careers.

A recording of this meeting is available at:

Trisha Kulkarni is the president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS), and she welcomed the audience to the annual NABS/SED joint conference on how blind individuals are succeeding in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. She introduced John Miller, president of the Science and Engineering Division (SED), who was the moderator for the evening.

President Miller thanked the speakers for presenting at this event. He said that often a student may have only one science or math requirement to fulfill for that student's degree and said that the SED members would be glad to help students overcome their technical problems.

A summary of the presentations follows:

Title: “Methods for the Blind to Electronically Read and Write Mathematics from Primary School through College”

Speaker: Neil Soiffer

Neil SoifferNeil Soiffer was a principal architect of MathML, the standard for putting math on the web. He was the main developer of MathPlayer, which is used with NVDA to make math accessible in Web, Word, and PowerPoint documents. He has published numerous papers on math accessibility and is a member of various standards groups concerned with accessibility on the Web and elsewhere. He currently chairs the MathML Refresh community group that is working on greater browser support for MathML along with updating the MathML standard. He received a BS in math from MIT and a PhD in computer science from UC Berkeley. He has worked at Tektronix's Computer Research Lab, Wolfram Research (Mathematica), Design Science (MathType, MathPlayer), and has now formed his own accessibility company, Talking Cat Software.


Reading Math


How it Works

Side note: If you do not know Nemeth Code, try to learn it! Every VI teacher I know says the most successful students are the ones proficient in Nemeth Code.

Where it Works

You can read this format with JAWS/NVDA using the Thorium program. Two sources for accessible books are RedShelf and VitalSource Bookshelf online.

Screen Reader Reading Differences

Writing Math

WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get)




Typing # will generate heading 1, typing ## will generate heading 2, …

Learning Math

Some sites that make use of MathML that are tutorials or explanations

Doing Math

Title - Where Humanities, Social Science, and Engineering Collide: Perspectives on the Value of Interdisciplinary Study and Research

Speaker: Gene Kim

Gene KimGene Kim is a sophomore at Stanford University studying symbolic systems, a program that explores the crossroads of computer science, psychology, philosophy, and linguistics. He is an undergraduate researcher with Stanford Shape Lab and has worked on projects in data visualization/sonification and haptic/multi-modal accessibility devices. He lost most of his vision about four years ago from progressive retinal detachment and while he started his nonvisual STEM journey recently, he is excited to share his experiences/techniques with everyone.


Combinatory Play:

“Combinatory Play” was coined by Einstein and is the process of making connections from seemingly unrelated fields to come up with innovative/creative ideas.

Examples of Combinatory Play include deep learning neural networks in computer science (inspired from neuroscience/the anatomy of the brain),

The first ever printing press (Gutenberg printing press) that combined aspects of coin presses and wine presses,

The Google search engine algorithm was inspired by system of frequency/popularity of research citations in academia,

Nike’s high traction rubber shoe design was inspired by the shape of a waffle maker, and Steve Jobs borrowed from calligraphy to design the impactful Mac typefonts, etc.


Resources and tools that helped Gene study STEM.

Numpad shortcuts for writing math:  

Title - Trial and Error: Toward Faster Methods of Learning STEM Skills as a Blind Student

Speaker: Newton Nguyen

Newton NguyenNewton Nguyen is a PhD Candidate at Caltech, where he is developing the next generation's greenhouse gas observation network. He was previously employed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and was on the NASA science team for the CLARREO climate satellite mission. He cofounded the Blind STEM Mentorship Program, Caltech Disability Coalition, and serves on Caltech's Graduate Admissions Committee. Newton holds a MS in environmental science and engineering from Caltech and a BA in geophysics from Berkeley. 


Newton is working on a PhD in environmental science and engineering. How was it for him to work on these subjects?

In California, the university is responsible for accommodations inside the classroom, and state agencies are responsible for accommodations outside the classroom. Note that the student is responsible for coordinating these efforts.

Newton did not know this in his first undergraduate semester. He dropped out of his calculus class because he had no books. His first semester was a crash course on how accessibility works.

Newton advises:

1. Work on your accommodations months ahead of time. It can be difficult to get state support. It may take months to get books in accessible form.

2. Get a personal assistant who can serve as a scribe and reader for those times when accessible educational material and equipment are not available. Textbooks often do not come on time, and there are often inaccessible classroom handouts and inaccessible laboratory equipment.

3. Get proper skills. Learn how to read and write mathematics. Use the tools discussed in the talks presented above.

Lessons learned by Newton:

1. How to reach out for help: locate the individuals with the knowledge and resources that you need.

2. You do not know what you do not know. You will need mentors.

3. You will have to know how to acquire technical skills on your own. It can be difficult to find resources online to answer your specific questions.

4. Newton did not have a community to work with him. He was the only seismic engineering student in his university system.

The Science and Engineering division's STEM Mentorship Program was developed by Newton Nguyen, Gene Kim, and Kennedy Stomberg. The program seeks to pair STEM students with mentors. One of the program's activities is to host a monthly STEM seminar where students and mentors can discuss STEM techniques.

To join the program, and for questions about the program, write to [email protected].

Newton is working on a Wikipedia page to explain methods that will enable the blind to perform STEM tasks. He wishes to develop a one-stop page for blind STEM techniques.

Wrap up:

John Miller and Trisha Kulkarni thanked the individuals who produced the STEM meeting including Ashley Neybert who handled the Zoom logistics.

If you wish to learn more about NABS, including how to become a member, go to:

If you wish to join the SED, go to:

Dues for NABS and SED are $5 a year.

Individuals may join the NABS and SED email discussion groups at


If there are any questions about the National Association of Blind Students, please contact Trisha Kulkarni ([email protected]).

If there are any questions about the Science and Engineering Division, please contact John Miller (Phone: 858-774-9286, [email protected]).

If there are any questions about this report, please contact Louis Maher (Phone: 713-444-7838, [email protected]).

(back) (contents) (next)