# [Blindmath] Future Engineering Student

Michael Whapples mwhapples at aim.com
Sat Jan 2 07:16:45 CST 2010

Hello,
There's quite a lot to discuss from your question, so this message might
get quite long. Also what is relevant for you is probably best answered
by you, we can suggest and describe what we have found useful but what
works for one doesn't always work for all.

Before discussing the various software and hardware, you might be
interested in the Summer University event John Gardner mentioned here
back in December (here is a link to his post
http://www.nfbnet.org/pipermail/blindmath_nfbnet.org/2009-December/002344.html
and here is a link to the information on the ICCHP website
http://www.icchp.org/call/summeruniversity). From what I understand this
would be a very good opportunity for you to learn about the various
sort of student this is aimed at. I don't know how possible it would be
for you to attend.

Software such as mathematica and maple are mainstream items of software
used in subjects using maths, it may be best to find out whether you
would be expected to use these for your course and possibly what parts
of the software you will be using. Once you know which software would be
used on your course then we could suggest how that particular product
can be made more accessible or a suitable alternative.

Next mathtype, it is a add on for word to enable you to write equations
in a word document. This is a mainstream product but can be used by a
screen reader user if you use the LaTeX (see my section on LaTeX) input
mode for equations. There are a number of products which can produce
Braille/tactile output of mathtype documents. I am unsure of the
accessibility of reading documents prepared in mathtype, this is due to
me not actually trying it out for myself and most reports I hear about
mathtype focus on the creation of documents.

Next I will mention LaTeX. This is an alternative document authoring
tool. The most significant difference with LaTeX is that you create the
document in plain text (so use what ever text editor takes your fancy,
even notepad although there are some text editors with LaTeX modes to
assist you author LaTeX documents) with special commands representing
formatting and advanced notation (eg. \frac{x}{y} would be the command
used for a fraction of x over y). When you want to produce standard
print notation to hand in, you use the LaTeX software to convert your
input file to an output format such as PDF. LaTeX is also a mainstream
item of software and is quite widely used with in mathematics and
science departments of universities, and due to this your final
documents look very good and professional. One of the problems with
LaTeX is that it differs significantly from standard graphical editors
such as Microsoft word and may be a bit hard to learn at first. Also
LaTeX can do so much, sometimes you may struggle to find what will do
precisely what you want or the default settings may not behave quite as
you want and you may need to do a lot of extra commands to force LaTeX
to behave as you want. For this reason LaTeX source documents can become
quite cluttered with extra commands and so I personally would only
recommend LaTeX for authoring documents (some here say they can read
anyone's LaTeX documents easily and comfortably and so are happy to read
documents in LaTeX, I feel that should be a last resort, accurate
Braille or dotsplus in my mind would be preferable for reading, remember
what works for one doesn't work for all).

I additionally will add (as I have recently tried this) LaTeX can be put
to more uses than just producing mathematical documents, there's
packages for almost any type of document, for example you can produce a
presentation using the beamer package. My experience of using beamer
probably sums up LaTeX, it was quite easy to produce the slides except
for one little thing where I tried to include a sound but I couldn't get
it to auto play in the actual presentation despite having minimal
examples working fine and not seeing any obvious difference in how I had
done it, I had to be satisfied with a link to click to make the sound play.

Just briefly to mention how LaTeX relates to mathtype. Even if you
decide not to go with LaTeX as your main way of producing documents, I
would strongly recommend learning some of the very basics of LaTeX as
some software (eg. mathtype) allows you to type in the LaTeX of an
equation, so saving you struggling with the graphical equation editor
interface. Also another time when LaTeX is useful is that some websites
(eg. wikipedia) display equations as images (not useful for screen
readers) but they do put the LaTeX source of the equation as the alt-tag
(at least that is some way of reading the equation).

It now seems sensible to discuss maths on the web. As I mentioned some
websites use images with LaTeX alt-tags, but in my mind there is a
better solution (well at least in the long term it will be a better
solution), its mathml. Now you may here people mention mathplayer, its a
plugin for internet explorer to allow it to display mathml, but it also
allows a screen reader to speak the equations. Unfortunately mathplayer
only gets screen readers to speak the equations, this is a lack of
support from the screen readers so mathplayer couldn't get them to
display Braille even if design science wanted to. On this point I would
urge you to contact the producer of your screen reader supplier saying
you really want maths support and how you would like it to support maths
(eg. is Braille output important, where do you want math support,
online, in word (you may prefer not to work in LaTeX at all, sighted
users don't need to why should you need to use LaTeX input), etc).

Now to produce mathml documents, mathtype can export to it, there are
systems for converting LaTeX source documents to mathml (eg. tex4ht) and
other software can export to it. MathML was never designed for people to
write directly, you will always want to use something else to produce
MathML and the same applies to reading a MathML document. The biggest
problem with MathML is decent accessible software for working with
MathML, but what exists may be enough for what you need.

Now this might seem slightly out of place, but it isn't in my mind as it
uses mathml for the equations (or at least its based on mathml) is that
there is a plugin for exporting a word document to DAISY format. Now the
DAISY format is not something I have got into, probably because I value
Braille as a reading format too much and all you here about DAISY is for
audio books (could DAISY be used for Braille output?).

Now that neatly leads me on to Braille and dotsplus. My personal
preference is for Braille, and this is particularly strong when working
with maths as you may want very fine control over the access you have to
the information (I find speech is far too uncontrollable for navigating
an equation). Now I can't advise you on Braille software as I live in
the UK and so use the British Braille code where as I guess you would
use Nemeth (if you read Braille). Actually my comment of whether you
know Braille is probably an important one, if you don't know a maths
Braille code it may be hard for you to learn it quickly and sometimes
getting someone who knows it and can teach it to the level you will need
could be hard.

An alternative to standard Braille is the dotsplus system which instead
of sticking to the six dot Braille cell uses raised graphical
representations of the symbols. Also it differs from Braille as it lays
the maths out as it is for print (eg. a fraction is something over
something else with a horizontal line to separate the numerator and
denominator, superscripts are slightly raised, etc). Now this has the
advantage that it can be easier to learn (less symbols, they resemble
the print ones so a sighted person could help (Viewplus actually produce
an embosser which can do the dotsplus with the print alongside it), etc)
and the other advantage that you produce it by applying a font (there
should be no translation errors which you could get in Braille). I am
unsure how good it would be for reading dotsplus fast, but the accuracy
that the hardware which can produce dotsplus is limited, only the tiger
printers from ViewPlus. This means you would be unable to read a
document from your computer using a Braille display in dotsplus, and you
can't write in dotsplus directly. This might be partly overcome if you
learn the basics of LaTeX or already know Braille.

For getting a readable document from a paper source, then the infty
reader www.inftyproject.org may be of interest.

I think all that remains is diagrams. There is either the swell paper
system (where a diagram is printed on special paper and then run through
a machine to heat it, and the black areas swell up when heated) or the
tiger printer (which might be a good option if you go with dotsplus for
equations). I found that raised line diagrams were enough for me,
sometimes I did need a little extra explanation from my tutor to fully
understand the diagram. Occasionally where dealing with complicated 3d
structures (my solid state physics modules in my degree were a good
example of where this occurred) we needed to create a model for me to
feel as the tactile diagram would be too complicated.

There are devices which are meant to help with diagrams but I am unsure
of there value, particularly if you can get the human support to answer
questions you may have regarding diagrams. However some of the devices
may help where the human support cannot be provided (eg. distance
learning). One device is the IVEO from viewplus, it is a touch pad where
you place a tactile diagram on top of, and then software can tell you
more about what you touch (one big advantage is that you don't need
large labels on the actual diagram, but it can only tell you what has
been put in the computer IE. it cannot answer questions). I believe the
haptic device you mention is too replace a physical diagram, as you move
your hand while holding the device it will give you feedback on what you
would be passing over. Now I don't know about the specific one you
mention, but depending on the device it may be able to work in 3d or it
may only be 2d. I think some of these can be quite expensive and I don't
know how portable they would be (I can put a paper tactile diagram in a
folder and take it where I like, lectures, look at it on the train, etc).

For you to produce diagrams, then there is the plastic film which you
use on a rubber mat and when you press down with a ball point pen what
you draw will rise up.

I think that covers the basics, I said it could be a long message. Now
specific questions will yield shorter answers).

Michael Whapples
On 02/01/10 03:56, Matthew Cooper wrote:
> Hi!  I am a high school senior preparing for college.  Chances are
> that I will be attending Duke or Stanford for Mechanical Engineering.
> So, can anyone give me information on necessary software and hardware
> (I've heard of Mathtype, Mathematica, various audible graphing
> calculators, iFeel pixel software and Novint Falcon haptic device).
> What do these things really do and which ones should I have?  Thanks
>
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