[Blindmath] Future Engineering Student

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

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 
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 
things available which will help you in your studies and you are the 
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 
probably would outweigh that disadvantage. The other disadvantage is 
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 
if you have questions about anything specific ask away (hopefully 
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
> in advance!!     Matt
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