[BlindMath] Inaccessible math books

Mike Gorse mike at straddlethebox.org
Mon Mar 1 16:13:12 UTC 2021

Textbooks are out of my wheelhouse these days, and I'm not particularly up 
on the related technology, but I feel like there ought to be a solution 
that doesn't involve a lot of manual work on your part. I wonder about the 
source for these textbooks, since it is definitely not a PDF. If they 
don't already exist, then couldn't the publishers put resources into 
improving existing tools to convert the existing source (maybe LaTeX) into 

On Mon, 1 Mar 2021, Susan Kelmer via BlindMath wrote:

> As an alternate format manager for a very big university, it just pains me to see the struggle with accessible math.  We regularly convert math textbooks from PDF format from the publisher into MathML and Braille for our students and for clients who contract our services.  Those clients are usually other colleges and universities who do not have a production facility.  We have a full production facility.
> That being said, the production of MathML is not just clicking a few buttons and collecting the output.  Math conversion takes hours, many hours.  A full calculus book may take us 250+ hours to complete.  That is for one book.  Imagine having a stack of six or seven, all received at the beginning of the semester with no lead time, and students who need them right now.
> We cannot count on publishers to ever provide this extensive alternate format. In the U.S. there is no law compelling publishers to provide alternate format of any kind. That burden falls on people like us who work in disability services office all over the country. I've been doing this work for 20-plus years, and while it has been easier to get original content from publishers for our work, the content we are getting is not accessible to everyone.  We are obviously grateful to get any content at all, because it keeps us from having to cut and scan books, but the conversion for STEM materials is a multi-step process that not just anyone can do.  I train student staff in how to create MathML, and I don't let them work on projects until they've had 20 hours of hands-on MathML production. We use MathType in Word to create the files we then turn into Braille, MathML, or other outputs.
> To say there are no vendors producing alternate format during the pandemic is not accurate. We are busier than we've ever been, with more courses being taken online during the pandemic and higher needs of students with multiple types of disabilities. We are out there, and we are doing the best we can.  But the workload is overwhelming, and there are only so many hours in a day.  And I do know that one major vendor, AMAC, stopped doing Math remediation several years ago. All of our current clients came out of that loss of a vendor.  I'm not sure why they stopped, but they did.  I think there has always been a lack of enough vendors in this field.  But campuses often balk at the price of having materials converted by a lab like ours.  We are not gouging, but we do charge appropriately for our services, and less than some other vendors in the field.
> Something that I think would help us all is if books didn't get updated every year.  A calculus book from 2001 is just as valid today as it was in 2001.  There are lots of files available from older books, as campuses and vendors produced MathML or Braille files, etc., for books as needed.  Yet every year, they have to change the books, so publishers can make more money.  This is a frustration.  I have three different editions of Linear Algebra and its Applications by Lay in MathML format, and just received a request for the "newest" edition. Such insanity! But, it is what publishers do, and we are stuck continuing to do new and newer versions of things, when the older version would work just fine.  Math doesn't change from year to year.  They just word it differently or put in different problem sets.
> Trust me when I say that those of us that produce alternate format for students are doing our absolute best to keep up with things and get materials converted and out to students (and others) as quickly as possible. We are frustrated and angry that we can't get decent materials from publishers. We are frustrated and angry that some publishers hold onto files for weeks, instead of just providing them to us when we ask. We are frustrated and angry that long-time campus culture doesn't give us enough lead time to work on materials because we don't know what those materials are until just before or sometimes after classes start.  We do our best to advocate, and work with faculty on this issue, but our hands are often tied. And math conversion is so much more complicated than just making Microsoft Word files of a standard textbook or novel.  I can convert an 1800 page law book for a blind student in about 8 hours or less.  Yet a 400 page math book takes us 180 hours. It is a whole other
> I fight with publishers all the time.  I'm a socially-justice-minded person and fight often for the rights of my students when it comes to alternate format.  Things are better than they were 20 years ago, but they are not where they need to be.  All I can do is promise that I will continue to carry on this fight with publishers.
> And if anyone on this list is looking for a particular book in MathML or Word with MathType format, PLEASE reach out to me in email.  If I have the files, I will share them with you.  Susan.kelmer at colorado.edu
> Susan Kelmer
> Alternate Format Production Program Manager
> Disability Services/Student Affairs
> University of Colorado Boulder
> Susan.kelmer at colorado.edu

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