Easy to Make accessible Scientific Graphics

A person with a severe print disability can read figures from scientific documents, homework assignments, test, lecture handouts etc. using “audio/touch”. A SVG copy of the figure is opened in the free ViewPlus IVEO Viewer and a tactile copy made by printing to any ViewPlus embosser. The user then reads text, including math, labels on the figure aloud by touching that text on a tactile copy mounted on a touchpad. Tactile access to the shapes on many math, physics, computer science, and engineering diagrams is adequate to understand the figure if all text labels are audio accessible. Any computer user can make or convert figures to IVEO SVG form automatically with the upcoming ViewPlus IVEO Scientific Creator Pro. A short tutorial can teach that person to add object information so that graphical objects will also speak when touched by the end user, making even extremely complex figures outstandingly accessible. A bit more human labor is required today for the math, but similar accessibility can be achieved with the current edition of IVEO Creator Pro.

A great deal of the content in textbooks and journals is conveyed by graphics. Graphs and diagrams in mathematics, science, and engineering literature are ubiquitous. Maps, charts, and diagrams are also very common in the literature of history, geography, health, and many other non-technical areas. It is the rare blind person who has adequate access to this graphical content. Word descriptions are seldom adequate, but few blind people have the skill to understand tactile equivalents of any but the very simplest diagrams. Since tactile diagrams are, in the best of cases, very time-consuming and therefore expensive to create, they are seldom made available anyhow. The purpose of this presentation is to familiarize SSD and Access Tech professionals with the far better audio/tactile method for making graphical information accessible.

Audio/tactile graphics were introduced nearly three decades ago (1, 2) and found to provide excellent access to graphical information. A tactile copy is necessary, but it is supplemented by information spoken by a computer. Typically the tactile copy is placed on a touchpad so that a user can touch some graphical object or text label of interest, and the computer will speak the title of the object or speak the text label. Typically, additional information is available about the diagram or about specific objects, text, etc. and can be spoken if the user opts to hear it.

The tactile copy need not be understandable “stand-alone”, and the user does not need to read any Braille. Most people are able to understand simple audio/touch graphics with little or no training. Most experts believe that blind people who begin to use audio/tactile graphics will naturally develop the ability to understand them better and be able to grasp even relatively complex graphical information. There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence supporting that view but, at least to the knowledge of this author, no detailed studies on the topic.

Audio/tactile graphics have been underutilized largely because they have been difficult and expensive to prepare. This is no longer the case. I have devoted nearly twenty years of my life as a university faculty member and, more recently, founder and senior scientist of ViewPlus, to developing technologies (3, 4) that now make it possible easily to “make graphics accessible”.

The ultimate goal of these developments is actually quite a bit more ambitious. The goal was to develop technologies that make it possible for all mainstream graphics to be created and distributed in a form that is automatically fully accessible to all. This is no longer an impossible dream. The American Physical Society (APS) and ViewPlus have collaborated to show that it is feasible for APS to publish its scientific journals as DAISY XML in which all text, math, and graphics are accessible (5). APS and ViewPlus are continuing that collaboration in order to improve the APS composition process so that these DAISY XML articles can be created with no additional cost. APS expects to begin publishing some DAISY XML articles in 2010.

APS figures in these DAISY articles are in the form of accessible DAISY Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG). They are made by converting from PostScript using software that can be used by SSD professionals who also want to make graphics accessible. The ViewPlus IVEO Creator Pro application can import from PostScript, PDF, or scanned images and also has a pseudo-printer utility for creating accessible SVG from any computer application with a print function – e.g. MS Word, CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, and Visio. A scientific version of Creator Pro is under development in cooperation with the Japanese Infty group(http://www.inftyproject.org) that will recognize math expressions and include the math (as MathML) within the file so that math expressions will be properly presented in audio and Braille. Creator Pro has a number of convenient editing features that make it easy to add additional information such as figure titles and descriptions as well as a title and description for the full graphic. All these features are already available in the present Creator Pro except the automatic recognition of math. At present, math expressions can be read aloud character by character but not as a complete math expression. A sighted professional can easily create a math expression that will be spoken instead. For example, one can replace x with superscript 2 by the expression “x squared”.

Figure 1
This image is from an article in Physical Review Letters and has been converted to SVG image. The SVG image is bundled with this paper.

Figure 1 is derived from a SVG example and is bundled with this document as illustration. It is a figure from an article in Physical Review Letters. A few of the graphical objects have been labeled by selecting the object, clicking to edit it, and then filling in the title and, if desired, the description. Math expressions have been overlaid by invisible objects labeled by words. The figure description (read by pressing “d”) is the figure caption from the paper. Interested readers are invited to view this SVG file in IVEO Viewer. Download IVEO Viewer from http://downloads.viewplus.com/software/IVEOViewer/

IVEO Viewer not only displays information in spoken audio but also displays it in a status bar whose font size is user-controllable. Consequently one can both hear and see the information that is spoken, a considerable convenience to many people with dyslexia or with both limited vision and hearing. That information can be browsed by opening a text window that contains all spoken information. This text buffer and the status bar will display in Braille on an on-line Braille display.

Graphical information from virtually any source can be imported or read into the ViewPlus IVEO Creator Pro application, and all text labels on that figure will be accessible by audio/touch. Additional information about graphical objects and math expressions can be added easily. Tutorial videos are available on the ViewPlus web site illustrating the process. I note that it is seldom necessary to edit the actual image. Very cluttered images with extravagant amounts of “eye candy” can be improved by editing out extraneous portions, but most images from professional sources need no editing to be fully accessible.

A user with print disabilities can access this figure by opening the IVEO SVG file in IVEO Viewer. One can create a tactile image simply by printing from IVEO Viewer or Creator/Creator Pro to any ViewPlus embosser. The tactile image is then mounted on a touchpad or used with a clamp and a digital pen. The user then indicates some text label or graphical object to hear the text or object title read. The description field of a graphical object can be heard by double tapping. Most people can understand relatively simple diagrams with little training and should learn to understand even quite complex graphics with enough experience.

IVEO Viewer was initially developed with partial support of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the US National Science Foundation. IVEO Creator and Creator Pro were developed with partial support of SBIR grants from the National Eye Institute, US National Institutes of Health.


D. Parkes, “Nomad: an Audio-Tactile Tool for the Acquisition, Use and Management of Spatially Distributed Information by Partially Sighted and Blind Persons”, eds Tatham AF and Dodds AG, Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Maps and Graphics for Visually Handicapped People, King’s College, University of London, pp. 24-29
D. Parkes, “Nomad: Enabling Access to Graphics and Text Based Information for Blind, Visually Impaired and Other Disability Groups”, Conference Proceedings, Vol. 5. World congress on Technology 1991, Arlington, Virginia, pp. 690-714
John A. Gardner and Vladimir Bulatov, ” Making Scientific Graphics Accessible With ViewPlus IVEO,” Proceedings of the 2008 International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA, 12-15 March, 2008, http://www.viewplus.com/abstracts/08csungardner3.html
John Gardner, Christian Herden, Gaby Herden, Arthur Neeley, Carl Dreyer, Holly Stowell, Vladimir Bulatov, Galina Bulatova, Leon Ungier, and Yuemei Sun, ” ViewPlus Emprint, Ink Pro, Formatter, and Designer: Seeing and Feeling is Believing!” Proceedings of the 2005 CSUN Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities Los Angeles, 16-19 March, 2005, http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf/2005/proceedings/2348.htm
John Gardner, Vladimir Bulatov, and Robert Kelly, “Making Journals Accessible to the Visually Impaired – The Future is Near” Learned Publishing, in press.


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