Tactile Spatial Math
Sighted scientists use two-dimensional math equations, because they provide the most intuitive way to represent the math. Any equation can also be written in a linear form, eg LaTeX code, Fortran, BASIC, and C computer codes. Although often more space-efficient than 2D equations, linear equations become very cumbersome for even moderately complex equations. Blind people have historically been forced to read and write math in linear form due to lack of any feasible way to emboss spatial math. ViewPlus embossers now provide a means for embossing spatial math. The author has developed a simple extension to Braille, called DotsPlus Braille, permitting Braille and graphics symbols to be used in spatial equations in a form identical to that used by sighted scientists. DotsPlus Braille can be learned in minutes by good Braille readers – a single page introduction printed on a ViewPlus embosser suffices to learn the symbols used in common math. A report at this meeting by Prof. Joan Francioni of Winona State University describes the considerable success that her university has had in using DotsPlus Braille spatial math for a number of blind computer science students.
Equations and text to be embossed by this method are authored using standard applications. Authoring and conversion of existing documents were demonstrated at this meeting, and the resulting tactile copy provided for the audience. The standard quadratic equation example was created in MS Word using the MathType equation editor (the most common authoring combination for math documents used by scientists today). The Tiger screen font was used at the recommended point size, and the equation environment was set to be Tiger. The Tiger fonts and the Tiger environment files for MathType are bundled with all ViewPlus embossers and can be downloaded from the ViewPlus web site, http://www.ViewPlus.com. When that document is then printed on a ViewPlus embosser, the characters print as DotsPlus Braille. This example Word file is included so that anybody having access to a ViewPlus embosser can download the file and create a copy. A PDF copy of the quadratic example and a BMP file showing the dot copy made by the embosser are included for the convenience of sighted readers who do not have Tiger screen fonts on their computers.
Almost any scientific equation can be written using MathType, and any existing Word/MathType file can be easily converted to a Tiger embossable copy by changing the screen fonts and equation environment, a step taking only a few seconds. Consequently, if the original Word file can be obtained, it is quick and easy to create good embossed copy for blind users. The only other authoring method that is currently used by a significant number of scientist is TeX. TeX files can be converted to Word with the Tex2Word program available from the company Chikrii Softlab. Consequently, nearly any original file can easily and quickly be converted to tactile copy by anybody who knows how to use a computer. No special Braille skill is required. It is this ease and speed of conversion that is the greatest advantage of the new spatial math method. However anecdotal evidence is providing ever stronger support to the belief that spatial DotsPlus math is easier for most Braille readers to learn and read than traditional math codes. For example, see the contribution at this meeting by Prof. Francioni.
Accessible Graphical Information
Math equations are not the only difficulty facing blind students and professionals. A great deal of scientific information is conveyed in charts and diagrams that have historically been extremely difficult to make accessible. The new ViewPlus IVEO technology greatly reduces that problem. The IVEO Creator is a powerful application permitting one to author simple diagrams and to convert virtually any existing graphical information easily to a universally usable form in Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) format.
IVEO is useful for any object-oriented graphical information, not just science. Two SVG files are included for illustration. One is an elementary physics diagram showing a block sliding down a plane with all forces shown. Another is a US map. Text on diagrams is automatically voiced when a mouse is clicked on the text. So the text labels on the physics graph speak on mouse down. A few objects, such as the block and the arrows representing forces, have been labeled by the author, and these object labels speak when the object is selected. These labels are object properties permitted within the SVG format and are not shown on screen. The names of the states are included in the US map example, so that a user hears the state name on mouse-down. Sighted readers can download a copy of the free IVEO Viewer application to see and hear these examples.
Blind users and some people with severe print disabilities will need additional hardware to gain full access to accessible SVG files. One can create a tactile copy of the graphic by printing on a ViewPlus printer, place that tactile copy on a touch pad, eg the IVEO Touchpad available from ViewPlus for this use, and use to identify and activate objects. Pressing down on the touchpad is the same as pressing the left mouse button, permitting blind users good access to the feel of the diagram and names of important objects.
The spoken information is shown at the bottom of the display for convenience of anybody who’d like to see as well as hear the words. The font of this text display can be adjusted to suit the vision of the viewer. This text line can also be read on a Braille display, providing good access to Braille readers whether or not they can hear.
The IVEO Viewer has many other useful features that enhance access. Users can zoom objects or small regions for better visibility. For example, the New England states on the US map are too small for users with poor vision or those needing tactile access. It is easy to zoom so that these states fill the screen. Then a new tactile copy can be created for blind users. The tactile copies can be retained and the appropriate file and view recalled later from tactile information on the figure. Other features include a “find object” feature, permitting one to list all objects, select one, and be guided to that object on screen or touch pad. Objects can have descriptions as well as short labels, so an author can include almost arbitrarily lengthy descriptions of objects. In the US map example, a short descriptive sample is given for the state of Oregon. Pressing CTRL-d voices the label and description of whatever object is selected.
The IVEO Creator application is used to make these accessible SVG files. Nearly any paper information can be scanned or any Windows file imported and “made accessible” quickly. Text is automatically accessible in most cases, so an author needs to do little more than make a few mouse clicks to open dialog boxes for the label and description fields of important objects and write in the appropriate information. Then save and send or post on the web. No longer should students with severe print disabilities be denied graphical information. It’s easy to make graphics accessible. We look forward to a future where graphical information is created by the original author to be universally accessible. That will be true access.