W4A winners Neil Soiffer, Dr. Volker Sorge, Ather Sharif

W4A Judges Award

Making Science Accessible — Dr. Volker Sorge

Consider two images: In one, three kittens look towards the camera, and in the other there’s a diagram of the molecules in a single aspirin. The former shows three fluffy cuties with eyes and noses, the latter only black characters and lines on a white background.

Now imagine that you are blind and have to rely on a screen reader to tell you what’s displayed on your computer monitor. If no other information is available, you’ll need computer software to help you decipher the images.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft have come up with ways to identify the cats in images, but they’ve not done as well with helping people who have low or no vision recognize diagram, such as the one of the aspirin molecule.

While at first glance the cats may seem to be more complex an image than that of the Aspirin diagram, once you’ve seen lots of cat pictures, your eye is trained to instantly recognize the shape of yet another cat, even if you’ve never seen the picture before. You can even identify the vague outline of a cat, because the details are not critically important. But with images of science content, details are everything.

When you want to describe diagrams to teach them to students, you need to be precise. It does not help a student to get a vague idea of a diagram. They need to know precisely what it depicts. If you have the picture of a square, it will not help only to know that it is a polygon. To understand a chemical molecule, you need to know all the atoms it contains, and how they are combined via bonds. So if you get a small part wrong, you might as well not depict the diagram at all.

Consequently, science subjects are the most difficult to teach to students with visual or print impairments. For sighted people, think back to your own math or chemistry classes in high school or college: Diagrams and images of geometric shapes or images of atoms and bonds were an integral part of your studies.

Ideally students who are blind are taught science diagrams with a mixture of tactile graphics, 3D models, and teacher assistance. Students with low vision use tools to magnify images both on paper and on the board. And students with other impairments, such as dyslexia, often need material presented in high contrast colors, such as yellow lines on a blue background, or white on a green one.

In reality, these tools are not always available. When visually impaired students are being taught in mainstream schools, there may be little understanding of their needs, or in environments where there’s not enough money to fund special support, this population can be clearly disadvantaged. In fact, in many countries, even in developed ones, visually impaired students may be actively discouraged from taking science classes, regardless of their ability level, simply because they can’t get the material or support they need for their studies.

One would think that moving towards more computer-based teaching, replacing printed textbooks with their electronic version, would resolve this dilemma. But moving from printed material to electronic books only solves parts of the accessibility problem.

Although text is immediately accessible and can, for instance, be voiced by an eBook reader, without the need for audio recording of a human reader, graphical content is generally only transformed into electronic images. While visually this achieves the same result as in print, it does the opposite in terms of a graphic’s accessibility.

Once you have an image, the information it contains is effectively lost; all you are left with is a rectangle of meaningless pixels. It is totally inaccessible by screen readers, and any text contained in the graphic is also now just a collection of pixels that can no longer be voiced.

If you are relying on magnification, an enlarged, fixed-resolution image will become grainy and illegible. For dyslexic readers, images do not allow them to change foreground and background colors for their reading preferences, or enable highlighting of text within the image.

While there might be accessible captions, they are generally not sufficient to explain the graphic. So to make it fully accessible, one needs to explicitly add the explanations in an alternative format. However, in the mass transition of printed material into electronic books, this problem is often inadequately addressed, or not addressed at all. As a consequence, science textbooks in electronic form are often less accessible than their audio-recording counterparts.

One can solve this problem by creating specialist software for drawing diagrams in an accessible format that allows a reader to listen to descriptions of the diagram and interact with it. But this raises two new barriers:

On the one hand authors actually have to be aware of the existence of the software and use it to draw diagrams. On the other hand, students need to use the same software to read the diagrams, meaning that they not only need to purchase the program, but also learn how to work with it, which imposes a learning curve above and beyond the actual subject they’re studying.

The problem is further compounded by more and more material being produced on the fly. It’s become easy and cheap for everyone to create their own custom handouts, including graphics prepared with drawing programs that they can put online for students to work through independently. But many teachers are unaware of the technology available to create accessible content, or may not have the means to do so. Therefore the knowledge gap between students who can work with graphics and those who can’t continues to widen.

The main motivation for our work is to bridge this gap, and to lower the barrier for students with visual or print impairments to study the sciences, and also to support already working scientists who acquire such impairment now or in the future.... Continued in Print, PDF or Digital versions


Now I Can Do It Myself: Math Software Empowers Students of All Abilities — Neil Soiffer

Our economy increasingly depends on technology. So many of the best-paying jobs in the coming years will be in that arena. In fact, there were 6.2 million scientists and engineers in the US in 2012, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Unfortunately, people who are blind are vastly underrepresented in technological fields.

A great many of today’s schools also rely on technology to teach. In a math classroom, it’s not unusual to see a student in front of a computer wearing a headset and progressing through a lesson plan.

A few years ago in some Kentucky classrooms, students with dyslexia got a chance to try technology to see if it would help them not only read the text in their books, but also to solve the math problems. The results were a success in more ways than one: Not only did kids’ scores go up faster than even the students who didn’t have dyslexia, but their sense of empowerment also increased. They no longer waited for a teacher’s aide to come by and read with them; they could listen to parts of the book as many times as they needed to without embarrassment. “Now I can do it myself,” they said.

When I started exploring math accessibility more than a decade ago, this is what I hoped would happen. At the time, I worked on Wolfram Research’s Mathematica product. One day, John Gardner, a physicist who lost his sight late in life, contacted me and explained the obstacles he encountered trying to use sophisticated Mathematica software. It was an intriguing issue to tackle, and one that could potentially open the world of scientific computation to people with vision disabilities. So with Wolfram’s consent, I developed a prototype that thrilled John. For various reasons, however, Wolfram decided not to turn the prototype into a product.

Design Science in Long Beach, CA, expressed an interest in making accessible math software, and I joined their team to pursue my ideas. The company had already developed a free plug-in to Internet Explorer called MathPlayer that would display MathML. We received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore making MathPlayer accessible to everyone. We finished the prototype of MathPlayer 2 within the grant’s six-month time line, and the version we released was well received.

To “speak” math, as in so much of human language, there are many special cases and exceptions. The initial version of MathPlayer had a few dozen special cases. The current version has over a thousand. Every new iteration of the software adds more rules, so that the speech gets closer and closer to what a teacher might say in the classroom. Educational Testing Service (ETS) received a Department of Education grant that helped us develop a more natural language for “speaking” math, and to expand MathPlayer so that it works with Microsoft Word.

With the release of MathPlayer 2, people who were blind or had other learning challenges could use the software to read a web page with math in it for the first time. This proved to be a big hit when I showed it off at conferences, and eventually I heard back from teachers and parents who said the product made a significant difference in their children’s education.

During the ETS grant period that lead to the release of the beta version of MathPlayer 4 last March, I joined my ETS colleagues Beth Brownstein and Lois Frankel at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. There we met a student who was preparing to head off to college the following year. He tried out the precursor to MathPlayer 4, which included the ability to move around an expression, as well as to relisten to parts of a problem. The more I showed him, the more excited the student got. By the end of the demo, he told me that he had been worried about how well he would do in a calculus course, but with the new MathPlayer he felt confident he could succeed.

Sina Bahram, a bright PhD student in computer science also encouraged me, and contributed some ideas for MathPlayer 4’s design. After he gave it a try, Bahram, who is blind, sent me an email that read: “This is the first time in my life I can just open up a browser and begin interacting with mathematics. I’m not sure you can understand how profoundly wonderful that is to me, and how many years I’ve been waiting for such a thing.”

What a great feeling it is to know that MathPlayer has taken an important step towards increasing the representation of people who are blind in the fields of science, math and engineering. In the last year, about 700 people used the software to make math accessible on the web and in Microsoft Word documents.

It’s been a bumpy road getting to this point. There were barriers that couldn’t be solved simply by writing software. MathPlayer makes use of a W3C standard called MathML. When MathPlayer 2 was released, only Internet Explorer with the MathPlayer plug-in and Firefox supported it. Limited support of MathML meant that most people used images for math instead of MathML, which allowed the “math” to render everywhere. Textbooks had similar problems.

To resolve these issues, I joined several committees to ensure support for accessible math in standards for various formats such as DAISY books, the new EPUB 3 eBook format, PDF documents, and National Instructional Materials Act Standard (NIMAS) for K-12 textbooks.

After showing these groups demos of what could be done to support math, they all agreed that MathML was the way to go. The big breakthrough was last year when HTML5 became a standard, and MathML was part of it. Now it’s an official part of the language of the Web. The icing on the cake came this year when ISO and IEC groups adopted MathML, making it an international standard recognized by many governments... Continued in Print, PDF or Digital versions.

Raising Our Web Standards — by Ather Sharif

In today’s world of technological advancements and digitization, nearly every resource uses the Web as a base platform, including education, research, entertainment, health and daily life. Staying connected is of pressing importance, so the Web needs to benefit and be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Out of this need the term Web Accessibility has emerged, and led to the development of standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Upwards of 285 million people across the globe are estimated to be visually impaired, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO). Unfortunately, most websites still have accessibility barriers that make it difficult for this population to access many important resources. In an empirical study of the problems encountered by blind users on the Web, results indicate that only 50.4 percent of the difficulties experienced by users were covered by the success criteria in the WCAG.

One major barrier the visually impaired encounter is access to information-embedded pages. Graphs have always been used in many different forms and variations to provide pictorial representation of data and information. The growing trend and demand for data visualization, through graphs as opposed to text, has led to further expansion of their various forms. To date, graphs are widely used across the Web, but most commonly as simple images. Consequently, a major goal of web accessibility is the adequate representation of graphs by screen readers.

While screen readers are somewhat adequate tools for recognizing text on web pages, they are still limited in extracting information from visual content, such as graphs. When graphs are displayed as images, their designers rely heavily on the ALT tag for screen readers to recognize them. However, to be most effective, the Web pages must follow and respect the guidelines recommended by WCAG.
Several algorithms have been devised to recognize the graph images on a web page and translate them into text format that can be read by screen readers. Owing to the algorithms limitations and strict requirements, a widely acceptable practical solution has yet to be proposed. Furthermore, in case of an omitted ALT tag, or an ALT tag with an empty value, the screen reader skips over the image element, causing users with visual impairment to miss some content completely.

evoGraphs is a jQuery plugin that allows creation of dynamic and stylish graphs with the capability of being screen reader friendly. The plugin is fully customizable to the needs of the user, and it’s comprised of HTML, CSS and jQuery components, which reduce page-load time significantly. Furthermore, the plugin’s design is universal, in that it can easily read SVG graphs, which are widely used on the Web to render high-quality, two-dimensional graphics.

Extensive testing has shown that, compared to traditional image-based graphs, the plugin is nearly twice as fast in terms of page-load times. Various screen readers were tested for accessibility across multiple platforms by a control group of sighted and visually impaired users.

The concept behind evoGraphs is not just to present the elements of a graph to the user, but also to present the elements on the basis of their significance. For example, in a graph of 10,000 elements, visual users can identify the largest and smallest elements with little or no difficulty. However, for people with visual impairment, finding the largest and smallest elements entails going through the entire set of elements, which is not practical. The ability of customization allows the developers to present only the most significant elements, as per their perception, to the screen readers. Understanding that this does not necessarily reflect a user’s definition of significant elements, we’re working to create a browser extension to allow the users to select the information that they wish to extract from the graph.

The plugin presently supports only horizontal and vertical bar graphs, as well as pie charts. Conversion of image-based graphs to evoGraphs is not supported dynamically, but could be achieved by manually plugging in the values. In terms of future improvements, plans are under way to include more graph types, to import a CSV file, and to develop a conversion tool for image-based graphs. Extension of this plugin to incorporate D3 Visualizations and maps is also in the works.

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W4A Award Winners — Neil Soiffer, Dr. Volker Sorge & Ather Sharif

Articles in the Ed Asner Issue; VOICEYE — It’s Free, Try It; Ashley Fiolek — Road Trippin’; Humor — Shrink on Wheels; Geri Jewell — Farewell, Kitty; China’s — Boxer with CP; Long Haul Paul — No Matter What; Jenni-Juulia — Finland’s Naked Truth; Temple Grandin — Getting the Job Done; James Durbin — Rock Idol; Book Excerpt — Love is Not Enough; Cornell — A Green Message ; Alika — Crippled Pretty; Ed Asner — Chewin’ Avocados; Attitude Live — Progressive New Zealand; W4A Award Winners — Neil Soiffer, Dr. Volker Sorge & Ather Sharif ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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