Accessible Digital Math Textbooks

We’ve got Bookshare, APH, RFB&D, the NLS, and the NIMAC, not to mention tens more, to rely upon for accessible digital formats of lots of the instructional materials that we use in the classroom. A discipline that isn’t highly represented at these repositories, however, is mathematics (and in many cases, science).

Perhaps you have a “digital math book.” Examine it more closely and you’ll discover that, while it may be on a CD or on the Web, it’s not accessible. That is, words and equations can’t be read aloud while being highlighted. The equations that you see in the electronic book are most certainly images rather than accessible digital text. If the symbols and numbers are embedded in an image, a student can’t manipulate them.

Making math textbooks accessible is the next frontier for publishers to meet the needs and preferences of all students, including students with print disabilities. Research indicates that accessible math books make a difference in students’ abilities to understand complicated mathematics. So why aren’t publishers producing accessible math books? The standard used to create accessible digital math text is known as Mathematics Markup Language, or MathML. It’s not a particularly new language to mathematicians, but it and publishers are just getting acquainted. And, of course, the matter of copyright is of concern to publishers. The original Copyright Law was written in 1931 and a lot has changed, even since a relevant amendment in 1996 (the Chafee amendment). I don’t think e-books were on the horizon in the years just before my father was born.

Instinctively and experientially we know that giving students the option of having complicated equations read aloud can only support their emerging understanding of mathematical concepts. Add to that the independence and control with which students can adjust the rate of the speech, the voice character, the highlighting features, and the option to repeat the process as many times as necessary, and you’ve got a research study. Preliminary findings of a small pilot study by the University of Louisville indicate that accessible digital math textbooks can improve the algebra and pre-algebra skills of middle school students with print disabilities. The researchers have applied for additional funding to scale up the study.

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