We look at some recent posts on the Blind Math mailing list. My main
conclusion as a TeX developer is that many on that list prefer
accessible HTML to accessible PDF. This is something that TeX
developers need to be aware of.
If you're interested in this topic you're invited to drop in to my
(every Thursday evening 6:30 to 7:30pm UK time).
The Blind Math list
The National Federation of the Blind is the largest and oldest
organisation led by blind people in the US. It runs a Blind Math
mailing list, which I've been reading and occassionaly posting to for
about 10 years.
According to its home page, the Blind Math list
is a place where interested persons can discuss all issues related
to blindness and math. Topics for discussion include (but are not
limited to) sources for accessible texts, information about tactile
and auditory graphing programs, suggestions for insuring that math
lectures are accessible to blind students, and strategies used by
blind math instructors. Anyone with an interest in this topic is free
to join this group and contribute to the discussions.
Mostly, the list is practical. Someone has a problem, and they ask for
help. There are also experts on the list, whose experience and
opinions have special value. Sometimes the possibilities of technology
are discussed. But mostly it's a place for blind users of adaptations
and assistive technology.
As a sighted developer and a guest, I try to slow down and listen
carefully on the Blind Math list. That way, I get much more out of
it. I have very little experience of blindness, and these people are
I'm pleased that the NFB is run by blind people. That's part of the
empowerment that accessibility is to provide.
Accessibility of LaTeX to PDF
This is the title of thread this month (January 2020) to the Blind
Math list (see Links below). In it Nick Spohn asks
In my Matrices class this semester, the professor creates the
quizzes and exams by typing them in latex and convert to pdf. In
previous math courses, I receive my math and science quizzes/exams in
a word doc and have everything typed in MathType. I write my work in
Latex. Does anyone know if this method my professor is describing is
accessible? I have never done math in this way. I am a Jaws user and I
would appreciate any tips with navigating and accessing PDFs in this
The resulting discussion is very interesting. Nick provides a small,
specific and well-stated problem. The responses, from people with
experience of blindness, provided me with a journalistic report on the
problems and solutions that blind math students have.
Last month (December 2020) I wrote to the list, asking its members to
share with me their experience of learning LaTeX (see Links below). I
wanted feedback on an interactive page I'd written, and a website some
others had written. Fortunately, I asked an open question.
I got back something different, and more valuable. People on the list
shared with links to recommended resources. All of these links were to
web pages. None were to PDF documents.
Further, all these web pages were created from a structured source
document, which was then translated to HTML. (The source was variously
XML, texinfo and restricted LaTeX).
For more information about this, and to see the roll of honour for the
Learning LaTeX web pages, visit the Blind Math list (see Links below).
STEM in the 21st century
This is the title of a thread this month (January 2020) to the Blind
Math list (see Links below).
In it Jonathan Godfrey provides what he calls a lengthy opinion
piece. I find it full of gems, based on personal experience, clearly
and concisely stated. Here's one
I used to use TeX4HT as my main tool for getting HTML from LaTeX
source. This was and probably still is, an excellent tool. How much
traction does it get though? Not much. Why? I don't know, but my
current theory is that tools that aren't right under people's noses
or automatically applied in the background just don't get as much
The pragmatic solution for many of my [teaching] colleagues was 20th
century thinking. Let's produce a pdf exam, upload it onto our 21st
century teaching platform, and get students to print it, write on
it, and upload their work by taking photos of it.
I believe the changes being forced on our education systems by a
pandemic are a massive opportunity to see things change for the
better. I think the colleagues who had to deal with piles of student
photographs [of their work] will learn they did it the hard way and
want to modernise. Even the mathematicians I work alongside will
have to change.
Here's his view on PDF
I detest pdf as a format. I don't know if that bias can or ever will
be reduced or removed. Even the best developments in the last ten
years haven't yet given me the confidence to stop using HTML in
favour of the most accessible pdf on offer today. The work being
done is really awesome and I truly appreciate the efforts […]
My discomfort starts when I see that the best these efforts hope to
achieve is what we already have in HTML documents. This was not true
ten years ago when HTML didn't offer us a solution.
Based on the above main conclusion as a TeX developer is that many on
that list prefer accessible HTML to accessible PDF. This is something
that TeX developers need to be aware of.
I hope that this blog post will help disseminate this conclusion to
web developers. All who are interested, including those on the Blind
Math list, are invited to drop in to my TeX Office
(every Thursday evening 6:30 to 7:30pm UK time).
Blind Math mailing list