ERCIM News No.28 - January 1997

Making Mathematics Accessible to Students who are Blind

by Alistair D N Edwards

The Maths Project is developing a workstation that provides non-visual representations of mathematics so making it possible for students with visual disabilities to study mathematics.

Do you know for what values of x it is true that

Do you care? If not you are probably the sort of person who did not enjoy mathematics at school and probably would not care whether you ever did any mathematics ever again. Yet you certainly did study mathematics at school and you may even concede that at some times the training you received has been useful.

If you could solve it, how would you do so? You might have written down the equation

and substituted the values 1, 3 and 2 for a, b and c:

Hence you calculate that x = -2 or -4. But how would you have done that if you were blind? Without the facility of writing expressions down, it becomes much harder to perform any mathematics. This is a serious handicap. To not have a mathematical background is a barrier to advancement in many areas of education and work.

It is the objective of the Maths Project (Mathematical Access for TecHnology and Science for visually disabled people), which is supported by the European Tide Initiative (Telematics for the Integration of Disabled and Elderly people). The project is building a multi-modal computer workstation which represents mathematical material in multiple modalities:

The other vital component is the interface in which the user must have the power to control the presentation and manipulation of the mathematical material without becoming overwhelmed by a complex interaction.

The nature of mathematical notations is such that to provide something equivalent to a pencil and paper requires this level of technology. Mathematical expressions are very precise and entail almost no redundancy. So, for instance, whereas synthetic speech can be used alone to read literary documents, it must be enhanced to present the richness of mathematics unambiguously. In this way the project is exploring new forms of interaction which integrate this variety of modalities of communication.

The workstation is not a teaching machine. Minimal mathematical knowledge is embodied in it. It remains the role of the teacher to impart that knowledge. This implies, for example, that the student is free to make errors with the system (such as asserting that 2 + 2 = 6). The current version is aimed at students in the upper levels of secondary school.

The project has been running for nearly three years and has reached the evaluation stage. It is expected to become a commercial product within a year. It will make it possible for blind people to study mathematics, which was previously possible only for those with specific talents and resources. The important point is that those talents were not necessarily mathematical but instead related to the mechanics of writing and remembering the material.

The project partners are: F. H. Papenmeier GmbH (Germany), Grif SA (France), University of York (UK), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) and University College Cork (Ireland). The project is due for completion in early 1997. Further details can be obtained at:

and from the lead partner: F. H. Papenmeier GmbH & Co. KG, PO Box 1620, Talwegstrasse 2, D-58211 Schwerte, Germany

Please contact:
Alistair Edwards - University of York
Tel: +44 1904 432775

return to the contents page