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Accessibility of maths on the web

Emma Cliffe

Mathematics and Statistics Resource Centre University of Bath

Why am I here?

Maths E-assessment?

We aren't there yet, at Bath. What can I possibly have to add?

  • Done some maths: MMath, PhD, FIMA
  • Accidental Computer Scientist: tutored, lectured
  • Disability practitioner:
    • Study Support Specialist (Maths and VI)
    • Consultant Study Needs Assessor
    • Specialist Maths Study Skills Tutor (BDA ATS FE/HE)
  • Mathematics Resources Centre: Maths and statistics help for all members of the university

A unique opportunity

"The constraints of the interface focus thought ... We have a unique opportunity at this one moment as we move from paper to online."

(Chris Sangwin, yesterday)

From retrofitting...

I have spent the last 14 years trying to retrofit accessible interfaces to paper and old software based maths learning environments.

An expensive, inefficient compromise reliant on a rare skill set inclusive design?

The technology has changed recognisably: the seemingly impossible has become possible.

In this moment of unique opportunity can we build environments in which non-specialist practitioners create inclusive mathematical learning experiences by design?

Barriers and constraints

"As severely VI people, we must rely on speech and Braille output, and are therefore confined to work in a one-dimensional space."

(Williams & Irving, 2012)

In the UK HE, disability disclosure rates have increased from:

  • 5.4% (119,545 of 2,200,175) in 2003/4 to
  • 11.3% (256,995 of 2,280,830) in 2015/16
(Equality Challenge Unit, 2017)


Exceptional variation in neurocognitive processes

Graph of a spiky profile
  • Noticeable and unexpected weaknesses when compared with verbal and/or visual abilities for a given individual
  • Tasks of learning, remembering, time management, social interaction, attention span, fine/gross motor movements

Example: Dyslexia

Dyslexia mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is characterised by difficulties with:

  • Phonological processing
  • Rapid naming
  • Working memory
  • Speed of visual processing

This can result in difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, sequencing and memory. Areas of relative strength might include, for example, verbal comprehension, visual reasoning, and holistic, rather than sequential, processing.

  • Overload of working memory, concentration, worse when anxious
  • Processing visual content within a time constraint
  • Retaining mathematical associations between symbol and concept throughout a text
  • Reading errors, can be sensitive to font, spacing, colour. May need to use text to speech to support literacy.
  • Copying errors from line to line and between media, symbol confusion/reversals, word/symbol substitution
  • Accurately reproducing text and, particularly, linearised formulae; proofreading
  • Combining multiple aspects and sequencing in procedures, arguments or proofs

Overlearning, visual, interactive, structured: great!

On the other hand...

Interactive, responsive, colourful, maths, graphics, video and audio rich resources which can benefit some disabled students can raise practical and technical barriers for others:

  • Complex navigation and accurate input may be difficult keyboard only or pointer only
  • Responsive pages with multiple foci hard for VI users
  • Maths needs to be chunkable and navigable for speech, magnification, Braille and small screens
  • Use of colour-only to give meaning is a problem
  • Raster graphics do not magnify/zoom well
  • Input methods need to be suited to different AT
  • Screenreaders and text-to-speech need to be possible

Taking stock

"For mathematics ... to stick in a piece of paper that you didn’t know the context of... knowing that InftyReader is powerful - this is the most powerful thing that I have."

(Blind student, 2009)

Mathematical text

When I were a lass this was all print, PDF and images...

Please, use MathJax!

  • Structural integrity enables assistive technology
  • Fallback for ARIA-aware AT without native support
  • AT providers without native support and not ARIA aware are a problem but not your problem.
  • Provides/enables: navigation, chunking, zoom, copy/paste, colour, size and layout changes...
  • A workshop could be given over to just MathJax and the difference it makes

If you are only pretending to be online then Word (without MathType until conversion stops being a one way trip, test the trip but provide the original). Not PDF or PPT. Yet.

(You can get to either from a generous subset of LaTeX...)


Poor quality raster graphics relying on colour for meaning, without alt text, longdesc or annotations are a barrier!

  • Use scalable vector graphics (SVG), ideally annotated
  • Do not expect authors to write appropriate alt text, long descriptions or annotations for scientific graphics. This requires STEM knowledge and specialist training!
  • But if we constructed the graphic using... maths and stuff, or in fact, autogenerated them on the fly with randomised parameters (neat)?

Surely we can construct the longdesc?

BrailleR, ChemAccess have already got started... Join them!

Boxplot graphic generated by R, see longdesc

Dynamic and interactive content

Java and flash applets are dead (Hurrah!)

HTML5, JavaScript, Ajax, ARIA, SVG and connected tech

The Vanguards

  • Some institutions have completed formal project work within inter-disciplinary teams to guide wholesale changes in infrastructure, policy and processes in accessible mathematical e-learning.
  • Some of the leaps are being made by open source projects or, free but closed source projects, led by or closely involving end AT users and specialists.

Open University

"The OU has made extensive investment in eLearning particularly since the late 1990s and this investment continues in an ongoing multi-million pound Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) programme ... the University is committed to making its on-line educational content accessible to disabled students and usable by all; this includes mathematical content."

(Cooper, Lowe & Taylor, 2008)

Publisher-like in size of operation but far ahead of the publishers in early progress - how far have they got and what can we learn?

Portland Community College

  • Released two full-time mathematics faculty members from a portion of their teaching load for one semester
  • Staff specialists in learning technology, disability services and external sources of advice
  • An end VI user with a strong educational and technical background

The importance of working with a collaborative team including end users was highlighted.

Engage end users and collaborate!

"we were so off track [... it] was not the solution for everyone and so without Maurice [end user] our results would have been completely different, and honestly? They would have been wrong"

Scott Leavitt, Mathematics Tutor (Portland Community College 2013)

What are you doing?

Talk to each other, talk to/email me, suggest something for the sprint tomorrow, ask questions then ask who else is asking the same questions, engage the community, collaborate...

These slides are available at:

My email address is:

Mathematics and Statistics Resource Centre University of Bath