Making Mathematics Accessible

Having a strong foundation in mathematics can impact higher education choices, careers and ultimately, opportunities in life. As a discipline, mathematics are a key component for a well-rounded education. While math is important for all students, those who are blind or low vision are significantly impacted by the inaccessibility of mathematics education – 75 percent of students who are blind or low vision are at least one grade behind their peers 

Barriers to Access 

A number of access barriers contribute to the lack of accessible math education. Classroom material are not always adapted to formats such as braille, large print, materials suitable for a screen reader, auditory input, or a combination of these designs. Furthermore, developing mathematics materials in auditory or braille format can be a challenge to someone who is not familiar with Science, Tech, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) content but who is responsible for creating accessible formats. This can lead to accuracy issues and errors, resulting in 85 percent of students receiving materials late in the school year. 

Differences of contextualization exist as well. If a person with sight looked at a math equation briefly, they would be able to gather information on length, use of fractions and / or parentheses, complexity of the problem and so forth. However, someone interacting with the same math equation through a screen reader has a very different experience. The current technology would read the equation one bit at a time, not allowing for a full view of the equation easily. This can cause significant cognitive load issues, as a student would need to keep all the other information in mind while trying to resolve the math problem.  

A team at NWEA decided to tackle this important challenge, wanting to ensure students with visual disabilities benefit from accessible math and have equal opportunities in their studies.  

In a project awarded a grant by Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility program, NWEA aims to create an improved accessible math assessment for middle school students with visual disabilities. To do so, the team took multiple approaches to understanding the current barriers, especially for online assessments. 

Process-Driven Math as a Solution 

Existing research suggests that blindness or low vision do not affect a person’s ability to develop strong math skills and concepts. Rather, the difficulty in learning may have more to do with the way in which information is presented and its consistency. Students who are blind or low vision benefit most when a multi-sensory approach is provided and they have autonomy of interaction with materials and content. They are also more likely to answer test questions correctly when they are given auditory and tactile materials.  

Based on this information the NWEA team decided to integrate process-driven math (PDM) into their prototype. PDM is a learning support tool that uses chunking to simplify the landscape of complex algebraic expressions and reduce the cognitive load on working memory. It was developed by Auburn University at Montgomery to help Logan, a college student who became blind and was unable to read braille due to the insensitivity of feeling in his fingers, complete math coursework. These AI models can help can reduce labor intensity and maintain consistent classification of items in an assessment, decreasing the need for labor intensive testing of new items before they can be used.  

Two equation prototypes were developed to allow screen reader users to select various parts of a mathematics equation and drill into the parts they want to explore. When using a screen reader, a student would generally need to listen to the whole equation, read from left to right. With the prototypes, by applying the philosophy behind PDM, students have the independence on how and where to interact with a math problem. This decreases cognitive load since they do not have to listen to the entire equation all at once; they can skip the part they’ve already heard. The prototype gives a broad overview of an equation, akin to a glance from a person with sight, and then allows the student to dig in deeper to any part they wish. 

A prototype is available onNWEA prototypes, and there is also a demo video available: 

Feedback and Next Steps 

The prototypes have been tested by educators and students, allowing for their feedback and reaction.  

Sonja Steinbach, Independent Contractor for NWEA and teacher, shared that: “It felt like I’d just successfully ran a marathon. I have a visual impairment and I got my bachelor’s degree in mathematics and my Master’s in math for teachers, and oh, how I did some slogging. I couldn’t read the board, I had to use electronic magnifiers to read my book, and I could not hand write my homework legibly. I typed it up using ascii characters in a Word Document. For my geometry classes, I literally wrote out descriptions of how pictures should be drawn so that my teacher could draw them according to my words. So, to be able to interact with an equation at any point, and to skip over parts that I have already heard, was amazing!”.   

Sonja also shared reactions from the students: “I heard ‘this is fun,’ which is not something I have ever heard in any of my math classes as a teacher. We were also told that ‘It’s a good thing that it is accessible,’ which is another very rare utterance when it comes to the portrayal of mathematics online.” 

NWEA’s next steps are to create more efficient way to create navigable math equations for multiple assistive technology devices – bypassing the challenge of diversity of devices and browsers while ensuring efficacy and providing the best accessible options. The team’s hope is that students will be able to utilize multiple forms of access such as screen readers, refreshable braille (both Nemeth and UEB), and finally the ability to use voice. 

Background: NWEA is a research-based, not-for-profit organization that supports students and educators worldwide. For 40 years, NWEA has developed Pre-K–12 assessments and professional learning offerings to help advance all students along their optimal learning paths. Their tools are trusted by educators in more than 9,500 schools, districts, and education agencies in 145 countries.