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I don't teach school math but as a part of my voluntary activities in some NGOs, sometimes I am in this special situation.

When I was in a school for special children who cannot see I came across a question about a possible problem in reading advanced math texts for those who want to follow research level mathematics in future. Both of writing and reading advanced math texts in the Braille writing system are hard (if it is possible at all). It takes too much time in both writing and reading phases. Fortunately nowadays there are text scanners which can read books and transform the written words to voice. But the main problem of such devices is that they cannot read "unusual" characters like math symbols. This is an essential problem because the meaning of a professional math book/paper is closely related to its math symbols.

Question. Is there any math text reader device to help math students who cannot see? If no, is it possible to design such a useful device? Do you know anybody (e.g. a software/hardware engineer) who can help us in this direction?

Remark. For the second part of the above question note that most of the professional math texts are written in LaTeX language which is very near to our natural language in some sense. For example when we want to write $\emptyset$ symbol we simply write \emptyset between two $ symbols. Maybe a device which can detect the LaTeX code of each math symbol by scanning, could provide the first step of designing a complete math text reader device. Such an instrument could be a revolutionary change in special education and a great help for those who want to see the beauty of mathematics.

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    $\begingroup$ For recognition the data/code from detexify might be helpful. If students could then learn to listen to the names for instance the device could read off empty set where it sees $\emptyset$ or $\varnothing$. One problem that could arise though is that it is often necessary to go back and forward in formulas and keeping parentheses in mind for some things would be rather hard. Other than that since a good chunk of code is already written to do this it shouldn't be too hard if someone had the hardware already made(I could probably help with that). $\endgroup$ – ruler501 Mar 29 '14 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ Just my opinion from what I've seen. I have no idea if what I suggested could work though. I don't think I could understand math formulas just by having the LaTeX code read at me. I'm not sure what better way there is though. $\endgroup$ – ruler501 Mar 29 '14 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps one could write software to not only read but interpret LaTeX code and say things the way one would say them. It can get hairy quickly though. edit: Think "integral from a to b of f of x with respect to x". $\endgroup$ – Alexander Vlasev Mar 29 '14 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ @AleksVlasev Very nice. This is exactly what I have in mind. $\endgroup$ – user230 Mar 29 '14 at 6:00
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    $\begingroup$ Here is a paper that goes more in-depth on this. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Vlasev Mar 29 '14 at 6:31
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Edit: There is a related meta.MO post here. (This MESE thread is linked to in a comment there.)


Check out this link and, if applicable, you might consider contacting some of the professors involved.

A Graphical Calculus Course For Blind Students: For blind students seeking education and a career in science, engineering and mathematics, the calculus has presented a formidable barrier. This is not due to the intrinsic difficulty of the subject, which is obstacle enough for most students. The additional hurdle for blind students is the substantial graphical component of the typical calculus course. There are two major aspects of that graphical component: primarily, there is the representation of geometrical objects, especially the graphs of functions: then, there is the presentation of mathematical formulas as a graphical display.

Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Computer Science Department(CSD) of the College of Staten Island and the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP) of Baruch College are developing text materials and providing an environment to offer blind and visually impaired students technologically assisted access to the graphical content of calculus. The goal of the project is to equal or exceed the quality of courses for students with unimpaired vision. We are installing facilities for reading mathematical text and graphics directly without the help of sighted readers. It is only quite recently that any such technology has become practical and affordable for institutions. We can expect that it will become so for individuals before long.

(Somewhat relatedly, there is apparently a way to create LaTeX documents using one's voice. Link.)

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    $\begingroup$ This is more of a specific case. From reading the question I get more of the want to be able to read papers and the like. These are unlikely to have the time put in to make them accessible just because there is so many of them and it takes a large amount of time and money to make them accessible. $\endgroup$ – ruler501 Mar 29 '14 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ @ruler501 My guess is that the best content would come from directly contacting the professors involved with the project described above. (Their involvement suggests that they would be in the know about such matters.) The norm at my undergraduate institution was to hire individual readers to help visually-impaired students (at no extra cost to the latter). However, the college recently formed a committee to think more broadly about how best to serve such students; if new programs/approaches emerge to this end, then I will update my answer accordingly. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Mar 29 '14 at 4:41
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If math is displayed in a web page using MathJax, which uses LaTeX syntax for math, then it is possible to configure MathPlayer to read the math text out loud.

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The correct approach to making accessible mathematics is to publish it in MathML. This is the web standard for mathematics and is what all web browsers are meant to be working towards to support. Sadly, not all are.

There are lots of ways of creating MathML content, some work directly from LaTeX input (I've written one of these) and some are a little more creative. MathJaX is a bit of a hybrid in that the conversion only happens in the browser (so the content transferred over the internet need not be MathML). This sounds fine, except that not everyone wants to read their documents in a web browser and MathML is used in more technologies, such as ePub 3.

As far as reading goes, once it is in MathML then a screen reader ought to be able to read it. This will depend on the screen reader and the web browser/other software being used. Again, the ideal and the reality are not yet in alignment.

There are many people who know a lot about this, and far more than I do. A lot of them subscribe to the blindmath mailing list (US based, but not in terms of discussion). Other links worth investigating are Access 2 Science and Design Science (the latter is a commercial company who do a lot of work in this line).

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