How do you write mathematical documents like problem sets, quizzes, and tests so that a student that is blind will be able to use a screenreader to hear the documents? There are many (many!) screenreaders now, and this is always a bit of a moving target, but the safest bet for mainstream math courses seems to be to use Microsoft Word and either the built-in Microsoft Equation Editor or the add-in MathType.

Last fall I performed a little experiment. I took the exact same problem set of three fairly simple math problems and had a screenreader (in this case, Microsoft Narrator) try to read the problems in Word, in a PDF format, and in Blackboard.

The video “Equations and Screenreaders with Word, PDF, and Blackboard” will show you what it is like to navigate (or try to navigate) these three formats using the Microsoft Narrator screenreader.

When teaching online, in-person, hybrid, or whatever, I will provide PDF files for sighted students because the formatting tends to stay more consistent and the files will open on their screens and be printable even if they don’t have Microsoft Word. But I always create the problem sets and quizzes in Word first so that I have a file format that is compatible with screenreaders in the event that I have a student that is blind or visually impaired. If I have such a student in class, I just provide all the files in both PDF and Word formats.

Screenreaders will read LaTeX, but … they read the actual LaTeX code, they do not “interpret” the LaTeX as the readable or spoken math. If you are teaching blind students who will go on to advanced mathematics, physics, engineering, etc, it is probably the right choice to just teach them to write and interpret LaTeX code so that they can be literate in the writing techniques of advanced mathematics. However, if you are teaching courses where 90% of the students are not going on to these careers, I think it places an unfair burden on the blind student to adapt to LaTeX when you could just as easily make a document that is screenreader compatible.

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