Accessible STEM Content

Welcome to a single page compilation of the most important aspects of understanding/creating accessible STEM content. Much of this content was prepared for the Accessing Higher Ground 2016 conference, the official conference of Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN).

This webpage is designed for disability practitioners, instructional designers, instructors, administrators and developers to understand the basics of STEM accessibility.

AHG 2016 “Teaching You to Teach Others about STEM Accessibility” powerpoint

AHG 2016 “MathML and LaTeX – What Content Creators Need to Know” powerpoint

Accessible STEM – Difference between Image PDF, Text Based PDF and MathML Word Doc

Accessible STEM – Using Text-to-Speech with Image PDF, Text Selectable PDF and MathML Word Doc

What is STEM?

It is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.

Who needs accessible STEM?

This is not an exhaustive list but accessible STEM is often needed by persons who

  • have a learning disability
  • have low vision
  • have traumatic brain injuries
  • are blind

Where is STEM content found?

  • Physical handouts
  • Electronic docs (Word docs, PDFs, pptx)
  • Online learning tools (MyMathLab)
  • Websites
  • Videos
  • Whiteboards

5 Terms Content Creators/Finders Should Know


“Accessible means that individuals with disabilities are able to independently acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services within the same timeframe as individuals without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use.” -University of Montana Office of Civil Rights settlement agreement, 2012


Text to speech, abbreviated as TTS, is a form of speech synthesis that converts text into spoken voice output. Text to speech systems were first developed to aid the visually impaired by offering a computer-generated spoken voice that would “read” text to the user. -Webopedia definition

Screen Reader

A screen reader is a software application that enables people with severe visual impairments to use a computer. Screen readers work closely with the computer’s Operating System (OS) to provide information about icons, menus, dialogue boxes, files and folders. -Humanising Technology Blog


LaTeX, which is pronounced «Lah-tech» or «Lay-tech» is a document preparation system for high-quality typesetting. It includes features designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. LaTeX is the de facto standard for the communication and publication of scientific documents. -LaTex

It is recommended that persons who are blind, and major in STEM disciplines, learn LaTeX. This will be invaluable for accessibility during their academics as well as in post-education.


MathML is a low-level specification for mathematical and scientific content on the Web and beyond. MathML can be used to encode both the presentation of mathematical notation for high-quality visual display, and mathematical content, for applications where the semantics plays more of a key role such as voice synthesis. -W3C Math Homepage

Differences Between LaTeX and MathML

Differences Between LaTeX and MathML
  LaTeX MathML
Initial Release  1985  1998
De facto standard for publishing in print publishing on the web and applications

HTML5 and an ISO standard ISO/IEC DIS 40314 since 2015.

What kind of language? Document preparation system; typesetting language Computer markup language
Designed to be written by humans generated automatically
Length Shorter code Longer code
How well known? Most STEM instructors will know Many STEM instructors may not know of MathML
Works with adaptive technology? Not really. For example, a screen reader will read the LaTeX symbols and characters aloud but it will not read the completed equation as one would speak it. Yes! As long as it is in a file format (Word Doc, HTML) that works with an adaptive technology that understands MathML.

LaTeX/MathML Converters


GrindEQ™ Math Utilities


Math Support Finder BETA

Math Support Finder (MSF) is an online tool that helps you identify the right combination of technologies needed to read math accessibly. Simply select your favorite tool(s) and access mode(s), then let MSF show you the unique combination of technologies required to read math using braille, audio, or however you prefer.

STEM Accessibility Cheat Sheet

STEM Accessibility Cheat Sheet
File Type STEM Is In Outcome Usable by Text-to-Speech? Usable by Screen Reader?
PDF Image STEM content is not accessible unless there is alt text. Alt text would need to be written in prose for each equation. if TTS software reads alt text and alt text is properly included yes, if alt text is properly included
PDF Text STEM content is copy/paste-able but is not accurate as formatting is stripped and special characters are not included. The relationship of the characters is ignored. not really not really
PDF LaTeX Visually, it’s pretty and accurate. But that’s it. no no
PDF MathML Not possible because PDF does not support MathML. However, it is supposedly part of PDF/UA no no
Word Doc Image Alt text would need to be written in prose for each equation. if TTS software reads alt text yes, if alt text is properly included
Word Doc MathML Is in an accessible, flexible format that can be turned into HTML with MathML or Braille-ready documents with minimal additional work. if TTS software reads MathML (CAR, Read&Write Gold) NVDA + MathPlayer4
HTML MathML Could be accessible but it depends on the browser and browser version. Presence of MathJax will also alter results. more research needed NVDA + MathPlayer + Firefox. JAWS + IE. More research needed.
Canvas  MathML More research needed. More research needed. More research needed.
Google Docs MathML More research needed. More research needed. More research needed.
PowerPoint MathML More research needed. More research needed. NVDA + MathPlayer4

As of Nov 2016

Can I Use MathML in…?

Can I Use is a website that allows users to input an element and obtain a visual regarding which browsers and which versions of those browsers support MathML natively (without additional software).


As of Nov 2016

Short History of Accessible STEM*

*This section is entirely the work of David MacDonald, Sina Bahram and CB Averitt. This information originated from Thank you David, Sina and CB!

  • Up to 1993, math done with special characters, numbers and letters
  • 1994: ASTER, first implementation of interactive math for the blind
  • 1998: MathML Version 1 W3C Recommendation. XML structure and content 1
  • 2003: MathML V2
  • 2005: Design Science releases MathPlayer which speaks MathML
  • 2009: Release of MathJax, a javascript library for rendering MathML, 2010: W3C MathML V3
  • 2013: iOS 7 releases MathML support
  • 2013: Chromvox 1.27 supports MathML
  • 2014:, DesignScience, ETS, and Sina Bahram, demonstrate what will later be called MathPlayer4 at CSUN on math, using Window Eyes
  • 2014: JAWS 16 has introduced MathML support in IE, relying on MathJax JavaScript library,
  • 2014: IE11 introduces Enterprise mode acts like IE 8, allows Mathplayer to work.
  • 2014: NVDA team writes code so that NDVA can consume MathML and hand it off the Design Science Math API
  • 2015: Design Science releases MathPlayer4 public beta which includes rich eyes-free interactive exploration of Mathematics and an API that allows any developer to tap into it. NVDA and WindowEyes do so within Firefox, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft PowerPoint.

What Can We Do to Make Accessible STEM Content?

  • Avoid graphics of math. Pictures of math cannot be read with text-to-speech software or screen reader.
  • Text-based PDFs are not accessible. While the math can be copied/pasted, the formatting is removed (fractions, symbols, etc). Also, the math will NOT be read as math but as English.
  • LaTeX does not work with adaptive technology.
  • MathML will work with adaptive technology, assuming it’s in a container (file type) being used with an adaptive technology that reads MathML.
  • Reconsider PDF for STEM content. It is not possible to make STEM content within a PDF accessible.
  • Most flexible file format is to use a Word Document with MathML as it can be exported into HTML or a Braille-ready document with minimal additional modifications.
  • If you must use LaTeX, consider using MathType. MathType is a software that allows for LaTeX and MathML creation and flexibility between the two. MathType is a stand alone software on both Windows and Mac. It is also a MS Word and Powerpoint plug-in.
  • Do not assume that one solution will work for everyone without testing with end users.
  • Use math input software (like MathType or LaTeX) to differentiate cairables from non-variables. For example, “a” is different than “a“.
  • Do not insist on only using one file type. Especially if that file type is challenging to convert into more accessible file types.
  • Be flexible as your preferred file format may not be usable by a person with a disability.
  • Do no use handwriting in documents as much as possible. Typed documents are more accessible or more easily turned into more accessible formats.
  • Be prepared to work with Disability Services to brainstorm solutions as specific barriers are identified. This is a partnership between DS and content creators to ensure the quality of education is high AND that it is also accessible.

What You Can Do On Your Campus

This list was brainstormed from AHG 2016’s Tuesday Pre-conference.

  • Order InftyReader software to cut down on manual re-creation mathematical expressions.
  • Add blurb to book request email to instructors that asks them to “also send book information to bookstore”.
  • Meet with STEM professors. Ask about how they create math and the software they use.
  • Include administrators in what you are doing and what goals you are working towards.
  • Include demos of the end user experience whenever possible.
  • Identify what software instructors have access to (may need to separate tenure from adjunct faculty)
  • Ask instructors what software used in class as well as textbooks.
  • Explain 5 terms regarding accessibility to a colleague.
  • Download Central Access Reader and test out MathML marked up Word Docs.
  • Look for resources to help students learn LaTeX.
  • Identify partners who have the same “pain” as you. For example, bookstores want but also may not receive the book information in a timely manner.
  • Sign up on listservs that work with STEM accessibility like ATHEN, AltMedia, etc…
  • Find or create a student interest group.
  • Collect data from instructors regarding what they would need in order to ensure early adoption or early creation of curricula.
  • Choose accessible instructional materials that have already been vetted for accessibility by a professional.

In My Opinion, It Is Not Reasonable to Ask Instructors

  • To be an accessibility expert. But they should know the basics of document accessiblity like headings, alt text for images, using lists and using tables mainly for data, not for formatting.
  • Make fundamental alternations of their class. However, instructors will need to be able to clearly communicate how and why an accommodation is a fundamental alternation.
  • To know more about STEM accessibilty than the accessibilty professionals on campus. But kudos if they do!
  • Abolish all LaTeX use. It is an industry standard which will likely not change anytime soon.

How one school makes STEM textbooks accessible

  • Obtain publisher PDF
  • Remove “eye candy” in Adobe Pro
  • Convert files to TIFF (the required input for Infty)
  • OCR with Infty (Optical Character Recognition Software designed to retain math as math and exports expressions to MathML)
  • Exports to XML (Infty output) and turn into Word doc
  • Open Word doc and use MathType to edit/re-create math, as needed
  • Edit for other accessibility elements
    • headings
    • lists
    • alternate text for images
    • tables