This artifact was a reunion of a previously used tool – Audacity. I had forgotten how easy it was to edit files and export to an MP3. I chose not to incorporate music for the initial posting in order to focus on the content and my voice quality. I was satisfied with my experience in creating this artifact.
The podcast is called Accessible K: Making the Topic of Accessibility More Accessible. It is designed to help listeners understand more about what accessibility is, why it’s important and how to make accessible-borne content. This is a podcast that can be beneficial for instructional designers, faculty, content creators and administrators in the education sector, particularly in higher education.
My first podcast episode honed in on STEM accessibility – an ambitious first topic but one that offers relevant information. This is partly preparation for a 3 hour presentation I will give on this topic at Accessing Higher Ground conference in November 2016.
Below the link to the podcast is the full transcript.
Transcript of Accessible K’s Podcast, Episode 1 – STEM Accessibility
Hi everyone, welcome to the podcast. I’m Krista and I have the best job in the world — I get to use technology to make a more equitable environment for students with disabilities. I work specifically as a manager of textbook and file conversion at the University of WA. In this podcast, I will help you understand more about what accessibility is, why it’s important and how to make accessible-borne content. No matter your profession or interest, there is information here for you as you strive to make your content more inclusive.
What is STEM? What is accessible STEM content?
In this episode, we are going to focus on STEM accessibility. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. This is an acronym widely known, especially within the educational or academic sectors. One of the main distinguishing features is the incorporation of other elements besides text. Think of a novel – most often it is words only with perhaps some pictures. STEM books and other materials tend to have words, numbers, charts, figures, graphics, equations, expressions and specialized vocabulary. Teaching and learning STEM fields has received much attention in recent years because it is complicated for both the instructor and student, yet is extremely important for future global growth.
Accessible STEM content means the content is designed so that anyone can use it without additional modifications. A specific example is that a blind user can use screen reading technology. This means that the words, numbers, charts, figures, graphics, equations, expressions and specialized vocabulary will be readable by the computer. Another is example is for individuals who rely on speech recognition to control a computer. Instead of using the mouse and keyboard to click, scroll and type, someone can use their voice to click, scroll and type. Let’s say the professor wants to use an online learning tool for students to complete electronic homework questions and take practice tests. If the online learning tool is accessible, the student with no hands will be able to do everything that someone with hands could — but they would use their voice instead of their fingers. Pretty cool huh?
Simply put, here is the best definition of accessible that came from the US Office of Civil Rights in a resolution letter to University of Montana.
“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.”
Does your content meet that?
Why is it hard?
Admittedly, it’s hard to create accessible STEM content. Why? Well a couple of reasons:
- Mainly because STEM content is a different language. English text reads left to right, top to bottom, always. STEM content may not follow that pattern; especially with math. The physical positioning of the symbols changes the meaning.
- STEM is highly graphical in nature. Math is more often thought to be seen with the eye, not heard with the ear. This is demonstrated by folks who would prefer to see an equation in written form in comparison to hearing it be read aloud.
- There are symbols that may be hard to replicate with standard tools that are available to the masses. One needs to select several options to insert a special symbol in Microsoft Word to include Greek letters.
- STEM symbols may not be commonly known. For example, the capitalized letter for gamma looks like a T with the top left line missing; the lowercase version looks more like a “y”.
- There are not yet widespread, simple and cheap authoring tools that produce accessible STEM content by default.
- No many content creators understand how adaptive technology interacts with STEM content.
Are there other reasons I left out?
While this podcast is not designed to make one a STEM accessibility expert, there are basics that all content creators must know. I’ll share with you what I learned this past year after the break.
What is the terminology one must understand?
As I have been on this journey of collecting and regurgitating STEM accessibility information, I found it imperative to create a vocabulary sheet. I picked 5 terms to share with you today.
LaTeX – a typesetting language that is used to create mathematical and scientific content. It is a computer language and has been around for decades. Just as individuals learn HTML or PHP computer languages, LaTeX is a language with it’s own rules. Virtually everyone who authors or publishes STEM content in higher education uses LaTeX. What LaTeX was first introduced, the final product was typically physical papers like books or journal articles. LaTeX cannot be used with adaptive technology (like screen readers, text to speech engines and speech recognition programs) without additional work.
MathML – it is a markup language that use also used to create mathematical and scientific content, specifically designed for the web environment. It is newer than LaTeX and also less known. It can be used with some adaptive technologies and more options are becoming available as technology develops. This means that a screen reader or text to speech engine could, in fact, read STEM content aloud.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) – it is a technology that analyzes an image and produces a text version of it. Think of it as the computer re-typing the document so you don’t have to. OCR works great for documents that have minimal markings (like underlines, handwriting, highlighting). Sadly, the technology is not yet there to replace the human eye in deciphering smudged or poorly contrasted text.
Screen reader – a tool used by blind users to control and navigate electronics like a computer, tablet or smartphone. A screen reader is designed to read everything aloud – dialog boxes, names of buttons, website URLs, main text, alternate text behind images and so on. It is also designed to navigate through any part of the technologies interface. What I mean is, a screen reader user can open their email client, craft an email, send it and close out of that program. However, the technology needs to be designed for compatibility with screen readers. The operating system (like Windows, Mac OS, Mac iOS, Android) will determine one’s options for screen reading technology.
Text to speech – a tool used by individuals who can read, but need the capability to have bodies of text read aloud. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of these tools. They are options available for each of the operating systems. Text to speech software typically includes other features like highlighting as it reads aloud, choosing different voices (both gender and accent), dictionary look up options and some will export text to an MP3.
Combining all of the terms into one sentence — the language (LaTeX, MathML) and file type (HTML, word document, PDF) will affect if adaptive technology (screen reader, text to speech engine) can interact with it in a way that a user with a disability can consume the STEM content.
Do you use LaTeX or MathML currently? How much do you know about adaptive technology, like screen readers or text to speech engines?
What are 5 relatively simple tasks that content creators should do?
In the quest to teach STEM accessibility in swallowable ways, here are 5 tasks that most should be able to do, regardless of previous experience or current comfort level with STEM accessibility:
- Always ask yourself if the end user will be able to interact with the content in several ways: can they see the content? Can they have the content read aloud? Can the content be enlarged? Can the content be turned easily into tactile format, like braille? Creating accessible-borne content is more of a mindset than a checklist.
- Avoid using images for any mathematical expression as much as possible. For example, do not take a screenshot of an equation and paste it into a document. It would be better to create the STEM content with LaTeX. It would be best to create the STEM content with MathML. There are products like MathType or Scientific Notebook that let you toggle between LaTeX and MathML.
- Include alternate text for items that must be left as a picture. Alternate text is a short explanation of the main idea of the image. It is also known as alt text. Alt text communicates to blind users details that they are unable to . For example, if I had a picture in this script and said, “look at the picture”, listeners would have NO idea what the image is. Now, if I share the alternate text, it becomes more meaningful to listeners.
- Photo of blind person wearing headphones and listening to the computer.
- Avoid producing STEM content in a PDF format. This is because PDFs do not support MathML and there are not tools that will read MathML aloud in PDFs. Keeping it in HTML or a MS Word document format is best.
- Use tables thoughtfully. Many times, content creators put data into a table because it’s convenient. Avoid using tables for layout purposes. Ask yourself, can this data be accurately represented by using a list? Is the data a bunch of words or numbers? Sometimes, a table full of words can be turned into separate lists. Tables full of numbers are probably best left as a table.
This was a very short introduction to STEM accessibility and I appreciate your choice to join me. I am on a professional journey to keep exploring different facets of this and to share what I have learned in easy, accessible formats. In a future Accessible K podcast episode, I anticipate going deeper into LaTeX — why is it predominantly used by STEM content creators? Is it possible to easily convert to MathML? And what are simple tasks that STEM content creators can do to produce accessible STEM content IF they are using LaTeX?
More next time. Thanks for listening!