By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

“This isn’t working,” I said to myself after using VoiceOver on my MacBook Pro to read my math eBook for a few minutes. So I started to find out what was wrong. Minutes of searching turned into hours. Hours turned into days. Eventually, I gave up. VoiceOver simply couldn’t play nice with MathJax. It is not clear if it was a VoiceOver problem, a MathJax problem, or both. But one thing is clear, screen reader support for MathJax, in general, is far from perfect.

I moved my testing to a Windows PC. Eventually, I found a combination that worked somewhat reliably: NVDA + MathPlayer + FireFox. NVDA read everything it was supposed to read most of the time but there was just one little annoyance: it would stop at every math expression and I had to manually resume the reading. The reason for such behaviour turned out to be that MathJax turned every math expression into a web application. It is understandable why math expressions are web applications because the MathJax accessibility extension needs to provide support for navigation of math expressions. However, for a short expression such as “x-2” that occurs in the middle of the sentence, one would expect a screen reader to simply read through the generated speech text (“x minus two” in this case).

It seems to me that, given the technology currently available, one needs to choose between a smooth reading experience and explorability. I came to this conclusion after consulting a number of experts in accessible eBooks. Part of the problem is that web technology advances rapidly and developers of screen readers have to play catch up all the time. Since math on the web is not always as a high priority as other web content, it tends to receive less attention. If one must create a smooth reading experience for screen readers, the only option that I can see, which is the solution employed by some eBook publishers, is to handcraft alt texts for math expressions displayed as SVG (and explorability would have to be handled through a separate interface via some Javascript tricks). With over 20,000 math expressions in my eBook, handcrafting all the alt texts is a monumental task.

Despite the current suboptimal state of math accessibility, I do see opportunities for pushing technology forward in this area. A first step is to stop using technology that creates blatantly inaccessible content, especially when the content is an open educational resource. Even though full accessibility is not yet realizable, there is no reason to continue with counterproductive practice. It is also important for educators, not just instructional designers, to become involved in accessibility projects and join community groups for accessible math. There needs to be a general awareness that accessibility makes things better for everybody, not just for those who really need it. Abraham Nemeth, who was blind from birth, became a mathematician despite the lack of accessible material. He created the Nemeth Braille Code to help blind people read and write math. We are now in 2018. Surely we can do better and we should.