Maths for students with visual impairments at the University of Turin
“Reading” mathematics, for a person with a visual disability (blind or visually impaired), has always been difficult. The discursive part of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is still accessible, what’s complex is the reading of formulas made up of numbers, letters and symbols in an obligatory sequence.
Researchers from the Math Department “G. Peano” of the University of Turin, leaded by professor Anna Capietto, have developed the first system that allows the automated creation of pdf texts with mathematical formulae which can be read by blinds or people with visual impairment. In particular, they studied how to make accessible the documents created under LaTex system. LaTex is a specific program, the most common Markup language, used for the preparation of scientific texts. It allows the creation of PDF written in scientific language, but those documents are not accessible by the technologies usually used by visually impaired people or people with DSAs, for example screen readers and braille displays. The Italian researchers worked on this issue and created the package to add to LaTex program in order to produce readable documents by any kind of assistive technologies, they called it “Axessibility” and it’s freely downloadable at this website: https://ctan.org/pkg/axessibility .
How does Axessibility works?
The “Axessibility” code is applied on any document or text converted into LaTex. The formulas in the corresponding pdf they become immediately readable by everyone, people with or without visual impairments. In this way, “assistive” technology becomes “inclusive”, without language barriers: the sighted person creates a mathematical text immediately perceptible to the person with vision difficulties, but the process takes place exactly also on the contrary, in an equal exchange of knowledge. This tool can be easily learned and used by anyone.
Moreover, the project of the University of Turin (UniTO) took also in consideration the fact that students with special needs have difficulties to obtain digital scientific texts in an accessible format: that’s why the digital library has been launched. The goal is to make scientific texts available in accessible digital format for university courses with a scientific focus (mathematics, physics, engineering, economics, etc …), and books on basic mathematics and statistics for university courses, including those not with a scientific focus. They will be available in PDF and, if possible, HTML format in the dedicated section of the laboratory website.
Another important activity carried out by the group of researchers has been the training of future teachers and educators during Masters’ degree. From the didactic point of view, the objectives were to improve the knowledge of the tools and technological assets as well as a better verbalization of communication with pupils and students with low vision. Visually impaired or blind people must in fact acquire information through the use of the other senses. The whole body is a vehicle of spatial information; this fact is to be kept in mind in the preparation of didactic activities.