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January 28, 2020

Math Feel

Math and science Braille textbooks are expensive and require enormous effort to produce. Now a team of researchers has developed a method for easily creating textbooks in Braille that will ensure production of the books will become easy, inexpensive and widespread.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Math feel.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Braille textbooks help bring the written word to students who are blind or visually impaired. But science and math are especially hard to convey. Think graphs, diagrams, formulas. Producing Braille science or math textbooks is tricky, expensive, and time-consuming.

Martha Seigel, a former Towson University professor and Al Maneki, a mathematician and advisor to the National Federation of the Blind, who is blind himself -- decided to do something about it.

The multi-institutional team that ultimately resulted believed the key was piecing together existing tools into an automated process that could do the job.

Issue one: how to add structure -- cues for stuff like chapters and captions. Enter Pre-Text, a system for writing textbooks that automatically produces various print and online formats. The developer added Braille with special symbols as an output.

Next, formulas. Use Mathjax, that produces visual and voiced math formulas on web pages. Now add conversion to Braille, to make Braille and voiced formulas available side by side.

Graphs and diagrams? Ongoing work by the group will automate the process of converting images to high-quality tactile graphics.

Creating inexpensive textbooks for blind students.

A game of touch -- on a more level playing field.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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