Accessible equations

In this guest blog, Professor Dave Smith from University of Birmingham shares his experience of ensuring that mathematical content is accessible to students with vision impairment. Our longitudinal transitions study has highlighted how challenging it can be for VI students studying STEM in Higher Education, with academic staff often unsure of how best to provide support. 

Professor Dave Smith, School of Mathematics, University of Birmingham

There is a divide in the academic world between those for whom equations and mathematical expressions are their primary tools, and everyone else! Pure and applied mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists and many computational biologists (for the purposes of this blog post I will refer to all of us as mathematicians for short) typically find that widely-used tools such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are unsatisfying for the preparation of mathematics. Their main drawbacks are the combination of a clunky point-and-click interface with (to the experienced eye) substandard aesthetics.  The alternative system, still relatively known outside of quantitative disciplines, is the typesetting language LaTeX (pronounced ‘Lay-Tech’ or possibly ‘Lah-Tech’) which was mainly developed in the 1970s and 80s. LaTeX enables the production of professional-quality printed documents with equations that most mathematicians consider rather beautiful; it is no surprise therefore that the vast majority of us produce all of our lecture notes and other course materials (handouts, exercises, slides and even examinations) in LaTeX. Typically the implementation that is used is ‘PDFLaTeX’, which converts LaTeX ‘source code’ into a PDF file that can be viewed electronically or printed. LaTeX has undoubtedly revolutionised mathematical publishing, and has also influenced the development of HTML (hypertext markup language), the basis for the web.

One of the great appeals of PDFLaTeX is that it gives us complete control over the visual layout. However, therein lies a weakness – not everyone consumes lecture material visually, and not all who do see in the same way. The most powerful example of this diversity is the use of screenreaders by blind and visually-impaired students. Equations appearing in PDF files produced by LaTeX are completely unintelligible to a screenreader. A workaround for this difficulty (used with success in the School of Mathematics) involves providing the LaTeX source files so that the code itself can be interpreted – ‘backslashes, curly brackets and all’ by a screenreader. This is a workable solution – and perhaps the best that can be expected in a short timeframe – but wouldn’t it be preferable if the core set of notes were suitable to be adapted by students to their varying needs? Other examples of how materials may need to be ‘consumed’ differently include the use of large print by students with visual impairments, or the use of sans-serif fonts and coloured backgrounds by students with dyslexia. Special materials can be printed out on request, but wouldn’t it be better if students could simply enlarge text, or experiment with changing the font or background to see what works best for them? The issue of how we consume reading material is most acutely relevant to those with visual impairment, however across all of the academic community we now view content across a range of devices, from monitors to laptops to tablets and phones, all of which require text to be able to resize and reflow according to the dimensions of the screen. We wouldn’t expect the Guardian online (or indeed the Big Conversation blog) to comes as a downloadable PDF. It seems reasonable that students should have similar expections of course materials.

HTML-based materials by contrast provide an excellent and up-to-date way to deliver device-friendly, resizable and reformattable content, along with the other advantages of web-based materials (particularly interactivity). The University’s online learning environment Canvas is a user-friendly platform for colleagues unfamilar with HTML code to prepare webpages. But what about mathematics? The best solution I am aware of involves integrating the old and the new: LaTeX expressions – which can be included by enclosing within the symbols \( and \) – within an HTML web page. LaTeX expressions can then be interpreted into mathematics through the online service MathJax, a javascript engine developed by the American Mathematical Society and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. MathJax can be included in a webpage by adding a code snippet to the start of the HTML file; in Canvas this is done automatically. The result is mathematical expressions that look beautiful but more importantly are then available as MathML for the use of screenreaders. Having prepared materials in this way one no longer needs to anticipate all of the possible needs of current or future students – the power is with the student to manipulate the content appropriate to their needs. An example Canvas-LaTeX page is available at this link.

For the lecturer, converting a set of LaTeX notes to ‘Canvas-LaTeX’ or ‘HTML-LaTeX’ is essentially an task of cutting-and-pasting and then modifying commands such as section headings and figures – something that can be accomplished in a few hours for a 20 credit lecture course. Therefore there is a great opportunity to bring our lecture notes into the 21st Century, retaining many of the advantages of LaTeX along with much greater accessibility. This change may require a shift in how we view course materials – our job is to provide content (text and equations), but we need to accept that our control over their precise visual appearance is a luxury which does not meet the needs of blind, visually-impaired or dyslexic students.

Professor Dave Smith, School of Mathematics


What role can assistive technology have in removing barriers to work and helping disabled people stay in work?

This was one of the questions posed by The Work and Pensions committee as part of their inquiry into the disability employment gap; prompted by the UK government’s aim to get one million more disabled people into work over the next 10 years. The committee were interested to learn more about the contribution made by the government funded ‘Access to Work’ scheme which aims to remove barriers to employment for people with disabilities, and how this scheme could be developed moving forward.

In February we had the opportunity to meet with Steve McCabe, local MP for Selly Oak in Birmingham, to present our response to this consultation. We took the opportunity to discuss with him the barriers which are faced by people with vision impairment seeking to participate in the labour market and importantly evidence for how these barriers might be overcome. We also welcomed the opportunity to learn more about his experience on the Work and Pensions committee and the ideas that he and colleagues have developed.

Improving employment outcomes for people with vision impairment has been a key research area at VICTAR over a number of years. For example, Network 1000 provided important estimates of employment rates for people with vision impairment while the ENABLER project developed a toolkit for specialist employment advisers to ascertain how close an individual with vision impairment is to being able to participate in the labour market, and what interventions might be needed.

Most recently our Longitudinal Transitions Study has been investigating the post-16 transitions experiences of young people with a vision impairment as they have left compulsory education and progressed to the labour market. Our secondary data analysis of the UK Labour Force Survey emphasises how important this is, with estimates that 42.8% of young people with vision impairment aged 16-24 are NEET (in comparison to 21.7% of young people in the general population).

Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry
Work and Pensions Select Committee response

In our response to the Work and Pensions committee we highlighted that the use of technology such as screen-readers as used by individuals with severe vision impairment requires an extensive period of training and consolidation for the person to be able to develop strategies to use it effectively in the workplace. Therefore the intervention of assistive technology is not enough on its own – individuals need opportunities to develop these skills to enable them to be competitive in the labour market and to advocate for the adjustments which they require.

We also highlighted that young adults with vision impairment have limited opportunities to access work experience opportunities to develop their CV when younger. We have found instead that these young people often look to voluntary opportunities to bridge this gap in their CVs. However, finding appropriate voluntary opportunities can be further complicated by a lack of access to appropriate assistive technology (which is not available through Access to Work).

Further, evidence shows that individuals with vision impairment benefit from using mainstream technology which have inbuilt accessibility options which enable them to use their devices as assistive tools. However, mainstream technology is often not funded by Access to Work as it is not viewed as specialist.

Our meeting with Steve McCabe led to the identification of several positive steps that could be taken forward. These include:

  • Recognising the importance of preparation for adulthood by helping young people with vision impairment to access assistive technology and develop their skills at an earlier stage.
  • Improving specialist training for assistive technology in schools to provide a long-term pathway which prepares young people with vision impairment for the workplace.
  • Developing more opportunities for work experience and voluntary work for young people with special educational needs and disabilities and incorporating this into Education Health and Care Plans.
  • Recognising the opportunity provided by mainstream technology in removing barriers for individuals with disabilities.

Rachel Hewett

Braille or computers? I’ll have both please

“Louis Braille invented his eponymous code nearly 200 years ago. The tactile reading and writing system has transformed the lives of many blind people. More recently, computers and the internet have introduced new opportunities for accessing precious information. If Louis Braille was alive today, he would embrace it all!”

On 4th January, World Braille Day marks Louis Braille’s birthday. Born in 1809, he invented the braille code, or ‘braille’. Braille is a tactile reading and writing system used by many people with severe vision impairments or blindness. A braille character is based upon a matrix of a six raised dots, historically embossed on paper. Different combinations of these dots represent an individual letter, letter combination or word. Louis Braille was blind himself and first proposed the idea while still at school. The braille code he developed has had a profound impact upon the education of people with vision impairment around the world.

Reading braille

In recent years the emergence of computer technology has raised questions about the future of braille. Some people wonder whether we need braille now that computers and mobile devices can provide speech output. Drawing upon some of the research into braille which has taken place in the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR), we argue that technology and braille are allies rather than competitors.

It is simplistic to consider braille and technology as having an uneasy relationship. In fact, the reverse is true – after all, braille’s success is closely linked to technological developments that have enabled braille production and writing. This includes braille writing frames, mechanical writing machines such as the Perkins brailler, braille embossers (which are essentially braille printers) and most recently, the refreshable braille display. These braille displays are linked to computers and present a line of braille characters which are refreshed as the user reads.

More braille is available today than ever before. Many products have braille embossed on their packaging (for example, visit Coop shops), and it is now a legal requirement to have braille labels on all medicine packaging (our own research underpins this international standard). This greater availability of braille reflects the improvements in national and international disability legislation, but improved technology has played a crucial role too. The internet means that huge volumes of electronic files are now easily available at any time. These can be accessed online, easily converted into braille and embossed or read using a refreshable braille display. In a recent blog, Amy Mason described how refreshable braille displays have “transformed the way that many of us use braille”.

However it is inaccurate to assume that braille has been the chosen literacy approach amongst blind people since its invention. The history of braille was documented by the late Dr Pamela Lorimer in her University of Birmingham PhD thesis. The adoption of braille was a slow process which involved debates and controversies over many decades, long after Louis Braille’s death. Professor Michael Tobin, Emeritus Professor within VICTAR, carried out research into braille reading for many years. In a recent article he notes how the debates about the braille code continue. He too questions the common assertion that computer technology will render braille obsolete. Instead he argues technology is making access to braille “easier, faster, and cheaper”. This has certainly been true of participants in our ongoing longitudinal transitions study who have benefited from using refreshable braille devices during their studies in higher education. While they do not use braille for all aspects of their studies, the participants highlighted how important their access to braille is in particular scenarios, such as following notes during a lecture or proof reading an essay.

As in many countries, in the UK teachers are required to have a specialist qualification to teach children with vision impairment, and this includes a requirement to know how to teach braille as a route to literacy – Birmingham University has a long established training programme (one of the biggest in the world). Even so, findings from some UK studies suggest considerable variation in approaches to the teaching of braille literacy, which led to our recent literature review. We found no evidence to support the view that technology has an adverse effect on the development of literacy through braille. However, we did find that there is limited information for teachers about how to teach braille literacy in mainstream schools. The review made several recommendations about braille teaching (e.g. in relation to the use of reading schemes, phonological instruction and the order of introducing braille letters) and since then more teaching resources have been developed. However, an area that remains problematic is the need to re-develop a standardised braille reading test (a previous test was developed in the 1990s at the University of Birmingham, but needs updating).

Our research highlights that the dangers to the future of braille are related to educational resources and approaches, not to the emergence of new technology. In the current climate where teaching services are being placed under a great deal of financial pressure, we must guard against braille teaching being neglected. Braille remains a hugely important route to literacy for blind people, and is a key method of accessing information independently, which complements other ‘technology literacies’.

If the brilliant Louis Braille was alive today he would be reading braille with skill and enthusiasm while at the same time surfing the web, marvelling at information he would literally have at his fingertips. His invention remains a potent symbol of disabled people’s independence and empowerment. But most importantly, braille works.

Graeme Douglas, Mike McLinden and Rachel Hewett

Engaging with the sector – ESRC Festival of Social Science

On 10th November VICTAR and VIEW collaborated to host a workshop entitled ‘Supporting young people with vision impairment through post-16 transition’. This event was arranged as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

Various professionals who have contributed to the Longitudinal Transitions Study and provided teaching support for the MQ programme were invited to attend the event, which was held at Impact Hub Birmingham. The purpose of the event was to present our findings from the ongoing longitudinal study and to discuss the appropriate response of the sector to these findings.

The event was chaired by VICTAR co-director, Mike McLinden.

The afternoon commenced with a presentation from Graeme Douglas and Rachel Hewett (VICTAR) and Sue Keil (VIEW) who discussed some of the key findings from both the Longitudinal Transition Study and a RNIB Freedom of Information Request of Local Authority specialist services. The presentation focused on the role of specialist services in preparing young people with vision impairment for adulthood, whilst acknowledging the conflicting pressures which local authorities face due to a narrowing of the curriculum and budget constraints.

Sue Keil presenting findings from the RNIB Freedom of Information request

The second presentation came from Kay Wrench who reflected back on her thirty years’ experience working as a qualified teacher of children and young people with vision impairment (QTVI). She emphasised the importance of QTVIs using their time resource wisely, such as equipping schools to produce materials in alternative formats to allow the QTVI to focus on working with children and young people with vision impairment to develop important skills such as self-advocacy, mobility and assistive technology skills.

Kay Wrench

Lucy Dixon from RNIB followed by sharing information about a sector wide campaign which is set to highlight dwindling specialist support services for children and young people with vision impairment, and to expose the negative impact that this has on young people with vision impairment being able to fulfill their potential and to live and work independently when adults. Further information about this campaign can be found on the RNIB website.

Lucy Dixon

The second half of the afternoon allowed opportunity for discussion in small groups and for delegates to provide their thoughts and reflections on the issues raised. Those who attended contributed enthusiastically, drawing upon their wealth of experience working in both educational and voluntary sectors.

The afternoon was concluded by Rory Cobb from VIEW who drew together the main points of these discussions. The outcomes of these will be summarised and shared on the VIEW website for consideration by other QTVIs, and will also guide important discussions between VICTAR, VIEW and members of the steering group for the longitudinal transitions study over the coming months and years.


We would like to thank ESRC for providing funding to support this event, Impact Hub Birmingham for hosting the event and the delegates who engaged with the workshop with such enthusiasm.

Rachel Hewett

Thank you to Rory Cobb and Sue Keil

On Friday the 20th October 2017 Rory and Sue both retired from RNIB – combined, they had contributed over 50 years of work to RNIB and the field of vison impairment education.  They have done this with great skill, openness, friendliness, good humour and passion. Thank you both, and very best wishes for a happy and healthy retirement!

Sue and Rory
Sue and Rory at their retirement celebration

I met Rory in 1994 when I first started working in the field – he advised us on a technology development project and was typically thoughtful and helpful. In the 2000s we worked more closely together on his MPhil – in which he researched assessment access. This was part of his sustained and successful efforts to gain fair access to public examinations for students with vision impairment.  We struck up a friendship and through those discussions lay some of the seeds of our theoretical thinking about vision impairment education: balancing social adjustments (inclusive practice) on one hand and developing children’s agency and independence on the other. As a programme and regional tutor, Rory has offered wonderful support to the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children and Young People with Vision Impairments. In fact Rory’s development work on the programme has helped align it to new and changing government policies while maintaining a theoretical integrity with young people’s interests at its core.

I met Sue in the late 1990s, initially as a researcher and author on the influential RNIB Shaping the Future survey work which gathered the views of a large cohort of young people across the UK. At the same time Sue was a key RNIB contact for much of VICTARs research work, initially the ‘Steps to Independence‘ project (which has links to the emergence of the habitation specialist as a key professional in our field). Sue is a brilliant advocate for research as a vehicle to bring about positive change and to challenge inequality – this is both as a ‘user of research’ through exemplary briefing documents, and also as a ‘producer of research’. For example, Sue’s ‘state of the nation’ reports based on survey work with local authorities continue to be hugely important. More recently she has worked on significant research projects at both ends of the educational age range – the Great Ormond Street Hospital/UCL OPTIMUM project concerned with early development in blind or partially sighted infants, and the VICTAR Longitudinal Transitions Project concerned with Post-16 transition experiences.

We all work in a relatively small field, and as such we rely on collaboration and friendships. VICTAR and field generally have benefited greatly from Rory and Sue as individuals, but in recent years we have gained even more from them as a brilliant team.  Their complementary areas of expertise are amazing and have helped us glue together important strands of research and teacher training in the field of vision impairment education. This is also enhanced by a quality they share – both are superb spoken and written communicators. This has been clearly illustrated through their contributions to writing in our field.

steering group
Sue and Rory and other members of the Longitudinal Transition Study steering group

Good luck next stage of your lives – I’m sure that will involve some continued working together here at the University and through your planned work with VIEW. I hope it will also involve some well-earned time to relax!

With very best wishes and thanks from all at the University of Birmingham.

Graeme Douglas

New blogs!

Two of our projects have been featured in external blogs.

Elena Schmidt from Sightsavers has written for the Impact Initiative about our ongoing collaborative work in Malawi. You can find this on The Impact Initiative website. 

Rachel Hewett has written about some of our dissemination activities in relation to the Longitudinal Transitions Study for University of Birmingham’s Think:Research publication.

Higher education: challenging the stereotype

For the past couple of days I have noticed quite a few of my friends have shared on social media the story of a young man with a severe visual impairment who came to the UK as a refugee and moved into a council estate.

When thinking about these key demographics, you could definitely say that the odds have been stacked against him in life, but despite this he has just graduated from University of Cambridge with a First Class Law degree.

Students graduating.jpg
Students celebrating their graduation

What has struck me is that when reporting this story, the media have focused so heavily on his visual impairment, even in the context of the other barriers that he has faced in life. This has led me to consider how many of the young people that I have been working with would respond to this message. Undoubtedly they would recognise the young man’s achievement, as they would for any other student. However, at the same time I know they would be frustrated at the perceptions being highlighted by the media reaction; that is so ‘extraordinary’ for a person with visual impairment to perform so highly.

As part of my research for the Longitudinal Transitions Study I have followed the experiences of almost 40 young people with visual impairment during higher education (HE). It is true to say that many of the young people have experienced considerable challenges in accessing their courses and university life in general. However it is important to note that in many cases these challenges should already have been overcome through HE institutions offering an inclusive learning experience.

HE institutions are required by the Equality Act to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students to ensure that they are not at a disadvantage in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Importantly these adjustments should be ‘anticipatory’, thus requiring institutions to plan in advance to remove barriers, and not simply in response to challenges faced by a particular student. For example, in the case of a student with visual impairment often anticipatory adjustments can be as simple as ensuring that lecture notes are made available in advance of lectures in a format that is compatible with their assistive technology. Alternatively it may involve the institution making timetables available in advance which can enable a student with visual impairment to be taught routes to get to lectures independently and for reading lists to be provided in sufficient time to request accessible copies of textbooks.

Of course there are cases where the barriers faced can be more complex, such as the need to put in place adjustments to ensure that a student can take part in practical sessions or be able to use a particular piece of software. However, the experiences of the young people taking part in the Longitudinal Transitions Study testify that, providing the institution and student work together, such barriers can be overcome.

Lastly, and as we often remark in the Inclusive Curriculum Committee that I sit on, inclusive practice benefits the student population as a whole! Providing lecture notes in advance of lectures gives all students the option of reviewing slides before lectures and having copies of notes in front of them. Lecture capture means that all students can go back and revisit lectures while they prepare for their exam. Whilst well-structured virtual learning environments mean that all students can navigate online content more smoothly to identify the information that they need.

If you would like to know more about the experiences of our participants in higher education, please check out our summary report. Alternatively if you are a student with visual impairment preparing to go into higher education, you may be interested in these resources we developed with RNIB.

Rachel Hewett