The University of Oklahoma libraries just published an article about some work I did getting a LaTeX equation screen reader initiated. The concept came out of a discussion from a guest at one of my LaTeX workshops at the university.
As part of the Fall 2018 Research Bazaar (ResBaz), I gave a short introductory presentation on the use of LaTeX as a typesetting program for academics. The presentation was a success and hopefully useful for the attendees. During some schmoozing after the presentation, I happened to run into someone from the Office of Digital Learning. We chatted a bit and he asked me a question about LaTeX I was unable to answer. The question, summarized as “LaTeX is well known for one its most popular qualities, the ability to render mathematical formulae par excellence. Is there any way to increase the accessibility of this function for folks who require sight assistance?” As I had little experience with this specific topic, I did due diligence by asking the question on Stack Exchange.
A New Package Appears
This question received few comments and no answers at first, because there was NOT a known method to make this work well. Fast forward to the present, a whole 10 months later, an answer appeared on my question from a user. He applied a general purpose linguistic parsing package he wrote called tokcycle to solve the problem posed by the question. By breaking math equations into proverbial phonemes such as telling the program:
“Ok LaTeX, when you see a ‘x^5’ in an equation, I want you to think of it as ‘x to the fifth'” we can hide that “x to the fifth”,
when a standard screen reader sees this equation, it no longer says
“x to the fifth”.
This reads in a much more meaningful way, translating the codified hieroglyphics of mathematics into the understandable spoken linguistics.
This is just a barebones approach for a LaTeX equation screen reader. But, the ability to link math symbols to innately understandable speech was the glue that was missing from the current tools. Tomorrow bodes user-friendly and complete LaTeX equation screen reader compatibility. There is still a ways to go from this to a plug-and-play so-easy-tenured-professor-could-use-it version, but the foundation is present. This foundation was built based on the resources made available to us by the OU Library system.
Credit Where Credit is Due
By encouraging students and faculty to learn an esoteric tool like LaTeX, we grant access to a broader userbase. Let’s be serious here, accessibility + math = a niche challenge. If I was not given the opportunity to reach out to new members of the LaTeX community by giving a talk, then I would have never realized that this was a problem. If I had never realized it was a problem, the question would never have been asked to the world. And without that question, there would be no foundation. The power of the modern library is as the nexus of the academic community, facilitating this type of interaction to encourage access and transfer of information. Bonus: they asked me to continue my workshops.
The credits for the package itself and recognition of its application to the problem belong to the venerable Steven B. Segletes. Based on statistics from the TeX Stack Exchange, Steven B. Segletes is one of the most impactful members (in the top 10). Additionally, credit for the topic should go to John Stewart who first recognized the discrepancy in the accessibility tools and LaTeX math.