Back to School News and Tips

By Nikhil Vohra

Mid-August marks the beginning of the back-to-school season, and for students who are visually impaired or blind, that often requires some extra planning. Luckily, a number of resources exist to help students find accessible books, supplies and services to help students do their best. We are highlighting some of them in this week’s bulletin to ease the transition into the upcoming school year.


To start off, let’s revisit an extremely useful resource for math and science: the Desmos online calculator. As we first reported in January, Desmos offers the functions of a scientific and graphing calculator, but it also offers the functions of a simple four-function calculator, making it a tool for learners of all ages and levels. While we’ve already praised the accessible design of the calculator, it’s worth reiterating the inclusive design, as it renders the tool extremely convenient and valuable to those who rely on screen readers and auditory feedback:

Free Accessible Online Graphing Calculator

A favorite among math teachers, the online Desmos calculator provides access to a free internet graphing calculator. The Desmos team has now redesigned its calculator for screen-reader accessibility, and it even provides comprehensive documentation on configuring your screen reader—whether you use JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver, TalkBack, or even ChromeBox. The calculator supports the verbalization of the operations of a scientific calculator and provides auditory tracing of graphs. Learn more from the official YouTube video and from the thorough documentation.

Creating Accessible Math Content

By Nikhil Vohra

Two weeks ago, we explored the markup language MathML and its ability to render math content accessible to screen readers online—but its usefulness extends beyond the Internet. As long as you have a browser that supports MathML, such as Mozilla Firefox, you can read equations written in this format offline in XML files. In this way, accessible equation sheets and assignments can be created, downloaded, and distributed as XML files and opened and viewed in a web browser. One way to create an XML file with accessible math content is to write the document using LaTeX, a very popular document preparation system in academia among mathematicians, scientists, linguists, and others, before converting it into an XML file with a program such as TeX4ht. Of course, this method assumes the ability to use LaTeX. However, its popularity in academia means that creators of math material, such as teachers and professors, are likely to know how to use it. In addition, students studying or planning to study in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) field are eventually expected to learn LaTeX for their assignments and papers. (Note: Overleaf offers a 30-minute crash course on LaTeX on its website for free.) Once a document is properly written in LaTeX (in the TeX file format), the conversion process to XML/MathML takes one simple command using TeX4ht. In this way, it is possible to create documents with embedded math content that is accessible to screen readers via MathML. For a detailed walkthrough of this process, check out the LaTeX to MathML guide from California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

Preparing for School-Year Reading

By Ahmat Djouma

If you are heading back to school this fall, there are a few things that you could do to be sure you are prepared. First, gain access to all of your textbook materials, whether through Learning Ally, Amazon eBooks or Bookshare.  If you know what books you need in advance, Bookshare could be a way to go. Textbooks for students are a priority over any other books on Bookshare. If you are unable to find a book that you need for school, Bookshare provides an easy-to-use request form.  Even if they don’t publish it immediately, Bookshare will give you a raw scan of the text so that you can at least  get started while you wait for the book to be fully published. The Bookshare Help Center includes a guide and video tutorial that detail the process of requesting a title not available in the current collection. Secondly, if you are reading books that are not textbooks, consider getting audiobooks from the National Library Service for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NLS)’s  Braille and Audio Download (BARD) or Audible.