Volume I Number 4, November 1994

Math and Science Symposium at Recording for the Blind

Richard Jones


Computer technology is revolutionizing our world. The last advance in information dissemination of this magnitude was the printing press. Revolutions have never been defined as fair or predictable, and this revolution is no exception.

This article will describe computer technology's promise of access to information for individuals with disabilities - a promise that is becoming vague and ephemeral as the benefits of this technology become an essential part of the definition of professional competence. Next, this article will discuss some of the reasons for the revocation of technology's promise of access to information for individuals with disabilities. In the subsequent sections this article will describe a remarkable gathering of experts from around the world at Recording for the Blind headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey on May 14-15, 1994. The goal of this group was nothing less than reformation of a revolution.


Before microcomputers automatically converted information from one format to another, there were very few individuals with disabilities who could succeed in post-secondary institutions. The established models for "assisting" individuals with disabilities that continued well into the 1970's were sheltered workshops and menial, home-based, contract labor.

The microcomputer offered a revolutionary change in the way information was used. A separation between the information and the form of the information became apparent. For instance, each time a computer user sends information over a modem to another user, a series of questions is automatically asked by both participants, "Is the other party seeing exactly what I sent?" and "Did I receive what the other party sent?"

These questions may appear to be common sense, and therefore simplistic, but they represent a new level of sophistication. The use of a computer to transfer information is not the same as converting sound to electricity and saying,"Watson, I need you!" Rather than converting a human act into another form, a computer is making choices about the data. This data has no ideas or subjects or meaning. It is a flow of binary bits with which one computer "talks" to another computer. We, as operators, are not involved in this communication. Our communication goals are very different from the objectives that were used to create a computer link. We must verify that meaning has accompanied the form of communication.

The "meaning" that I am referring to is not a metaphysical meaning. The questions asked by the two computer users who are using a modem simply defines a human communication with a machine and not another person.

The American Standard Code of Information Interchange (ASCII) is a correlation between the world of the user and the computer. This code attempts to assure the users of computers that there is a standard for the transmission of information which combines meaning and form.

The purpose of this simplistic epistemology is to define what a computer does with data as opposed to what a human does with data. The reason for the establishment of this distinction is that it is the basis of both the promise and the possible failure of computers to present information to individuals with disabilities.


During the last fifteen years, computers have been used for sophisticated communication by the general public, and computer-based information could be presented in several different formats from the same source. The computer can display most types of information in large print, Braille and speech synthesis from a common computer file. All that was necessary was to write software to convert the computer-coded information into the appropriate form.

There were several small problems, perhaps the most crucial being the representation of math and science notation. Beyond basic math, the symbols needed for professional communication were not included in the computer code, ASCII. The task of trying to standardize such a mathematical coding system was and is daunting. The two-dimensional display of mathematical equations in an environment which was designed around the presentation of serial and therefore linear information was not feasible, except as a graphic or a picture of the equation. By describing the presentation of symbolic information, such as math and science notation, as a picture, the connotation is that the individual characters that appear on the screen have no meaning, no standard code. Such a picture can be sent to another individual or worked with on a computer, but the information cannot be converted into another form because there was no standard for the image that was presented. It is just binary ones and zeroes.

The promise is that by separating meaning from form, the form can be changed to accommodate the individual user. This process can only work if there is a conversion standard between form and meaning, such as ASCII. The problem, again, is that ASCII does not cover many forms of information needed in professional areas. The math and science information currently used on computers is in the form of dedicated software packages that do not allow conversion into other presentation formats.


The current slight-of hand is postscript. Postscript begs the questions by first stating that documents saved in this format through several commercial software packages can be transferred to different platforms and retain their form. When pressed on the issue of conversion of text into alternative formats, those who claim that postscript will allow one to transfer documents across platforms fall back on the claim that they can save their postscript file as ASCII on any machine. In fact, what is transferred is a picture of the document. For purposes of conversion of text into alternative formats, it is useless.


The future for individuals with disabilities who must rely on traditional forms of computer information is bleak. Despite federal and state regulations mandating access, meaningful access will be denied to individuals with disabilities. The major cause of this isolation is the increased sophistication of the computer interface, particularly as a result of the increased emphasis on postscript file formats, multimedia and hypertext links in electronic documents.

International organizations are working on various aspects of the problem. The International Committee for Accessible Document Design (ICADD), has been working on the problem for several years. They see this issue as much larger than just access to text, math and science notation. A new basis for correlating meaning with form must be established. This new correlation of meaning and form must be capable of changing as new methods of presentation and new types of documents are developed. These modern documents include hypertext, mosaic, multimedia and full-motion video. To work for anything less is to establish a system which cannot grow with future presentation strategies. ICADD believes that the Standard Generalized Markup Language is currently the most useful tool to perform this vital function. The ICADD minimum SGML DTD (Document Type Description) has been accepted by the State of Texas as a document for all texts purchased by the State of Texas for grades K-12. The ICADD SGML DTD has been included in the American Association of Publishers SGML DTD and included in the International Standards Organization standard, ISO 12083(1) SGML is a structured description of the document. It was designed to allow the translation of documents into various formats. It is currently being used by the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities, CETH(2) and the Text Encoding Initiative, T.E.I., which is supported by the National Foundation for the Humanities, the European Community and the Mellon Foundation. The purpose of T.E.I. is "to develop a standard for the interchange and encoding of electronic text."(3) "The standard is being developed with the participation of scholars and researchers from around the world, organized into work groups and work committees to deal with certain text types and disciplines (e.g., linguistics, spoken texts, dictionaries) and technological problems (e.g., hypermedia)."(4) T.E.I has been active since 1988.

The Communication and Access to Information for Persons with Special Needs has used SGML to provide access to newspapers in Germany on a daily basis. The CAPSNEWS DTD is designed to allow the newspaper to use a single source file to print the daily paper, archive newsprint and transmit the daily paper over satellite to individuals with disabilities. The transmission is possible in different languages and different access formats, including Braille, large print and speech.(4)

The current limitation of SGML is that, although it is possible, there is no comprehensive SGML DTD for math. The International Standards Organization ISO 12083 contains the ICADD DTD and a "math fragment attachment" which is not useful to several countries that require that math symbols be displayed differently in Braille, depending on the symbol's position in an equation.

While ICADD and the CAPS program are working through many of the obstacles that must be solved to provide an international solution, the current demand for access to information in science and math has reached a crisis. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates access to this information. There is, however, no comprehensive, computer-based, automatic, conversion of mathematics into alternative format.

Last year, Dr. T. V. Raman presented his AsTeR system at the California State University at Northridge, 8th Annual Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities. AsTeR was Dr. Raman's dissertation at Cornell University. His system shocked everyone in attendance. AsTeR is a comprehensive speech synthesis system for higher mathematics. The revolutionary aspect of Dr. Raman's system is the full use of auditory cues to add meaning to mathematical equations. (6) His product reads a LaTeX file.

TeX was originally written by Dr. Knuth as a print utility to provide accurate printing of mathematical equations. TeX and its derivatives are excellent for printing equations. The logic is that AsTeR intercepts the TeX commands going to the printer and converts them into a user-friendly, auditory representation of the original equation.

Dr. John Gardner of Oregon State University has been an active proponent of providing access to math and science notation. Dr. Gardner has developed Dotsplus, a system which takes a TeX or LaTeX file and converts it into a presentation which "incorporates both Braille and (tactile) graphics in an integrated fashion."(7)

The limitations of TeX are that it is at the end of the publishing process. One has no control over the original document. While excellent at printing math equations, TeX is not very demanding on the presentation of text. There are extensive possibilities for the presentation of text. And finally, most telling, TeX does not present a structured document. It suffers from some of the same flaws as a "picture" of the document in that it contains no inherent structural definition.

On May 12 and 13 at the Recording for the Blind headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey 41 individuals met to discuss the problem of math and science notation. Dr. George Kerscher of Recording for the Blind (RFB), and formally with Computerized Books for the Blind, had invited us to attend a working symposium. Dr. Kerscher had reviewed Dr. T. V. Raman's work and felt that it was part of the solution.

Those in attendance represented every conceivable point of view. Most had agendas that they felt were essential to a complete solution. Several representatives of publishing and academic associations were present, as well as individuals mentioned earlier in this article. The meeting was an instrument designed to respond to the tension of the problem. As Dr. Kerscher stated at the beginning of the first day, the format of the conference was, "somewhat dangerous." Members of the symposium were going to devise a structure for the conference, break into groups, and work on each topic as they saw fit.

The format succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. The group started with a presentation by Dr. T. V. Raman. Members then devised a symposium format by working backward from a secondary mathematical text through speech. The conclusion of the conference was nothing less than a definition of access requirements for math and scientific notation.

The group divided into three topic areas; Porting, User Interface and Data Structures. The two-day symposium was a work of enlightened self-interest. The central objective of defining a medium which supported the needs of all individuals with disabilities was never lost. The demand for a system which would be open to future information strategies led to several objectives aimed at the further development of data structures utilizing LaTeX and SGML.

The symposium was a declaration and definition of the problem. It transcended a simple wish list by attaching many objectives to the powerful work of T.V. Raman. Everyone agreed that AsTeR was obviously part of the solution. Not only was a set of objectives achieved, but several members agreed to begin work on various aspects and objectives agreed upon by the committee.

It was a meeting that actually accomplished its objectives. Dr. George Kerscher and Recordings for the Blind deserve praise for the pioneering work done at the symposium.

The following information represents an unofficial summary of the results of the Symposium.(8)


1). Set up an AsTeR server for use in a remote client Server arrangement with E-MAX interface. (AsTeR currently runs on a DEC work station)

2). Begin work on porting AsTeR to another version of LISP. (part of attempt to put AsTeR in a more open architecture)

3). Create an on-line manual for use and extensions of AsTeR. (attempt to provide some structure for programming in LaTeX)

A long term goal is to:

4). Port operating systems independent of LISP and UNIX. preferably C Code. (goal to port AsTeR to PC environment)


1). User-interface should be consistent across platforms. The control and navigation of the user-interface should be simple and easy.

2). User-interface should include a complete set of features that are found in modern on-line search and retrieval systems.

3). Output modality should include but not be limited to AFL, Text-to-speech, non-speech audio, graphics (sound graph), scalable large character display, hard copy output, (Braille and print), refreshable Braille.

4). Interface should facilitate communication between people without regard to disability, facilitating simultaneous use by a student and a teacher, for example.

5). Interface should be interactive (read, write, edit). Input should be supported form keyboard, alternative adaptive equipment, e.g., 6 and 8 dot Braille input, etc. These input devices should also be usable for navigation.

6). Should undertake development of Braille output module that will interface with the AsTeR front end.

7). Research the techniques for synchronizing the focus of the currently presented object in various output modalities (provide a method of each output device being able to point to the same character at the same time).


1). Write guidelines for providing the semantics behind the LaTeX macros. (An attempt to standardized some aspects of LaTeX as they relate to AsTeR.)

2). Determine the strengths and weaknesses of SGML, experiment with the ISO-12083 math fragment as input to AsTeR.

3). Educate publishers and other content providers about the need for well-structured files.

3.1). Process documents and send taped AsTeR renderings to the provider, i.e., publisher or author, for review.

4). Create a qualification test to determine the usability of structured document files.

4.1). Determine the test's suitability by other organizations.

5. Work with the ISO-12083 committee on extensions to deal with end-user defined constructs. (This is an interesting objective which addresses the obligation of any math system to allow creativity. In essence, a standardized system should not permit creativity. The question is, "How does one incorporate change in a procedure that will be recognized as not substantially changing the original DTD?" To do otherwise would allow uncontrolled changes in the structure of the documents described by the original DTD and thus lead to a uncontrolled use and display of information, in short, structural anarchy.


1). Develop, disseminate and maintain a resource list of products, components and research efforts currently underway.

2). Encourage the development of an accessible Graphical Calculator.


1. ICADD, International Committee for Accessible Document Design:

Vicki Lee Norbury
Recording for the Blind
Research and Development
P. O. Box 7068
Missoula, MT 59807
(406) 728-7201
Icrrj@ASUACAD.Bitnet or

2. Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities CETH
169 College Avenue
Alexander Library, 3rd Floor
New Brunswick, NJ 08903
Email: ceth@zodiac.rutgers.edu

3. & 4. E-mail Correspondence, Text Encoding Initiative, Wendy
Plotkin, T.E.I Assistant, to Richard Jones on 10/01/92.

Text Encoding Initiative Computer Center (M/C 135)
1940 W. Taylor ST. Room 124
Chicago, IL 60612-7352
Email: u35395@uicvm.bitnet to C. M. Sperberg-McQueen

5. Communication and Access to Information for Persons with Special Needs CAP, Dr. Gerhard Weber, University of Stuttgart, weber@informatik.uni-stuttgart.dbp.de

6. Paper presented at California State University at Northridge, Eighth Annual Conference, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" and at the RFB Math and Science Working Symposium by T. V. Raman. Based on Dr. Raman's dissertation. Audio System for Technical Readings, AsTeR, T. V. Raman, Cornell University, Department of Computer Science, 16 December, 1993. An abridged version is on the ICADD listserv. Subscribe to Listserv@ASUACAD.bitnet; one line in the body of the text; Subscribe icadd your email address your first and last name.

7. Dotsplus - Better than Braille?, John Gardner, proceedings of California State University at Northridge Eight Annual International Conference, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities", p. 87, 1993.

Note: While not directly mentioned in this article, the Equal Access to Software and Information project (EASI), under the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) has been a strong advocate of access to all areas of information for individuals with disabilities, particularly in the post-secondary environment. You may contact them at easi@sjuvm.st.johns.edu or: Carmela Castorina at (714) 830-0301; TDD (206) 206-5155

Jones, R. (1994). Math and science symposium at Recording for the Blind. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(4).