Dealing With Maths Accessibility, Part 2

Writing Maths Content

In the previous post on reading maths, we found that reading maths is a bit challenging. In fact, while it is “doable”, it is not yet perfect.

Right? What about writing maths? can we do it?

Yes, writing maths is simpler than reading it. Because of that, this post should be shorter than the previous one because there is not much to talk of.

The problem

You want to write maths using a computer. This is essential skill because you want to submit your work in the acceptable format as your classmates or workmates. What can you do?

Don’t think of considering describing maths tables or graphs because your teacher wants to see maths. When he or she marks maths, they are not marking English, huh.

Solution

Fortunately, when it comes to writing, you are the originator of ideas. You know how those ideas have to be represented on paper. While writing maths on hard copy had been a challenge, digital writing to a greater degree had managed to level things for both sighted and blind people.

When writing maths, we are thinking of writing not just simple expressions like the standard deviation. We are also thinking of arrays, theorems, matrices and figures. We are also thinking of drawing diagrams. All these you can do.

Writing Maths in MS Word

The de facto editing program for many people on Windows is of course Microsoft Word, so we begin with that one. Word is in my opinion very accessible, beside that it can handle many formats ranging from plain text to editing PDF files.1 Word, for short, is part of the Microsoft Office suite of programs.

So how does one write maths in Word? By default, modern versions of Word come with a built-in tool known as “Math Equation Editor”. You invoke it by going to the Insert then to Symbols and choose Equation Editor. A dialog box comes up where you have to enter your math expression or equation, and it will be added to your document.

Hmm, there is a problem: Inaccessibility with screen-readers!

If you just tried what I pointed out in the above paragraph, as of the date of writing, you will see that your screen-reader will not provide feedback. While Word in general is great when it comes to accessibility, its Equation Editor is not yet accessible.

To remedy that situation, consider using what is known as a MathType program.

With MathType, you install it on your computer, and integrate it into your Word program. This takes place when it asks for your permission to install a Word Addon. This addon works throughout other MS Office applications like PowerPoint and Excel.

To take advantage of MathType, you open your Word document, and start writing text. When you want to enter a maths expression, write it as a LaTeX code.LaTeX is built on top of TeX as a macro language. Thus, to write the formula of a sample standard deviation, you would write it as:

s = \sqrt{\frac{1}{n-1} \sum_{i=1}^n (x_i - \overline{x})^2}

and press CONTROL-Backslash to convert it to maths expression printable on Word printout. It will come out as $$s = \sqrt{\frac{1}{n-1} \sum_{i=1}^n (x_i - \overline{x})^2}$$ and not the original string of characters you typed.

Using LaTeX Code for your Maths writing

What just happened there in the previous paragraph when we were using MathType? MathType simply took your raw LaTeX code and converted it to the form compatible with your document. When someone who is sighted will see your printout, they will see the right formula.

Now, let me talk of the real deal behind writing math: it is neither MathType nor Word. It is the TeX format. LaTeX just happens to be one of the macros built on top of the TeX language invented by Professor Donald Knuth. It was developed in the mid-70s, which means it had been around before Word itself.

However, the issue is not about any war or comparisons: LaTex and TeX actually addressed one of the long-pressing issues with maths production: the lack of other symbols, particularly Greek symbols such as the $\pi$ from the keyboard. Our keyboards only support ASCII characters.

So if you indeed want extra symbols commonly used in mathematics, you have to invest your education in learning some TeX or LaTeX. I will point you to some useful resources on the web towards the end of this post.

You write your maths in ASCII using any text editor, but you must escape some characters using the backslash (\) symbol. This symbol in LaTeX indicates that the following letter is to be translated for something else. For instance, we don’t have the following keys, but the table below will show you how to output these symbols.

Some symbols produced with TeX and LaTeX

To producePress
$\times$\times
$\pi$\pi
$\div$\div
$\pm$\pm
$\inf$\inf
$\frac{1}{2}$\frac{1}{2}

There are thousands of symbols you can produce this way, but you must take some time to learn LaTeX, or TeX. I guarantee you, that time spent is worth that effort. If I manage, I will put up some tutorial on this site on how to begin your journey into some popular markup languages such as LaTeX.

If you produce PDF Documents

If you are interested in producing PDF documents, and not Word documents, consider writing your document in plain text using a text editor such as Notepad++ or even the Notepad that comes built into your computer. This way, you won’t need MathType to convert your document. By the way, MathType’s major setback is that it is commercial, so in our economic environment, it may not be a viable solution anyway.

However, to produce directly to PDF, do the following:

  • Download LaTeX for your operating system, such as TeX Live or MiKTeX.
  • Install it.
  • Create your LaTeX documents in your text editor and save them with the .tex extention.
  • Then using a command-line or some specialised IDE such as TeXNiccenter, typeset the document.
  • The output will be a PDF document.

You can then print out this document, or send it to your professor for grading. If it is a report, you can then distribute it with all the maths expressions correctly typeset.

Other ways of producing Maths Online

While LaTeX is great, it is difficult to learn. It is my favourite though, because when you are blind, you are not concerned with fiddling with graphical representation of text at the time of writing. Instead, you only deal with raw code, and then typeset the final document with all its aesthetics according to the codes you wired into it.

If you are writing online, you have other options such as:

AsciiMath

This makes writing maths easy as you do not have to worry about the backslashes in LaTeX. Instead, Asciimath tries to represent maths in a natural way using the ASCII form. It is great when writing HTML pages as it uses the Mathjax renderer. You can learn more about it here. What makes Asciimath attractive is its relationship with the free Braille Blaster program, which is used for Braille transcription of books. If you wish to have your text correctly represented in UEB Math or Nemeth, just enter it as plain text.

MathML

MathML is an XML-based format for representing maths expression developed by the W3C the same body that is in charge of developing web standards. When you write maths in HTML, even as Asciimath, it is often translated to MathML. Personally, I never use it much: I just learned it to find out how expressions are dealt with in XML.

Thus, the real deal in town when it comes to writing math is LaTeX: learn it. When using MathType in Word, it translates it to Word format.

All the programs discussed in this post are not for calculations. They are used only for writing your maths expression. Thus, when thinking of these programs, we are not thinking of an application like Excel or a Calculator where you enter some input, and it spits out some numbers. These programs are used for writing symbols which you wouldn’t normally do using your standard keyboard.

Conclusion

While reading maths is a bit challenging, yet we are hopeful that in five years time or less, we will be able to read it just as we write. Writing maths requires that you learn more about LaTeX. There are other solutions out there, but LaTeX is free, is used by a large community around the world.

To learn more about LaTeX, I recommend the following resources:

  • LaTeX for Novices by Dr. Nicola Talbot. This was where I started: and the style of presentation is simple. In no time, you would master LaTeX like a pro. While there are other great resources, I recommend this one for anyone starting with LaTeX.
  • Authoring Math by Dr. John Gardner of ViewPlus Technologies is clear and straightforward from a blindness perspective. This is a cheatsheet2 which you must keep by your side as you write LaTeX code in Word. It summarises many symbols in few paragraphs. As I can no longer find the original page of this great sheet online, I saved it here for your benefit: just click the above link and download the plain text of that document.

Finally, keep on practising. In the final installment of this series, I will discuss doing statistics. Statistics has got its own quirks when it comes to writing and reading. But as you will discover, the digital platforms have made it easy even for someone who is blind to produce plots. Find out in the next post.

See you then!


  1. If you have MS Office 16 upwards. For earlier versions, you may have to install additional addons. ↩︎

  2. A handy document that summarises key concepts of a complex subject in few paragraphs. ↩︎

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