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In the equation: how to improve access for blind science students

Studying science can be difficult at the best of times, but if you're blind, it can be even harder. Software to magnify text helps. But a German university has a better solution.

Magnifying text in a university lecture hall for students who are visually impaired or blind is one thing. There's software and hardware for that. But the software often struggles with some of the things that scientists need: equations and graphs.

Max Kordell is a science student at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, or KIT, in southwestern Germany.

He sits near the front of a packed organic chemistry lecture. Bent over his notebook, his white hair stands out from the students around him. The nineteen-year-old chemistry student has albinism.

Like many other albinos, he has problems with his eyesight.

The professor scribbles a long formula on the blackboard at the front of the lecture theatre.

Despite only having about seven percent vision, Kordell can still follow the lecture thanks to a camera, which projects what is on the blackboard onto his laptop.

"I need to have everything magnified," says Kordell. "Thanks to the camera, I can magnify the words so I can read them."

Following lectures isn't the most difficult part of studying science with a visual impairment though.

When software fails

Kordell gets out his laptop to demonstrate another issue. He logs in and moves his very large and bright yellow mouse icon to click on a pdf document sent to him by a professor. He hovers over a formula with his magnifying software but the formula has been written in a particularly spiky font that doesn't magnify well. Instead of making the equation bigger, the software displays a whole bunch of pixels that are impossible to read.

Braille & LaTex Formula

LaTex is a linear form of mathematical notation, which is more accessible to blind students

Blind students face similar problems. Instead of a magnifying program, blind people use screen reading software that reads out aloud the text on the computer. But even simple text can pose a problem if a pdf is protected, for example, because then the screen reader simply can't read it. And as for formulas, charts or graphs - how is a screen reader supposed to describe those?

Luckily, the blind and partly sighted students studying at KIT - there are about 30 at the moment - are supported by the university's Study Centre for Visually Impaired Students (Studienzentrum für Sehgeschädigte), known as the SZS.

The SZS adapts the study material to make it accessible for students with visual impairment or blindness, and tailors it to each student's particular degree of disability.

There are several others like it in Germany, but the SZS is the only one specialized in the natural sciences.

According to Torsten Schwarz, the research scientist responsible for literature adaptation at the centre, "math is the main problem."

Words are one dimensional - they run in a line across a page. However, maths is often two-dimensional. Take a fraction, for example, ¼ - it has a top part and a bottom part. This leads to complications if you have fractions being read out by a screen reader.

simple mathematical equations

Which is the correct equation for "a plus b over c"?

Schwarz coordinates a team of students who work at the centre, converting equations from the study materials into a more linear mathematical notation known as LaTex - which is more accessible to blind students.

Tactile learning

But there's still the nutty problem of how to make graphs, charts and diagrams accessible.

Graphs are very complex, combining text, numerical and visual information.

First, the graph has to be stripped of any non-essential information.

Then there needs to be a description of what information is being presented.

"This still isn't enough though," says Schwarz, which is why the graph is then converted and printed as a tactile document that the students can also feel with their fingers.

While tactile printers are not uncommon, the university has a special printer (one of three in Europe) that can produce documents combining both printed and embossed information. This is especially important to allow visually impaired students to work together with sighted students, or ask their professors questions about a particular diagram.

Blind and partially sighted students encounter other problems that can make studying science more difficult compared to social sciences or humanities - such as how to complete obligatory lab work if they can't see a chemical reaction or if it's too dangerous to work with the whirling machines in the lab.

Vladyslav Kutsenko

Vladyslav Kutsenko says more people with a visual impairment or blindness should study programming

But surmounting these extra hurdles can be worth it in the long term. Schwarz believes visually impaired students, who chose science degrees, have a much better chance of employment than those studying bookish subjects such a literature, philosophy or law. This is, however, hard to verify as Germany does not collect official data on this.

On the job market

Just a few kilometres away from KIT, Vladyslav Kutsenko types away at his computer.

The sound of a screen reader can be heard faintly from his headphones and Kutsenko occasionally places his fingers delicately on his refreshable Braille display - it's a device which converts the text on the computer into Braille.

Kutsenko's eyes were damaged in an accident when he was 15 years old and he has been blind ever since.

He studied computer science at KIT where, he says, the Centre for the Visually Impaired "was a great help" because it would otherwise have been a problem accessing maths literature.

When he finished his studies, Kutsenko found a job within seven weeks - despite his visual disability. Now, the software developer works for SIVIS, a mid-sized IT company based in Karlsruhe.

Allowing for some disadvantages, with things such as developing graphical interfaces, Kutsenko believes more blind people should consider taking up science, especially computer science.

"Programming is a very fortunate area for people who are blind," Kutsenko says.

Back at the KIT campus, the blind and partially sighted students are studying everything from computer science to physics, metallurgy, mechanical engineering and environmental science - all professions in high in demand in Germany.

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