Wikipedia is a leading source of information for students and professionals, but the math in Wikipedia has been off limits to those who rely on screen readers. With MathJax and MathPlayer, that's no longer true: you can hear the math and see it highlighted as it is spoken. MathPlayer's ability to generate speech in 15 languages means that accessible math isn't confined to just the English pages. If you use Wikipedia in one of the other 14 language supported by MathPlayer, those pages are accessible too! Here are counts of the number of pages containing accessible math for some of the languages supported by MathPlayer:
To make the math accessible, you need to do three things:
These steps are described in our TechNote #145: Making math in Wikipedia pages accessible via MathPlayer. The setup itself is not very accessible for those who are blind, but it only needs to be done once, and then the math is accessible.
You need MathPlayer, so if you haven't already done so, download MathPlayer. Once you have MathPlayer, do the setup and unlock the math in the world's largest encyclopedia for you or someone you know.
In Monty Python's "Life of Brian", Brain stands before a crowd of followers who repeat everything he says. He tells them they are all individuals and the crowd responds in unison "We are all individuals". Sadly, when people think about math accessibility, they forget that everyone has different needs and assume some static text is good accessibility. MathPlayer 3 changes all of that because it was built with the idea that we are all individuals and our math accessibility needs are different.
MathPlayer 3's speech is controlled by thousands of rules. These rules look at user and author preferences to generate the speech or braille the user experiences. To allow users to set preferences, MathPlayer 3 includes a Windows control panel dialog. The control panel currently allows you to specify your impairment, the language used, the "speech style", how terse or verbose the speech is, what the subject matter is, and what braille math code is desired. Here's what the control panel looks like:
The MathPlayer online manual gives a complete description of each option.
As an example of why it is important to generate different speech for different people, someone who is blind needs to know when a fraction begins or ends. If you choose the "Blindness" option in the control panel, MathPlayer might say "fraction x plus 1 over x end fraction plus 2". For someone who can see the screen but needs the verbal reinforcement of speech, choosing the "Learning disabilities" option would change the speech to "x plus 1 over x [pause] plus 2".
Another example involves the amount of speech. If you are new to the concept of square roots, you probably want to hear something like "3 times the square root of 2". But if you are very familiar with them and have many expressions that involve this phrase, you are probably much happier hearing just "3 root 2".
If you haven't already done so, download MathPlayer and listen to the differences yourself. We realize these options don't begin to address all of the options that people may want to set. Future versions will likely have more settings. We welcome your feedback on what you would like to see improved; either add a comment below or email us your suggestions.
The recent release of MathPlayer 3 introduced great advances in math-to-speech technology. Now the words used for different math notations are much more natural than those used by previous versions of MathPlayer. In addition, the words and phrases used can be tailored to a user's needs. (I'll talk about customization of speech in a later blog post.)
The speech generation used in MathPlayer 3 is built on a pattern matching language. Using the rule language, specialized speech rules can be written that produce natural-sounding speech. For example, f(x) might be spoken by a simplistic math-to-speech system as "f open parenthesis x close parenthesis", but most teachers and students would speak it as "f of x". The latter is much more understandable, and MathPlayer is able to generate that naturally spoken math. Similarly, simple math-to-speech systems might speak the mixed fraction 1 2/3 as "one start fraction two over three end fraction", but most teachers, students, and MathPlayer 3 would speak it as "one and two thirds". A final example of specialized rules involves units such as feet and meters. Expressions such as 3 m/s are spoken as "three meters per second", not the simplistic and less comprehensible "3 start fraction m over s end fraction".
MathPlayer has thousands of specialized speech rules to make the math sound more natural. These rules were not developed in a vacuum, and I want to take the time in this post to thank our grant partner ETS (in particular Beth Brownstein and Lois Frankel) and the high school summer interns from the Portland Saturday Academy (Jeffrey Zhang, Brian Eisner, Benjamin Lin) who helped develop and write the speech rules. Since I'm mentioning Saturday Academy interns, I also want to include Dana Li who wrote the first two MathPlayer translations (Spanish and Chinese) and who had to do a lot of rewriting as we figured out how to structure rules to make translations easier. Lastly I want to thank the hundreds of people who patiently listened to me present speech options to them and tried very hard to seem interested.
One of the really exciting features of MathPlayer 3 is that the speech includes 15 languages: Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish! For the most part, these translations were done by volunteers who stepped forward to help make math accessible in their language. I'm sure the teachers, students and their families who now have access to mathematical expressions in those languages will be very grateful for your work!
I learned a lot while working with these great volunteers. For example, in Japan and China, people speak fractions as 'b under a' which is the opposite order from that used in English and other Western languages ('a over b'). I learned another interesting language fact from the Czech volunteer. MathPlayer contains rules to speak the singular and plural forms of numbers (e.g, "one fifth" and "three fifths"), but in Czech, there are two forms for plural. One form is for the numbers 2-4 and another form is for numbers greater than four. MathPlayer's flexible rule system meant that we could add in those differences so that the phrases used in each language are tailored to that language.
Although MathPlayer supports 15 languages, there are many, many more languages out there for which we don't have a translation. If you or someone you know would like to make math accessibility in one of the unsupported languages a reality, please send us email at [email protected]. Fame, but not fortune awaits you...
Steve Noble, Accessibility Research Consultant (Guest Author)
Next week I'll be presenting in a webinar as part of a panel session hosted by the DIAGRAM Center at Benetech. I will be joining Geoff Freed and Bryan Gould of WGBH’s National Center on Accessible Media as the three of us discuss the latest and greatest tools for creating and reading accessible math. Tools for Creating Accessible Math will be held on Thursday July 18 at 12:00pm Pacific time (3:00pm Eastern). Be sure to register in advance to hold your slot in the webinar.
During this session, we'll be discussing some of the issues involved in accessing mathematical content with assistive technology, such as creating synthetic speech from digital math content, the problem of depending on alt text for equations instead of true accessible math, support for MathML in browsers with MathPlayer and MathJax, and creating accessible math materials with MathType and MathDaisy...just to name a few. This webinar will be a wide-ranging overview of the available tools and practices for making math accessible, and will be valuable for anyone who wants to know about the latest technology advancements in making math accessible.
For some helpful background on making math accessible, take a look at What are the technology issues involved in making math accessible?
Steve Noble is a research consultant with a core focus in mathematics accessibility and assistive technology, and served as a researcher for the University of Kentucky's MeTRC research project. Currently he continues to serve on grant-funded research projects with both Bridge Multimedia and ETS, and previously served as Director of Accessibility Policy for Design Science.