2002 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2002 Table of Contents


TIGER, AGC, AND WIN-TRIANGLE, REMOVING THE BARRIER TO SEM EDUCATION

John A. Gardner,
Oregon State University,
Corvallis, OR,
John.Gardner@orst.edu 

Ron Stewart,
Oregon State University,
Corvallis, OR,
Ron.Stewart@orst.edu 

Joan Francioni,
Winona State University,
Winona, MN,
jfrancioni@winona.edu 

Ann Smith,
St. Mary's University,
Winona, MN,
asmith@smumn.edu

Abstract

Science, Engineering, and Math are particularly difficult subjects for people with print disabilities, largely because its literature makes heavy use of special symbols (e.g. Greek letters, symbols with enhancements such as an overbar or arrow above), formatting (e.g. symbols in sub or superscript positions, fraction layout, matrices), and graphically-displayed information (e.g. flow charts, diagrams, graphs). The Science Access Project of Oregon State University has developed technologies giving usable access to such information, and several universities began using three of these, the Tiger tactile graphics embosser, the Accessible Graphing Calculator, and the WinTriangle scientific word processor, in 2001. This panel will describe their experience in how these technologies reduce or remove the communication barrier for creating accessible text and exchange of scientific information between blind students and the faculty who teach them.

Introduction

The Oregon State University Science Access Project has developed a number of innovative hardware and software technologies permitting access by blind people to electronic scientific literature. These include:

  1. DotsPlus braille [1, 2], a tactile font that is an extension of non-contracted (grade 1) braille. DotsPlus uses braille for letters and numbers and tactile graphics for most other symbols.
  2. The Tiger [3] Tactile Graphics and Braille Embosser. Tiger embosses text and graphics from Windows applications. DotsPlus symbols are substituted for characters in Tiger screen fonts, permitting any computer user to create braille and graphic information for blind people.
  3. The Accessible Graphing Calculator [4, 5], a Windows application that includes the functionality of a standard scientific graphing calculator. It displays x-y graphs as tone plots for instant access and prints to any Windows printer, including Tiger.
  4. Triangle[6], a DOS application that includes several editing/viewing functions including an editor that displays extended text adequate to represent virtually any scientific symbol or construction. Triangle can be used with either speech or braille DOS screen readers.

A beta version of WinTriangle[7] became available in September, 2001 in time to be used by several students. WinTriangle is the next generation of the DOS Triangle text editor. It is self-voicing and permits blind users to read and write text and virtually any scientific expression in a compact linear form. It uses the RTF file format, so WinTriangle files can be read or created by sighted people in any word processor. The special Triangle.ttf screen font containing the Triangle markup symbols and all other fonts used by WinTriangle are either standard Windows fonts or may be downloaded free. A short description of the Triangle.ttf character set is adequate to permit any sighted scientist to read Triangle notation.

This set of technologies permits sighted and blind people to read and create scientific literature in a form both can read. They also give blind people the major tools for "doing" math and science that are not otherwise available. The learning curve for sighted people depends on their computer literacy and familiarity with the subject matter. The learning curve for blind people depends on their braille skill and computer literacy.

Using Tiger

Creating literature printable on Tiger by sighted people requires familiarity with the subject matter and Windows applications needed to create the information. All text must be written in a Tiger screen font at a specific (and quite large) point size. Generally it is relatively easy for sighted SEM faculty members to write scientific text, tables, and equations for Tiger, but creating graphical information requires skills that many scientists do not have. The university SSD office should expect to assist faculty members in preparing or converting graphical information but most faculty members should be able to communicate other information directly to the student. Class note-takers can communicate notes, including text, equations, and graphics to blind students in a standard word processor if they have some training in use of the equation editor and drawing tools used in that program. Patricia Walsh, the first blind student to make full use of Tiger in this way [8], found that faculty members were more than happy to send her files to be printed on Tiger. Her math note-taker e-mailed her the class notes, including diagrams, within an hour for her to print on Tiger.

Blind students who are good braille readers can learn the computer keyboard characters of DotsPlus braille in a few minutes, although fluency takes practice. The major difficulty for US students are the DotsPlus numbers, which are taken from the European computer braille code. Blind students unfamiliar with standard math formatting need to learn about sub and superscript positions, formatting of fractions, radical signs, and the standard symbols of math and science. Our hypothesis is that any blind person who knows Nemeth math can learn DotsPlus math easily and that braille readers who have not learned Nemeth can learn DotsPlus math much more easily than Nemeth. We have only a small amount of anecdotal data thus far, but all data do support this hypothesis.

We have spent quite a bit of time developing methodologies for creating tactile graphics and teaching student workers to edit or reproduce graphical information. Our intention is to provide all blind students with all the graphical information available to their sighted peers. Generally we use mnemonic labels consisting of one or two braille letters to label objects in diagrams. The full description is then appended and is also made available to students as an electronic file. Good braille readers have the information at hand, and less fluent braille readers can read the legend file on a computer if desired.

Using the Accessible Graphing Calculator

AGC is a full-featured scientific calculator that runs on Any 32 bit Windows platform. It permits the user to compute a function y of x or importa a data file of x, y values, then display on screen and/or as a tone plot. The commercial program comes with a hyperlinked manual and a tutorial that take a few hours to read. Extensive tests using lower division undergraduates have shown that a few minutes familiarization is adequate for sighted students to extract information from audio graphs almost as accurately as from visual graphs. Blind students with adequate math ability should be able to use AGC as easily and rapidly as sighted people use standard graphing calculators.

Many scientific problems require comparison of two graphs. It is easy to visualize one graph from an audio tone plot, but it is far more difficult to visualize two graphs from simultaneous tone plots. Consequently, comparison of two graphs in AGC is made by plotting and displaying tone plots of the difference (or sum) of two graphs. AGC also includes standard scientific functions, statistical functions, cut and paste capabilities to/from other applications, etc. It gives the blind user essentially the same computational capabilities as the sighted user gets from a standard graphing calculator.

Using WinTriangle

WinTriangle is being created by a team of undergraduates at Oregon State University. It is still far from complete, but it was usable enough to serve the needs of several students in the 2001-2 academic year. As this article is written, it is being used successfully, but we have only just begun beta testing and the process of removing bugs and improving features. A tutorial/manual was included in the first beta test release, and we anticipate that the learning curve for using WinTriangle at a basic but adequate level should be no more than a few hours.

A blind person who is already adept at using a Windows screen reader should find WinTriangle fairly straightforward. Equations written in Triangle format are relatively easy to read, and it is mostly a matter of learning what's in the menus to learn how to compose equations. As much as possible it has the feel of a standard Windows text editor except for the possibility of inserting characters from a number of other fonts without using a mouse.

The text can include symbols from the standard Windows Symbols font, the MathType [9] MT Extra font, and markup characters from the Triangle.ttf[7] font. WinTriangle reads sub and superscripts, and both bold and italic fonts. The Triangle font markup characters include positional modifiers, fraction indicators, symbol modifiers, and various combination indicators permitting a user to represent virtually any symbol and expression that occurs in scientific literature. A list of characters with their meanings permits a sighted scientist to read anything written in this notation with essentially no learning curve. Sighted readers can read or create WinTriangle files using any common word processor, since all word processors can read and save as RTF.

Current Experience

This article is written too early in the academic year to know the full outcome, but it is clear that students are profiting from the new technologies. In particular, the communication between sighted faculty members and blind students has been excellent. Homework problems and midterm exams are being prepared for the blind students by the faculty, worked by the students and returned for grading without any assistance from intermediaries. Students who had adequate preparation are taking standard course loads and doing well.

The most serious problems have been in preparing accessible textbooks on time. One student, a good braille reader who registered very early and is taking pre-calculus math received all his books on time and finds his braille note-taker adequate for reading and doing homework and tests at present. Other students, whose braille abilities vary and some of whom are taking more advanced courses, have not received all their texts on time. The delays are largely due to startup problems.

We are trying to develop methodologies for making everything in RTF form readable with WinTriangle, by embossing on Tiger, or by using a modern braille note-taker capable of displaying characters in several fonts. Graphics, tables, and equations are currently created by different technologies for different students. We were simply overwhelmed by the necessity of developing methodologies, learning and documenting the applications needed for making these materials, etc. Sometimes we have fallen back on using human readers and recordings as interim measures. However, we believe that these startup problems are largely understood and that in the future we will be able to have all materials ready on time.

Acknowledgements

Initial research on DotsPlus, Tiger, AGC, and WinTriangle were supported in part by the National Science Foundation. The Winona and St. Mary's program for blind students in Computer Science is supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

References

[1] John A. Gardner, "The DotsPlus Tactile Font Set", Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, December, 1998, pp. 836-840

[2] John A. Gardner, "Future Braille Codes and Fonts", in "Braille into the Next Millenium", ISBN 0-8444-1021-7, edited by Judith M. Dixon, published by the National Libraries for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals in North America, Washington, DC 2000, pp 514-531

[3] Tiger is manufactured by ViewPlus Technologies, Inc, http://www.ViewPlusTech.com

[4] The Accessible Graphing Calculator is a product of ViewPlus Technologies, Inc. http://www.ViewPlusTech.com

[5] Patricia Walsh, Randy Lundquist, and John A. Gardner, "The Audio-Accessible Graphing Calculator", Proceedings of the 2001 CSUN International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA, March 21-24, 2001 http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf2001/proceedings/0129walsh.html

[6] http://dots.physics.orst.edu/triangle.html

[7] http://dots.physics.orst.edu/wintriangle.html

[8] Patricia Walsh and John A. Gardner, "TIGER, A NEW AGE OF TACTILE TEXT AND GRAPHICS", Proceedings of the 2001 CSUN International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA, March 21-24, 2001 http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf2001/proceedings/0128walsh.html

[9] The MT Extra font is a product of Design Science, Inc. http://www.dessci.com who have kindly given permission for it to be used with WinTriangle.


Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2002 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings


Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.