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Making Math Accessible through Shaping Education Policy

Steve Noble, Director of Accessibility Policy
Design Science, Inc.

Making math accessible is as much a public policy issue as it is a technological one. Many facets of accessibility are currently required in public policy as an extension of US civil rights laws. The concept of what is required under law continues to expand as the technological issues of how to provide effective access are resolved and more disability advocates engage in public discourse and civil litigation. Most recently, US courts have maintained that even commercial websites, like, have a legal responsibility to make their online offerings accessible to people with disabilities (NFB vs. Target, 2006). Now that the technological issues of accessible math have been resolved through technologies like MathML, it is essential that disability advocates and educators be informed about the need for better public policy to support the availability of accessible math in the classroom.

According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), there is great disparity between the levels of math literacy for students with disabilities when compared to the results for students without disabilities. There are undoubtedly many factors at work which have a connection to the poor math performance of students with disabilities, but a fundamental contributing factor is that virtually all mainstream math instructional content and math assessments are not designed to be utilized with the assistive technology products that many students with disabilities use, and are thus not accessible. This is especially true of classroom textbooks, which are commonly used to determine the instructional math program for students in most school settings. Approximately 75% to 90% of all classroom instruction is based on textbooks, and, in most cases, those books define the scope and sequence of the material being taught (Tyson & Woodward, 1989). This is also the case with math instruction, where 80% to 90% percent of grades 4 - 12 math and science classrooms use textbooks (Hudson & McMahon, 2002).

Standard print textbooks are inaccessible to a large percentage of students with print disabilities and usually require transformation into recorded or digital formats to provide access to students with various print disabilities (Stahl, 2004). When instructional materials and assessments are made available in universally designed accessible digital formats, they will provide much greater accessibility for students with print disabilities. Formats that include rich math content as opposed to just images allow assistive technology with synthetic speech (such as screen or text readers) to read math equations out loud. In addition, they provide means for students to navigate both visually and aurally through complex math formulas and highlight expressions as they are read. Such accessible rich math content is available thanks to a new version of the DAISY specification that now has MathML support. With the recent promulgation of the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), which is based on DAISY, textbook publishers will now be able to provide digital textbook formats containing accessible math so that students with print disabilities can have effective access to math instruction.

This session will provide attendees with the available data mentioned previously on the problem of poor math performance by students with disabilities on national standardized tests, such as the NAEP, and will show the connection to the problem of inaccessible instructional materials and assessments. A description of how universally designed mainstream accessible math can be made available in the classroom to all students--both to those using assistive technology and those that do not--will be provided. An analysis of the current status of public policy requiring accessible instructional content and assessment (such as the NIMAS requirements under IDEA 2004 as well as various other laws) will be provided during the session, as well as recommendations for changes to public policy vehicles to explicitly require math accessibility standards that provide for universally designed mainstream math.

This session will provide a "call to action" for all educators and disability advocates to get involved in making accessible math a reality through effective advocacy efforts. K-12 educators will learn how to become effective accessibility advocates and affect positive change in education policy to support accessible math instruction and assessment. Personnel from state departments of education and school districts will learn how to require math accessibility in textbook adoption and software selection policy. All advocates will learn how state laws, regulations, and administrative policies need to be drafted to mandate that math instructional content and math assessments be accessible for students with disabilities.


Hudson, S.B., McMahon, K.C. & Overstreet, C.M. (2002). The 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education: Compendium of Tables Authors. Horizon Research.

National Federation of the Blind, et al. v. Target Corporation, et al. (2006) United States District Court, Northern District of California. Case No.: C 06-01802 MHP, First Amended Complaint.

Stahl, S. (2004). The promise of accessible textbooks: increased achievement for all students. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Accessed at

Tyson, H., & Woodward, A. (1989). Why students aren't learning very much from textbooks. Educational Leadership, 47 (3), 14-17.

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