What are the public policy issues involved in making math accessible?
Learning Points:
 Section 504 and the ADA
guarantee the rights of students with disabilities to participate in all
class offerings of an educational institution in an equal, effective and
inclusive manner.
 Educational institutions have a
responsibility to ensure that students with disabilities have accessible
math content on par with the level of access that students without
disabilities receive.
 Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
mandates that individuals with disabilities must "have access to and use of
information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the
information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals
with disabilities."
 Universally designed math content will guarantee that the same math
can be accessed by both students with and without disabilities at the same
time without having to do additional work, which fits
the framework of
comparable access under Section 508.
 No Child Left Behind places a
significant responsibility on schools to close the achievement gap between
students with and without disabilities. Although the current math
achievement gap is large, universally designed math resources will aid
schools in closing the achievement gap between students with and without
disabilities.
 The IDEA statute cites the need to
apply universal design principles to student instruction and assessment, and
mandates that States adopt the National Instructional Materials
Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) as a required file specification. State and
Local Education Agencies will want to ensure that publisher provided files
of math textbooks are authored using the MathML based modular extension to
ensure accessible math content for all students.
 Both NCLB and IDEA contain mandates for
accessible
assessment that can be used by all students. Creating universally
designed math assessments using MathML will help schools meet the mandates
of both NCLB and IDEA.

All discussions of accessibility ultimately revolve around public policy,
whether the focus is on education, employment, or public access to
services and information. Math accessibility is likewise a topic that policy
makers need to address. Education policy needs to be developed which provides
for full support of accessible math instruction and assessment. This includes
such policies as requirements for math accessibility in textbook adoption and
software selection policy, as well as similar mandates that require all math
instructional content and math assessments be created in formats that are
accessible to students with disabilities. Below are some of the legal mandates
that can be applied to the need to make math accessible.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits educational institutions
(or
other entities that receive federal funds) from discrimination on the basis of
disability. The
Federal regulations enforcing this statute further indicate that recipient
organizations cannot deny individuals with disabilities the "opportunity to
participate in or benefit from" any aid, benefit, or service. Very similar
language is provided which likewise affords protection against
discrimination by any State or local government entity under the
Americans with Disabilities
Act (ADA),
regardless of any connection to Federal funds. Both of these statutes guarantee
the rights of students with disabilities to
participate in all class offerings of an educational institution as a
fundamental tenet of law.
Federal regulations also indicate the extent to which participation by
students with disabilities is to be provided under law. In particular, Section 504
regulation 34 C.F.R.104.4 states that an educational institution cannot provide
students with disabilities an opportunity to participate in any aid, benefit, or
service that is: (a) not equal to that afforded to others; (b) not as effective as
that provided to others, or; (c) different or separate than those provided to
others, unless such a treatment is necessary to provide one that is effective.
To extend these concepts to math accessibility, it follows that all
instructional content and assessments that include math must be made accessible to
students with disabilities in such a way as to provide an equal, effective,
and inclusive opportunity for participation by all students. Educational
institutions, therefore have a clear responsibility to ensure that students with disabilities
have accessible math content on par with the level of access that students
without disabilities receive. Such a level of equal, effective, and inclusive
math accessibility can be provided by requiring that all mainstream math instructional content
and math assessments be universally designed to be equally useable by students
with and without disabilities. Such a goal can be accomplished by ensuring math
content is authored in MathML and that assistive
technology vendors adequately support the MathML standard.
One of the fundamental principles of information accessibility is expressed
in the language of Section 508 of
the Rehabilitation Act: that individuals with disabilities must "have access
to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use
of the information and data by such members of the public who are not
individuals with disabilities." The concept of "comparable access" in Section
508 is an extension of the Section 504 requirement that individuals with
disabilities be provided a level of access which is equal, effective, and
inclusive. When applied to information in electronic formats, this has been
understood to mean that individuals with disabilities who use assistive
technologies such as screen enlargement, synthetic speech, or speech dictation
will be able to effectively utilize and benefit from these electronic formats on
par with the way that people without disabilities use standard computer
displays, keyboards and mice.
Therefore, math accessibility policy should also be understood within the
framework of comparable access. Although basic mathematical information can be
expressed using the alphanumeric characters found on the common computer
keyboard, one does not have to go very far in complexity of math to run into
problems. The common usage of elements such as superscripts and square root
symbols, for instance, will typically be inaccessible to a blind person using
synthetic speech unless this information is properly imbedded in the digital
content to provide for accessibility.
This circumstance occurs because math
equations which are found in electronic information such as in computer software
or on a web page are typically created using graphical image files, or digital
pictures, of math equations. Images such as this can only be viewed and
interpreted with human eyes, so that people who depend upon computer technology
to synthetically read out loud the information on the screen will be unable to
access these mathematical expressions. Thus, in this case, students who are
blind or have some other form of print disability, like dyslexia, dyscalculia or
other types of learning disabilities that require computerbased reading
accommodations will have absolutely no access to this information.
Although the commonly used stop gap technique of providing a "text
equivalent" for images does provide a person with a disability some
information that can be accessed with assistive technology, in the case of math
it is clearly inferior to the level of access that the nondisabled person would
have through standard means, and therefore falls short of the legislative intent
of Section 508. The usage of standard encoding like MathML, on the other hand,
will allow for the creation of universally designed math content, which
will guarantee that the same math materials can be accessed by both students with and without
disabilities at the same time without having to do additional work. This is
because MathML provides
sufficient information about the structure and content of math equations so that
the studentready digital versions will be
just as effective for the student with a disability using assistive technology
as it is for the student without a disability who simply reads the math by
traditional visual access. Such capability clearly fits the framework of
comparable access.
No Child Left
Behind was passed by Congress in 2001 as a reauthorization of the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The purpose of NCLB is stated as, "To close
the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no
child is left behind." The statute places a significant responsibility on
schools to close the
achievement gap between various groups of students, including the achievement
gap between students with and without disabilities.
Unfortunately, the math achievement gap between students with and without
disabilities has been shown to be quite large among America's school children. Although the underlying reasons for this disparity
may be complex, one of the essential contributing factors revolves around
accessibility. Virtually all math instructional content and assessments used in
educational settings are not designed to be accessible with the assistive
technology many students with disabilities use. Therefore the instructional
value of math materials commonly used today are being compromised for many
students with disabilities.
One of the major benefits of accessible math content that is digitally
created and universally designed (such as math created using MathML), is that
these materials can be used by all studentsboth those with and without
disabilitiesallowing everyone to benefit from the enhanced instructional value
that is available. Both students who use assistive technologies, and those who
do not, will be able to equally use these materials with similar effectiveness. Such universally
designed math resources will go a long way toward helping schools close the
achievement gap between students with and without disabilities.
In 2004, Congress reauthorized the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and included provisions
meant to increase the availability of accessible materials. The IDEA statute
makes a number of references to the need to apply universal design principles to
student instruction, including the requirement that State and
Local Educational Agencies shall, to the extent feasible, use universal design
principles in developing and administering student assessments. In dealing with
the need to provide instructional materials to students with print disabilities
in a timely manner, the IDEA mandates that States adopt the
National
Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) as a required file
format that textbook publishers must use to create digital source files from
which accessible instructional content may be produced.
NIMAS is an XMLbased standard which is a subset of tags available within the
DAISYNISO standard for Digital
Talking Books. Although the original temporary guidance on NIMAS suggested that
math images with text equivalents may be used, now that the
DAISY modular math extension
has been adopted, publishers
should be including MathML encoded equations in NIMAScompliant files. State
and Local Education Agencies will want to ensure that publisherprovided files
of math textbooks submitted in compliance with the IDEA/NIMAS provisions are
authored using the MathML based modular extension to ensure accessible math
content for all students.
Both NCLB and IDEA contain mandates for accessible assessment that can be
used by all students. According to the Federal Regulations implementing Title I
of NCLB, the required State assessments in reading, mathematics and science must
be "designed to be valid and accessible for use by the widest possible range of
students, including students with disabilities." IDEA further directs States to
include students with disabilities in both State and Local Education Agency
assessments, and to develop accommodation guidelines for ensuring their access
to standard or alternate assessments as appropriate. The IDEA also directs State
and Local Education Agencies to use universal design principles in creating
assessments.
One of the best ways of ensuring that math assessments will be accessible
using assistive technologies is to allow students to use a digital version which
has been created using a format which is universally designed for use by all
students, like MathML. This way, the same assessment can be used by all
studentsboth those with and without disabilitiesallowing everyone to benefit
from the enhanced accessibility of this format. Both students who use assistive
technologies, and those who do not, will be able to equally use these
assessments without forcing the testing entity to reformat the content. Creating
universally designed math assessments using MathML will help schools meet the
mandates of both NCLB and IDEA.
Further Information and Resources
