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Math Accessibility as Public Policy: Why it Matters to Students with Disabilities

Steve Noble
Director of Accessibility Policy
Design Science, Inc.
(502) 969-3088


This session explores why math accessibility is vital in educating students with disabilities, including access to instructional content and assessments. Participants will learn about the policy and technology issues involved, the connection between math skill disparity and math accessibility, and how to create and implement effective math accessibility policy.

Extended abstract

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. Since math scores for students with disabilities are also being closely examined by the State assessments required under No Child Left Behind, this issue will become even more critical for all public schools in the coming years.

An examination of NAEP 2005 math scores for 4th and 8th grades reveals that 69% of 8th grade students with disabilities were found to be at the “below basic” (lowest) level of math literacy, as compared to only 28% of students without disabilities who fell into this category. On the other end of the spectrum, NAEP 2005 math scores revealed that 31% of 8th grade students without disabilities made it into the “proficient” (highest) category of math literacy, while only 7% of students with disabilities performed at this level. While the results for 4th grade students was similarly alarming, the divergence in scores was much broader at the 8th grade level, which is most likely due to the fact that when basic math literacy is not obtained during the critical formative years of elementary school, then the compounding consequences escalate this divergence as the years go by and math gets more complex.

There are undoubtedly many factors at work which have a connection to the poor math performance of students with disabilities. A fundamental contributing factor is the fact that virtually all math instructional content and math assessments are not designed to be accessible with the assistive technology products that many students with disabilities use, and are thus not accessible. This is especially true of classroom textbooks and assessments, which are typically used to determine the instructional math program for students in most school settings.

Standard print textbooks and assessments are inaccessible to a large percentage of students with visual, learning or cognitive disabilities and require transformation into recorded or digital formats to provide access to students with such print disabilities. Math textbooks will provide much greater accessibility for students with print disabilities when they are made available in digital formats that allow assistive technology like synthetic speech to read math equations out load and provide means for students to navigate aurally through complex math formulas and highlight expressions as they are read. However, before this can happen, publishers, software developers, and assistive technology vendors must support open standard math accessibility solutions like Math Mark-up Language (MathML). MathML facilitates the ability of digital math materials to be fully accessible to the assistive technologies which students with print disabilities use. It is therefore vital that changes to public policy, including state textbook adoption and district software selection policies, be promoted which will ensure that math accessibility supports are required in the instructional content and assessment materials used by students with print disabilities, which will allow students with disabilities to have the same opportunities to excel at math as everyone else.

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