Case Studies

Challenge

In 2016, a major publishing company ("EdBook"), needed to create an accessible chemistry book in HTML5 format, to be available for online and computer-based learning. EdBook, one the largest educational publishers in the country, had already undertaken several major projects to provide its books, media, and educational tools in accessible formats. Chemistry, however, was proving to be a challenging subject to make accessible.

STEM subjects like chemistry are the most difficult materials to convert into accessible form, due to the need for perfect technical accuracy. For online learning, where many blind and visually impaired students use audiobooks, an added concern is the concise translation of extremely complex visual information. While standardized schema like MathML (a markup language that enables accurate rendering of accessible electronic math) provide useful tools, experienced subject matter experts are still needed to perform the actual work.

For chemistry and related subjects, a further problem is that chemical notation is distinct from mathematics notation. Since MathML is designed primarily for math, it's not really ideal for building a chemistry book. For example, MathML doesn't have reserved symbols for chemical bonds, and other symbols, like the "yields" arrow in chemical equations, are misread by many readers as math symbols. There is currently no standardized chemistry equivalent of MathML; ChemML is a potential option, but is not broadly accepted at the moment.

Solution

Rather than use a non-standardized format, SeeWriteHear decided to build the chemistry content in MathML. However, we still wanted to provide chemistry-specific audio functionality, to make the book easier to read and understand. The book would be perfectly usable (albeit inconveniently) without such a feature, but we wanted to make the learning experience as smooth and unambiguous as possible.

Our solution was to build a custom add-on for MathML containing chemistry-specific markup, audio, and graphics. We also added new symbols to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) HTML5 spec to provide functionality for chemistry symbols like double bonds.

The add-on, when used with the SeeWriteHear reading software, enabled proper recognition and output of chemistry notation, so that the student would hear equations with the correct chemistry terms. For example, rather than having to try to interpret "O equal sign O," the student would hear "O double bond O." Furthermore, the add-on did not affect the core functionality of the book itself; the book was fully compatible with any HTML5 reading software, lacking only the enhanced chemistry-specific audio when used outside the SeeWriteHear software.

For the book's many graphics and images, we created new accessible versions, capable of being scaled, contrast-adjusted, and downloaded and printed as tactile graphics. The finalized book content was fully reviewed by SeeWriteHear's editorial staff, including a blind Chemistry PhD.

Result

The final EdBook Chemistry online textbook is now in full use at EdBook and distributed to schools across the country. By default, the SeeWriteHear reader is used, giving EdBook clients an accessible online chemistry course that correctly identifies and vocalizes chemistry symbols. The book is an example of integrated accessibility in software; students of all ability types use the same textbook, and simply turn on features specific to their needs (such as audio or large print). This ensures that regardless of individual situation, students in the same class can collaborate and discuss the class materials together.

Several other organizations have ordered similar material based on the MathML addons created for this project. SeeWriteHear is developing additional add-ons for MathML for other STEM subjects and for use with the SeeWriteHear reader software.

Challenge

Online and multimedia teaching tools have become a central part of many school programs in the US, creating new barriers for students with disabilities, particularly blind and visually impaired (B/VI) students. In 2014, a large educational publisher ("EducaTech"), faced the need to bring its entire library of classroom videos into compliance with federal accessibility requirements. This included the requirement to add audio description to a large number of math and science videos with complex equations, diagrams, and laboratory procedures.

The project required extremely high levels of pedagogical accuracy; it was imperative that blind and deaf students be able to achieve their learning goals via EducaTech's multimedia content in the same way as sighted and hearing students. This requirement precluded automated or general-purpose audio descriptions, and necessitated subject-matter experts with experience in teaching STEM content to students with disabilities. With a limited timeline and budget, EducaTech needed to find a way to effectively communicate images that, in many cases, literally defied description.

Solution

To add full descriptive audio to EducaTech's STEM videos, SeeWriteHear implemented several techniques not commonly used in standard audio description (such as the sort found on DVDs for movies or TV shows). For the advanced math videos, clarity and consistency was vital. Some equations were extremely lengthy and complex. Solving the latter problem involved using MathSpeak, a highly structured and unambiguous system of reading math aloud. Based on MathML (a math-specific computer markup language), MathSpeak ensured that equations like 1/𝑥 + 1 and 1/𝑥 + 1 would not both be read, ambiguously, as "one over x plus one."

The concern with length of equations (and the resulting need for extremely detailed descriptions) was solved via several measures. First, rather than use traditional audio description, which is limited to fitting in descriptions in silent areas of the video, SeeWriteHear re-edited each video to add pauses to the original audio, allowing the insertion of long descriptions at the exact points necessary for natural information flow and ease of comprehension. Pausing for description also enabled accurate and comprehensive descriptions material from other STEM subjects, including lab work, chemical processes, and technical diagrams.

Students EducaTech's online video player app was also redesigned to incorporate accessibility features. Keyboard-controlled navigation allowed quick rewinding and review for students needing to hear a section of an equation or problem again. Students could select captioning and audio described versions of each video, and switch back and forth during playback as needed. Downloadable text transcripts made both the original audio as well as the complete descriptions available to Braille displays and screen readers, greatly speeding information access by students more comfortable with those methods of computer interface.

Finally, to ensure perfect consistency in pronunciation and cadence, a custom-tailored synthetic voice was used to read each math construct. The machine voice was edited into the audio alongside the human narrator (who narrated all other descriptions, like pictures and drawings), allowing listeners to speed up the audio for faster "reading" without losing comprehensibility.

Each video was reviewed by editors with experience in math and STEM education, either as part of their profession (e.g, engineers and chemists) or as their primary competency (e.g., math teachers). For all of EducaTech's upcoming video projects, SeeWriteHear provided recommendations for building in accessibility from the ground up, enabling EducaTech to plan future curricula around broad audiences of all abilities.

Result

EducaTech continues to provide SeeWriteHear's captioning and descriptive audio content to classrooms throughout the United States. Internally, EducaTech has consulted with SeeWriteHear to create a dedicated accessible media production group and accessibility training programs for its various curriculum developers, with the goal of making accessibility an integral part of all new programs.

Although adoption of fully audio-described educational videos remains slow in the publishing industry and other public-serving sectors, there is significant impetus for these organizations to become more proactive in their accessibility accommodations. Legal challenges to inadequate access are on the rise, as is the number of blind and deaf students pursuing education and careers in STEM fields. The most efficient means of providing these students with a clear path to their goals is to ensure that all educational content, not just paper texts, is equally available to everyone.

Challenge

In 2014, SeeWriteHear was approached by a state government health organization ("HealthOrg") in need of a large volume of accessible documents. HealthOrg had millions of members spread over a wide geographical area, all of whom received numerous communications from HealthOrg via postal mail. Many of HealthOrg's members were print-impaired. A recent legal ruling required HealthOrg to ensure that all of its mailings, forms, and literature were available to every print-disabled member in several accessible formats.

The task was daunting. HealthOrg sent out tens of thousands of letters, notices, and requests for information every day, and even if the number of requests for accessible versions was small, the workload could still be enormous. All information was considered confidential, protected by HIPAA rules and security requirements. Each document had to be converted to Braille, large print, audio, and electronic formats - and the legal ruling required that the accessible formats be mailed to print-disabled members as quickly as they would have received standard print documents from HealthOrg.

Solution

The SeeWriteHear team recognized that the main problem was the turnaround time requirement. HIPAA-compliant security was already in process and the accessible formats themselves were an existing core competency, but there was no precedent for a 24-hour turnaround on potentially thousands of documents a day. The team hit on an answer after carefully inspecting the full range of HealthOrg documents and realizing that a large portion of the text was characterized by repeated segments, slightly customized boilerplate, and most importantly, uniquely identifiable markers (like document numbers and titles).

SeeWriteHear developed a series of artificial intelligence (AI) tools and editorial aids to take advantage of the documents' inherent predictability. The Form Management system could analyze any given document, compare it with a library of text blocks, tables, and layouts, and quickly convert recognized sections into an accessible electronic format. Any unrecognized sections of a document would still require a human document specialist, but the workload was vastly reduced, limited mainly to checking contact information and accuracy of newly-converted text blocks. The final file could then be instantly produced in any of several output formats and shipped to HealthOrg members less than 24 hours after the document was first ordered.

Result

HealthOrg has been providing accessible documents to its members since 2015, using SeeWriteHear to reliably, securely, and accurately convert high-priority communications on extremely short timelines. Response from members has been enthusiastic, with requests for accessible documents increasing steadily.

After several years of continuous operation, the Form Management system has ingested a vast amount of document information, and now works with several other state government agencies' accessible document projects. Plans are underway to expand the system's availability to private-sector organizations with large day-to-day accessible document conversion needs.