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Braille translation of coursework expands access to STEM education


When Texas A&M University mathematician Vanessa Coffelt wanted to further accommodate coursework for students who are blind or visually impaired, the staff in the Texas A&M Department of Disability Resources accepted the challenge. They worked closely with Coffelt and the Department of Mathematics to create a Braille translation — more than 2,300 pages worth.

“We don’t read math the way we understand math,” said Justin Romack, a Disability Resources assistant director who works with assistive technology in the Division of Student Affairs. “If you think literally about how math is written, even a simple equation such as ‘2 times 2’ on a sheet of paper looks like 2, the letter x and 2. If it’s not made accessible digitally, that’s how it’s read.”

Historically students with visual impairment have been unable to fully access STEM courses. “Math is an incredibly visual and spatially ordered medium — you’ve got blind students who are shut out from that because the technology hasn’t been there, it’s costly to produce, and it requires expertise,” Romack said. “It’s far more likely to see a blind student pushed toward the arts than it is to see people tackling barriers to accessibility for them in the math space.”

While Coffelt had successfully created an inclusive classroom that supported students with disabilities during her 23-year career, she had never taught a student who was legally blind until this year. “I had to rethink how I was going to teach the class,” she said. “There are so many different components and word problems in this course. It starts with matrices, which are a challenge to describe. It took more careful thought because I couldn’t just point.”

Coffelt reached out to Romack for help and together they identified needs for a Braille translation. The extensive list included the class’s 1,100-page textbook, lecture notes, exams, group assignments and check-in questions that Coffelt uses to gauge student understanding.

Realizing the immense scope of the project and the quickly approaching start of the 2022 spring semester, Romack gathered a team of student workers to use a processing app to translate the materials to Braille. The complexity and overlapping concepts of the project called for sharp attention to detail and a thorough review of each translated chapter to ensure the math was coded correctly.