Teaching Math To The Blind

Teaching Math to the Blind

Reading and writing in standard text is completely different than reading and writing mathematics. Mathematics can even be considered a language on it's own. So, how do you teach math to a student who is blind? There are many intricacies, strategies, and philosophies in teaching math to a blind student. I am only going to present some of the general and alternative approaches and not emphasize on the argument of what is a better strategy.

Some of the general approaches to teaching math to the blind are:

  • Tactile Representations
  • Audio Aids
  • Tonal Representations
  • Haptic Devices
  • Integrated Approaches

Tactile Representations

Tactile representations are used to represent text with raised characters as per the traditional 6-dot Braille. This has limitations in character set and also presents a more difficult way of presenting equations. With the traditional 6-dot Braille, there can only be 64 characters represented. This can be extended by using an 8-dot system which will allow for 256 characters.

In order to make the use of Braille easier for teachers who don't know it, there are several on going projects that can electronically translate into Braille:
1) the ASTER project (Raman - 1994)
2) the LABRADOOR project (Miesenberger, et al. - 1998)
3) the MAVIS project (Karshmer, et al. - 1999).

The Nemeth code was also developed as a tool and teaching strategy for tactile learning. There is a vast amount of reference material, software, and publications on the website for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Audio Aids

Audio aids encompass a variety of tools that include direct reading to a student, audio computer-based devices, language structure, etc… The problems lies in the difficulty and complexity in "reading" equations. Professor Abraham Nemeth developed the Nemeth Braille system for representing math in a tactile form as well as a spoken structure for reading equations.

More information on MATHSPEAK as developed by Nemeth can be found here: http://www.rit.edu/~easi/easisem/talkmath.htm

Tonal Representations

Sonification of graphs can be used to represent and describe simple graphs for the visually impaired. With this, you can represent graphs by music tones. The fundamental limitation to this is in the level of complexity that can be represented by just using tones.

Haptic Devices

Haptic devices are systems that can develop highly resolved two- or three-dimensional space to give the user a physical feeling of the shape. Unfortunately, these devices are very expensive but would be the best way to represent text and non-text data.

Integrated Approaches

The integrated approach is simply the idea of using each approach by choosing them appropriately for their strengths and weaknesses. Students also need to be differentiated within the comfort level and ability to acquire through 6-dot, 8-dot, or Nemeth Brailled code for example. Haptic devices would be ideal for teaching students geometry and various complex graphs. Tonal representations would be ideal for teaching students trigonometric functions that can be heard (sinusoids and harmonics in the audible range).

Like teaching any student, finding out a student's learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses can go a long way in succeeding to find the best teaching strategy or technique to be effective. There are numerous resources for teaching students that are blind or visually impaired and it doesn't even require a teacher to learn how to read or write Braille.

My Experiences

I can only imagine how difficult it would be to learn mathematics without a visual aid. I am mostly a visual learner and I found it really interesting to see some of the technological advances in creating alternate forms of text for the visually impaired. The use of any tool that can create various representations (through hearing or touch) could be an effective strategy for any student.

Created By: William Hale

Footnotes
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
http://www.snv.jussieu.fr/inova/villette2002/act5b.htm
http://www.rit.edu/~easi/easisem/talkmath.htm