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Math Editor: Not Just Another Virtual Calculator

2017 November 27
by Sue-Ann Ma

We know what you’re thinking: does the world really need another stand-alone, virtual calculator? Well, let us stop you right there because that is not what Benetech’s Math Editor is.  Much more than a calculator, it’s an accessible way to show your work. If you have ever worked with students who have had trouble in math because they have a visual disability, a cognitive disability, a physical disability that makes using pen and paper impossible, or even just illegible handwriting, then you’ll want to check out this tool that lets students show their work digitally.

In response to community feedback urging for tools for editing digital math, the DIAGRAM Center, with the help of Dr. Neil Soiffer, is developing an accessible math editor that makes it easier for students with disabilities to do math online. Showing and communicating one’s work online (a Common Core criteria) is challenging for students and educators and especially difficult for students with disabilities. When the DIAGRAM team began reviewing digital math education tools, we were disheartened to learn that none of the 70+ tools we investigated had three educational features that are critical to digital math education:

  •  Inclusive tool that all learners, with and without disabilities, can use, with accessibility
    features for learners requiring different input and output modes;
  • Enabling students to show work and demonstrate comprehension, particularly important as Common Core standards require students not only to do the math, but also to explain how they do it;
  • Ability to manually manipulate equations by moving or crossing out
    components, without having the platform simplify the math automatically.

While tools like digital scratchpads for math are often available on the online platform, they are typically inaccessible for many students with disabilities, such as visual impairments, learning, or motor disabilities; they also tend to be incompatible with assistive technologies. Our early classroom observations uncovered huge gaps in existing tools that support students doing math online and allow students to communicate their work to their teachers. As a result, we wanted to provide alternatives for students with physical disabilities or issues with fine motor skills that would allow them to explain math problems verbally. For students with intellectual disabilities, we wanted to reduce the cognitive load of complex math problems by allowing students to review their work step by step. And for students with visual disabilities, we wanted to make sure there was adequate screen reader and braille compatibility so that students could work independently.

While learners were the primary target users of Benetech’s Math Editor, our early user feedback tests revealed that such a tool can also provide huge benefits to teachers. By keeping a true history log of each student’s work with user explanations attached, educators are provided more information to accurately assess the level and needs of each individual learner. Furthermore, a platform that records a student’s steps and explanations throughout the problem-solving process minimizes the amount of one-on-one time required by educators to grasp the thought process of a particular student.

Last month, the DIAGRAM Center and Dr. Soiffer completed the initial prototype of the Benetech Math Editor. While still in the alpha stage, we are incredibly excited about the potential for this tool both with students who have disabilities and for students in mainstream classrooms. A seventh-grade math teacher told us: “It makes me so happy to see all the academic vocabulary being used in their explanations, and actually being able to read their thoughts as they work through the problems! You all really thought through this problem and came up with a great solution.”

Students also responded favorably. In our most recent round of testing, four out of five students preferred the math editor over using pencil and paper (which, until trying Math Editor, was their first choice). “This tool gives me the ability to review my work and steps before submitting it to my teacher; it also helps me break the problem down into smaller steps.” said one student. Another student was thrilled because “it helps people with messy handwriting – now my teacher doesn’t have to guess what I wrote.”

We’re excited to receive such positive feedback so early on in the project and look forward to receiving more feedback from students and educators representing various disabilities. If you or a student you know are interested in being a tester, please contact Sue-Ann (

UM Library Launches Visual Resources Toolkit

2017 November 27

Last winter, the University of Michigan Library and Press hosted a workshop called Describing Visual Resources in Arts and Humanities Publications. The purpose of the workshop was to engage invited experts, including DIAGRAM Product Manager Sue-Ann Ma and community members Sina Bahram and Bryan Gould, to collaborate with other groups concerned with describing visual resources. Event host Stephanie Rosen was thrilled to have DIAGRAM represented at the workshop, saying that our image description guidelines served as a model for their project throughout the process. This past September, Stephanie Rosen and her team published the outcomes and learnings that were gathered during the workshop and have created the Describing Visual Resources Toolkit.  Not only is the DIAGRAM team excited to have influenced this work, but it is an excellent companion resource to our image description guidelines and we highly recommend checking it out!

Tactile Graphics Symposium

2017 November 27
by Sue-Ann Ma

In 2016, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Ann Cunningham initiated an effort to gather the thought leaders and creators of tactile art and tactile graphics to experience and examine the current state of the work in this field. This September, the NFB sponsored the third and final Tactile Art and Graphics Symposium in partnership with the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. The event took place over three days at the Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa, California, and brought together thirty participants, including DIAGRAM Product Manager Sue-Ann Ma and community members Josh Miele, Ting Siu, Abigale Stangl, and Naomi Rosenberg. The event was a wonderful gathering of art practitioners and ignited discussions across a range of topics regarding tactile graphics such as: standardizing symbols for tactile maps, teaching tactile reading skills, developing tools for tactile creation, and making art both for and by the blind community. The gathering was a great opportunity to meet old friends and new, as well as explore innovative ways to continue the important discussions regarding tactile education and promotion.

We recently learned that a portion of the Enchanted Hills Camp was engulfed by the Napa and Sonoma county fires. We were relieved to learn that no one was hurt, but sad to hear about the physical damage and material loss endured by the wonderful staff members at EHC. Our thoughts remain with the EHC staff and look forward to the rebuilding of this amazing site.

Bay Area Accessibility Camp

2017 November 27
by Charles LaPierre

My name is Charles LaPierre, and I am the Technical Lead for DIAGRAM and the Born Accessible Initiative. Last month, my colleague Deanna McCusker, who is the head of user experience at Benetech, and I attended the Bay Area Accessibility Camp. Three concurrent tracks focused on testing and standards, accessible user interfaces, and accessibility for those with cognitive disabilities. I attended a session on interactive maps and how to make them accessible which is what we have been working on with our data visualization task force. I then enjoyed the session on “Virtual and Augmented Reality Uses and Challenges for People with Disabilities” by Christopher Patnoe from Google. Christopher demonstrated some virtual and augmented reality and discussed the concerns and issues around accessibility, but there were no clear takeaways. Instead, it was more of a discussion around the current state of this new technology and what we need to be thinking of as it matures. The highlight of the event was a session called “Designing for People with Cognitive Limitations” by our very own DIAGRAM Community member Dr. Clayton Lewis. Clayton stressed the importance of collaborating with people with cognitive limitations, their families, and caregivers throughout design and development can lead to more cognitively accessible software. Retrofitting a product to make it accessible or only thinking about accessibility at the end of a design cycle will seriously limit the usefulness of the software, especially in the case of cognitive accessibility, as this may not be possible at or near the end of the development cycle. I couldn’t agree more as this is the main rationale for Benetech’s Born Accessible initiative.

Benetech Secures U.S. Department of Education Award to Expand Access to Bookshare for Students with Disabilities

2017 November 27
by Amaya Webster

We here at DIAGRAM would like to take a moment to share some exciting news about one of Benetech’s other initiatives, the Bookshare program. For those of you unfamiliar with Bookshare, it is the largest online library of accessible materials for students who read differently due to blindness, low vision, a physical disability, or dyslexia. We are thrilled to announce that Benetech has received a five-year award from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, to expand and improve access to books for these qualifying students. Thanks to this new award Bookshare will:

  • Continue to offer free memberships for all qualified students at U.S. public schools, community colleges and universities, charter schools, and homeschools.
  • Expand to over 800,000 books with a goal of delivering four million book downloads.
  • Continue to support an ever-increasing number of reading tools, apps, and devices.
  • Continue to provide expert training and customer support
  • Work directly with publishers to ensure accessibility features are included in production and are present in over 50 percent of educational books by 2022.

To learn more about Bookshare and the new award, read the official press release or the TechCrunch article: “Palo Alto nonprofit Benetech wins a $42.5M Dept. of Education grant, a nod to founder Jim Fruchterman’s quest to help the blind.”

Standards Working Group

2017 November 27
by Charles LaPierre

It is a thrilling time in the standards world with the publishing industry having great momentum toward adding extended descriptions to images. Of course, with great momentum comes rapidly changing practices, and we want to make sure that the relevant recommendations are being updated consistently to reflect what is supported by the current state of both the standards and the different reading systems.

As part of this effort, the Standards Working Group has been reviewing recommendations for how to mark up extended descriptions for the Web as well as inside an EPUB. We have nine separate tests based on using ARIA details, a future ARIA 1.1 specification. We have created an EPUB with various options and will be testing these to see how each performs with various screen readers and reading systems. In the meantime, we are also looking into updated alternatives that we can recommend immediately to publishers as they add extended descriptions to their EPUB books. Also on our radar is the need for standards around digital publishing such as media overlay support. Just this month, many of the working group’s members attended the annual TPAC meeting where they met with a number of W3C working group members to discuss exactly what future standards are needed for this quickly expanding area.

Standards Sub-Group: Math in EPUB

2017 November 27
by Charles LaPierre

Supporting math in EPUB is an ongoing challenge and one that continues to impact students with disabilities who are forced to rely on specialized systems to interact with math in even the most basic ways. Figuring out how to get browsers to support math would eliminate the need for students to have external support and allow them to have a much more meaningful experience with math and math-related subjects. The Math in EPUB Task Force is determined to make this a reality. The group recently met with Microsoft’s Edge Accessibility Team to discuss MathML support in the Edge browser. The group shared its findings regarding digital math and asked to have the raw MathML exposed to AT in Edge so that it can be made accessible. They were receptive to the suggestions and the group hopes to have updates soon.

The group has also been working with Apple to resolve some MacOS/iOS issues with our current solution of having MathML hidden offscreen with either an image/HTML or CSS fallback of the math. We have also created three sample EPUB books with this solution and have started testing it. Unfortunately, recent tests on some reading systems have exposed a few problems, but the group is already looking into ways to solve these issues.

Developers Sub-Group: Data Visualization

2017 November 27
by Charles LaPierre

The Accessible Data Visualization Task Force has been identifying state-of-the-art examples of data visualizations and indicating if these are open source or proprietary solutions. We will continue to document what is currently available and provide examples and techniques to the DIAGRAM repository of accessible widgets/tools and ultimately provide guidelines on how to do accessible data visualizations. There may also be opportunities to discuss our ideas for future work in ARIA.

Developers Sub-Group: Drag and Drop

2017 November 27
by Charles LaPierre

The Drag and Drop Task Force has refined its analysis of the different applications of the drag-and-drop metaphor that give rise to distinct accessibility issues. This work has been facilitated by the identification of examples of each case arising in educational applications (especially interactive simulations). The findings of the task force’s analysis of these access challenges, and how they can be addressed, will be shared with the DIAGRAM community when the documentation is ready for wider review. This work will serve as the basis for authoring guidelines for developers of interactive educational applications that employ drag and drop in their designs.

Out and About

2017 November 27

Here is a list of recent and upcoming places the DIAGRAM team and DIAGRAM community members have attended or presented at. Do you have an upcoming engagement you’d like to share? Let us know and we will include it. info[at]diagramcenter[dot]org.


Accessibility Camp Bay Area is a participant-driven event, where participants help shape the schedule by suggesting topics of interest when they register. These topics range from focusing on users with different disabilities, sessions on digital accessibility topics from the web (technical to tactical), desktop software, mobile apps, eLearning, online gaming, open source innovations, and everything in between. This year Deanna McCusker, head of user experience at Benetech, and Charles LaPierre, DIAGRAM technical lead, both attended, along with numerous other DIAGRAM community members. Read a write up of Charles’ experience here.

  • DAISY Board Meeting (October 24–26, Baltimore, MD)

Members of DIAGRAM and the Benetech team presented Benetech’s work on the Global Certified Accessible initiative.

ITC Conference (October 27th, Washington DC)

The ITC Conference is a two-day symposium with a heavy focus on accessibility testing, automated and manual testing, and WCAG 2.1.  George Kerscher and Charles LaPierre presented “Accessibility Standards Around EPUB,” Benetech’s pilot program for certification and Benetech’s Global Certified Accessible initiative.


  • TPAC Technical Plenary / Advisory Committee (November 6-8, Burlingame, CA)

This huge meeting brings together W3C technical groups, the Advisory Board, the TAG, and the Advisory Committee for an exciting week of coordinated work, face-to-face meetings and discussions. This meeting is widely attended by DIAGRAM staff members and community members. The DIAGRAM Center hosted a happy hour for meeting participants, the DIAGRAM community and the DIAGRAM team. The energy was high and it was a lovely way to kick off TPAC and a week of publishing Working Group meetings and joint meetings with CSS, HTML, and APA (Accessible Platforms Architecture).

  • Publishing Summit (November 9 -10, Burlingame, CA)

The publishing summit was a great opportunity for DIAGRAM to further explore personalization and showcase our Born Accessible work. Charles LaPierre met with the ARIA Working Group to discuss setting up a new framework to semantically mark up content to make it more accessible by personalizing the content to suit the users’ needs. George Kerscher presented on accessibility standards in publishing and showcased the ACE tool for automatically checking EPUBs for accessibility.

  • Webinar on the First Annual DIAGRAM Report (November 13)

Hosted by the DIAGRAM Center, DIAGRAM report writers Lisa Wadors, Senior Program Manager: Education, Research and Partnerships, and Charles LaPierre presented on the six new technologies the report focused on, the opportunities discovered, the challenges uncovered, and the key takeaways. Don’t worry if missed the live webinar. A closed-captioned recording of the webinar will be made available on our website in the coming weeks.


  • Webinar: Guidelines for Creating Accessible Ebooks, (December 5)

Charles LaPierre will be presenting for the Access for All Challenge.

  • Webinar: Born Accessible Certification, (Dec 14)

Robin Seaman and Charles LaPierre will present on Benetech’s Born Accessible Certification work at this free DIAGRAM-hosted webinar. We will post more details about the webinar along with registration information soon.

New DIAGRAM Webinar

2017 November 10
by Amaya Webster

Name: The First Annual DIAGRAM Report
Date: Monday, November 13, 2017
Time: 12 PM – 1 PM Pacific Time
Cost: Free!

Join us Monday, November 13th for a free webinar on one of DIAGRAM’s newest resources, the DIAGRAM Report. The report explores six technologies that have the potential to significantly impact the learning landscape for students with disabilities. Report authors, Charles LaPierre and Lisa Wadors will be discussing the technologies they focused on, the challenges they found, the opportunities they uncovered and of course their key takeaways. Time permitting, they will also engage participants in a discussion on potential new technologies that should be explored in the 2018 report. You won’t want to miss it!


What We Are Reading

2017 August 30

Poet: New and Improved Interactive Image Description Training

2017 August 30
by Sue-Ann Ma

After much anticipation, our revamped Poet Training Tool is now available! In recent months, we have received invaluable feedback from countless members of the DIAGRAM Center community. For those of you who might be less familiar with it, Poet was originally designed as a mechanism that enabled volunteers to provide crowd-sourced image descriptions for critical diagrams found in educational texts. We know that getting image descriptions in text books is critical to a born accessible work flow.  But to really drive more accessible content for students with disabilities, we needed to provide publishers and other content creators with the right tools to make born accessible books a reality. After running numerous image slams we realized what they really needed was technology for better, scalable training for writing descriptions.  So we are thrilled to be unveiling Poet like you’ve never experienced it before, a training tool to provide users with interactive exercises to determine “when to describe” and “how to describe” images, as well as an opportunity to apply these guidelines and “practice describing” their own content.

Please take our new training tool out for a spin and/or help to share this resource with the community of practitioners.  There are Provide Feedback links sprinkled throughout the site to share thoughts about this new tool. And stay tuned for additional features to be added in the coming months and stories from publishers about how Poet is making a difference!


Community Spotlight: George Kerscher

2017 August 29
by Amaya Webster
a photo after the Missoula Half Marathon. It shows Gail, George, and Kroner all wearing their medals.

A photo after the Missoula Half Marathon. It shows Gail, George, and Kroner all wearing their medals.

As if there weren’t already enough reasons to be impressed with DIAGRAM community member and Co-PI George Kerscher, here’s one more. George, Gail, and Kroner recently participated in the 2017 Missoula Half Marathon which is 13.1 miles (21 km). Gail, George’s wife, ran it, finishing with a time of 2 hours and thirty-six minutes. George and his guide-dog Kroner walked it finishing in four hours and thirteen minutes. Needless to say, we’re all pretty impressed. Congratulations George, what an accomplishment!

What the Working Groups Are Working On: 4 Things You Probably Don’t Know, But Should

2017 August 29
by Amaya Webster

One: Standards Working Group Update

By George Kerscher

Extended descriptions are near and dear to the hearts of the DIAGRAM community and we (the DIAGRAM Standards Working group) have made advances on the extended descriptions front. Currently, in Aria 1.1, which is also expected to become a W3C recommendation early in 2018, we have an attribute called “aria-details.” This attribute can take an ID of an element on the page and provide the mechanism to associate the extended description of the image, figure, or any other HTML element. We envision this to be used in combination with the HTML “details” element.  We have developed a series of examples that demonstrate the usage, and while the examples are not polished, you can still get a good idea of where we are headed by visiting:

We’re also continuing to develop recommendations for math in EPUB and on the web. Stay tuned for a list of examples.

Two: Developers Working Group Update

By Charles LaPierre

During the DIAGRAM Strategic Planning meeting, the Working Group decided to have bi-monthly meetings to keep the momentum going.  We currently have two task forces under the Developers Working group, Drag and Drop and MathML in EPUB. Now that those are both going strong, we will kick off an additional two more Task Forces that fall under the Developers Working Group’s domain. The first has been named “Thinking Outside the Box” and will help with identifying as many areas as possible that currently limit access to educational materials for students with a variety of disabilities. Identification will focus on disabilities not traditionally associated with print disabilities such as cognitive and physical impairments. The second task force is to make data visualizations accessible and fits in with our commitment to exploring the application of new markup languages for accessible STEM content such as ChartML and ChemML. As always, if any of this work sounds like something you would like to participate in, we welcome new members. Feel free to email Charles for more information on joining.

Three: Data Visualization Task Force Update

By Charles LaPierre

The DIAGRAM Center is creating a new Task Force under our DIAGRAM Standards Working Group called “Data Visualization Task Force.” Our goal is to find common ground on how we can make an open standard and/or best practices around accessible data visualization. The Task Force will meet once a month or every other month depending on the group’s availability and time constraints. If this sounds like work you would be interested in participating in, please fill out this Doodle poll which will help us schedule the first meeting. We are very excited about the potential for this group and where the work will take us.

Four: Content Working Group Update

By Amaya Webster

The big news for the Content Working Group is the finalization of the updated charter. The key mission of the charter is to connect with the other working groups to make sure the work they are doing is made available through real world examples with instructions on how to implement it. The Content Working Group will also work on building out Imageshare, test 3D content delivery with gh, explore visual storytelling tools with Gallaudet and produce at least one example and/or resource around accessible audio-visual content with closed captioning and audio descriptions for video. The group is also in the process of forming two sub-groups, one to further explore ways in which interactive materials can be made accessible and another to delve into the accessibility needs of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing as well as ways to increase visual literacy. If the work of this group is something you would like to be involved with, new members are always welcome. Contact Amaya for more information.