Writing Accessible Technical Content

What does “accessible” mean for technical content?

There are many different aspects to making content accessible, which are covered in our main guidance. The additional physical accessibility challenges relating to technical disciplines (particularly STEM) are:

  • Lossy formats for maths content. For example, the structure/semantics of equations is not accessible for a pdf produced using LaTeX to a visually impaired student.
  • Inadequate encoding of content: For example, superscripts typed outside the maths environment may not be conveyed to a screen reader.
  • Unable to interact with the material. For example, missing or inadequate descriptions (alt text) to fully access the information contained in a diagram.

  • LaTeX rendering equations to pdf does not support readers who rely on assistive technology (such as a screen reader, Braille) to access the document. Even if the individual characters can be read (not images), the semantics of equations is often lost.
  • Typesetting to an A4 page doesn’t support students who are viewing the document on a mobile device or need to zoom in and want the text to reflow.
  • Although there is document structure in LaTeX (e.g. \section{}, \subsection{}, etc), these tags are not normally written when creating a PDF).
  • LaTeX is Turing Complete: you can program with it as these examples, calculating the Fibonacci Sequence or controlling a Mars Rover, demonstrate! Given the open ended scope, it is non-trivial to transform LaTeX documents to make alternative formats (e.g. large print, screen readable, Braille formats, etc) to support all students, even with the use of “LaTeX conversion tools” (e.g. Pandoc, Tex4ht, MathAltNotes).
  • For a more detailed discussion, please see LaTeX is NOT Easy: Creating Accessible Scientific Documents with R Markdown (Seo 2019).

The MathJax plugin developed by American Mathematical Society (AMS) gives high-quality display of LaTeX maths and MathML math notation in HTML pages (MathML is a verbose markup language, also used in Microsoft Office). This lets formulae be read clearly for assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers), with no plug-ins, extra fonts, or special setup for users.

What works?

There needs to be adequate provision for all readers to engage with all content, including images, diagrams, plots, etc. In some cases this requires using another method of interacting with the content: for example having adequate alternative text supporting a figure.

To make the maths content is physically accessible there are two main routes to authoring a document:

  • produce the document with Microsoft Equation Editor (which supports Word and Powerpoint).
  • create the document as an html webpage with the maths rendered using MathJax. There are different routes to achieving this, with the simplest being to use Rmarkdown (bookdown) or write maths equations directly into Moodle (both support LaTeX-like maths entry).
ResourceWho is this for?AdvantagesDisadvantages
Accessible maths in MoodleUsers writing equations on Moodle pages
  • Very simple to use
  • Not just a GUI: most equations can be typed
  • using LaTeX syntax
Misses extended control of LaTeX equations
Microsoft Equation Editor GuidanceWord & PowerPoint users
  • Very simple to use
  • Not just a GUI: most equations can be typed using LaTeX syntax
Misses extended control of LaTeX equations
bookdown GuidanceLaTeX users
  • Equation syntax is same as LaTeX
  • Focus on content. Control of the document properties is controlled elsewhere
  • Very clean in contrast to verbose LaTeX markup.
  • Can convert to LaTeX, pdf, html, beamer outputs
  • control of typesetting elements (e.g. page breaks) is separate step
  • Theorem/proof environments are not styled well “out of the box”.
  • support for some LaTeX packages/macros (though it is possible to reproduce functionality in R)
Was this article helpful?

Related Articles