Why is digitally accessible content important?

  • Inclusive for all students and a legal requirement.
  • It allows students to use screen readers (which need to be accessible for equations and symbols to make sense):
    • supporting readers with visual impairment access the content
    • supporting literacy (e.g. students with English as a second language)
    • to reduce cognitive load in a body of text (e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia).
  • It allows readers to easily navigate and jump to different sections, which also supports students with motor difficulties and issues around working memory (e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia, mental health issues).
  • It allows zooming-in and viewing on smaller screen (Tablets, Phones) with the content reflowing. This can support readers with motor difficulties (avoid scrolling) or needing a larger font size.
  • Publishing digitally can also support other media types, e.g. videos, interactive graphs, etc. in addition to external hyperlinks.

What does "accessible" mean for technical content?

There are many different aspects to making content accessible, which are covered in our main guidance and also resources for inclusive teaching. 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).

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 requiresĀ 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 or write maths equations directly into Moodle (both support LaTeX-like maths entry).

In the following links you will find support and guidance on how to create accessible maths documents:

Resource Who is this for? Advantages Disadvantages
Microsoft Equation Editor Guidance Word & Powerpoint users
  • Very simple to use
  • Not just a GUI: most equations can be typed using LaTeX syntax
  • Misses extended control of LaTeX equations
RMarkdown Guidance LaTeX users
  • Maths 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
  • Detailed control of typesetting elements (e.g. pagebreaks) is separate step
  • Lose LaTeX macros (though it is possible to reporduce functionality in R)

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.