Making STEM Accessible to All Americans

George Kerscher is being recognized as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities.


A vast amount of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) information is usually presented visually, from graphs and tables to diagrams and math equations. Students and professionals in the STEM fields who are blind or have low vision must find ways to access this data. In many cases, they still rely on other people to read and describe images for them. This creates a dependence that can be inefficient and time consuming. Also, students often must wait for months to get their learning materials in alternative formats.

DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is the international standard used for creating accessible digital talking books and e-books. The standard allows users with print disabilities to efficiently navigate and access book content. To ensure that math is accessible within DAISY books, the DAISY Consortium formed a working group consisting of several dedicated individuals from our member organizations. This working group developed a mechanism for extending DAISY to include MathML support. MathML is the standard markup language for mathematical formulas for making them meaningful and accessible with screen readers and braille. Access to knowledge through alternative formats and digital talking books (DTBs) has created more independence and opportunities for print-disabled users.

In order to tackle one of the biggest obstacles for the visually challenged students pursuing studies in the field of STEM, DIAGRAM Center was established by the US Department of Education (Office of Special Education Programs). Infographics, illustrations, graphics, photos, and diagrams can now be provided through rich descriptions defined in a content model developed by the DIAGRAM Center.

The digital publishing market is exploding. We live in exciting times as the incorporation of the DAISY accessibility features into the mainstream EPUB 3 standard holds promise for the increased availability of accessible commercial publications at the same time and cost to people with disabilities.  Furthermore, EPUB 3 adds native support for new types of content such as MathML and SVG as well as correct representation of many new scripts by integrating, for example, W3C Ruby Annotation and vertical writing support.

Resources to support inclusive publishing in EPUB 3 are developed through joint efforts between the DAISY Consortium and IDPF. The free publication from O'Reilly Media, "Accessible EPUB 3" provides the guidelines for content producers.

The evolving DAISY/EPUB 3 ecosystem for inclusive publishing includes open standards, guidelines, sample content, open source reference implementations, and validators in addition to accessible reading systems, community support and advocacy.

The main goal throughout my career has been achieving equal access to information for all. I established Computerized Books for the Blind in the 1980s, then was recruited to direct the research program of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), subsequently merged my company with RFB&D (now Learning Ally), an organization that has faithfully served print-disabled individuals for more than 60 years.  I am currently both Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium and President of the International Digital Publishing Forum.

Partnerships between publishers and organizations like Learning Ally and Bookshare can facilitate the implementation of accessible publishing practices and enhancements to commercial publications.  Resources are limited, but a lot of work still needs to be done, including the development of an automated, and an interactive accessibility evaluation tool.

Come and participate in our discussions. Register for the Inclusive Publishing and eBook Distribution Conference at NFB in Baltimore June 8-9, 2012 and check out the newly launched site that will provide resources for inclusive publishing.

George Kerscher began his IT innovations in 1987 and coined the term "print disabled."  George is dedicated to developing technologies that make information not only accessible, but also fully functional in the hands of persons who are blind or who have a print disability.

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