ResBaz inspires accessibility improvement to LaTeX

Last fall, Wesley Honeycutt, a post-doctoral research associate with the Oklahoma Biological Survey, gave a presentation on the LaTeX typesetting program as a part of the annual Research Bazaar (ResBaz), hosted by OU Libraries. John Stewart, assistant director of the OU Office of Digital Learning, asked Honeycutt if there was a way to increase the accessibility of the tool for those who require sight assistance. While the answer at the time was no, the question inspired Honeycutt to see what solutions might exist.

“LaTeX is one of the most popular methods of typesetting academic and scholarly works; this is especially true for fields that are math-heavy,” Honeycutt said. “In fields such as physics and math, LaTeX is the premier tool to render all of the complex squiggles and dashes of intense mathematics on the printed page. Yet, with all of the strengths of this computer language, it still lacks a way to print math in a manner that automated screen readers can read. Having screen reader compatibility is a big deal, as it allows vision-impaired users to access your work.”

"the only reason we have this tool now is because of the workshops that OU Libraries hosts."

Honeycutt posed the inquiry to TeX Stack Exchange, the question and answer site for users of LaTeX and similar typesetting systems. Since no known method existed, 10 months passed before a solution was posted to the site by Steven B. Segletes. Honeycutt says this new tool automatically replaces the problematic portions of the equations with text.

"(Segletes) was able to apply a general-purpose linguistic parsing package he wrote called 'tokcycle' to solve the problem posed by the question,” Honeycutt said. “For example, if one were to use a screen reader to read the quadratic equation when the computer reads the equation aloud, it comes out ‘y equals a x two plus b x plus c.’ The computer reads ‘two’ instead of ‘squared’ because the computer must be told that the symbol means ‘squared’ before it can read the equation properly. By breaking math equations into proverbial phonemes using tokcycle, such as telling the program ‘Ok LaTeX, when you see 'x^5' in an equation, I want you to think of it as 'x to the fifth,' we can hide that ‘x to the fifth’ in the background of a PDF document.

Now when a standard screen reader sees this equation, it no longer says ‘x five’, it reads the hidden text of ‘x to the fifth’. This reads in a much more meaningful way, translating the codified hieroglyphics of mathematics into the understandable spoken linguistics...It is a big deal since LaTeX is such a core part of anything that renders math for viewing. This has the potential to give access and empowerment to more people.

And this is just a prototype....the only reason we have this tool now is because of the workshops that OU Libraries hosts. I was asked about this topic during a presentation on LaTeX, and was able to put the word out that people want this. Since the LaTeX community is a large, nebulous collection of software and typography nerds, no one thought about the need for screen reading improvements until they were informed about it. In that sense, OU Libraries facilitated the development of an accessibility tool." - Wesley Honeycutt 


Events like ResBaz and data skills workshops not only provide instruction on research tools; they also provide opportunities for researchers from across the university to interact, learn from each other, and sometimes to spark ideas that can lead to improvements for the broader community. See the full programming schedule for fall 2019, and register to attend the next LaTeX workshop on September 27.

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