Alternative vs. Equivalent Access to STEM Learning Materials: Takeaways from CSUNATC19

When we talk about making something accessible, we mean that we want to make sure everyone, regardless of ability, can access the content. But access is not always a yes-or-no thing. It has levels, and it is complex. Over the past few months, I have been trying to deepen and expand my own conception of accessibility.

Post by Josie Gray, Coordinator of Collection Quality, Open Education

In early March, I attended the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in Anaheim, California. This was my first real professional development opportunity in web accessibility, and I am so glad for the opportunity to learn from people doing this work.

John Travlota

My main goal for this conference was to learn as much as I could about accessibility in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) content. These fields specifically (although not exclusively) have a lot of complex visual content (i.e., graphs, charts, tables, diagrams, equations) that can be and often are really challenging to make accessible, especially for people with visual impairments. This is an area where my own knowledge is limited, and where I know there is a gap both within and outside of the open education community. Fortunately, there is a lot of exciting and innovative work being done in this area, and I’m really excited about the possibilities.

Challenging, complicating, and expanding

Presenters from the National Center on Accessible Education Materials highlighted a powerful definition of accessibility I had not heard before:

“‘Accessible’ means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.”[1]

Note the words “the same,” “equal,” and “equivalent.” These words say something significant. They add a dimension to accessibility that goes beyond WCAG 2.0 guidelines. For example, while a text description will make a complex diagram technically accessible, it does not guarantee that the text description is “equally effective” for a blind person as the diagram is for someone who is not blind. A text description may provide some accessibility, but not full accessibility.

So what does access really mean? What is the difference between access and inclusion? How can we move beyond providing access to information and toward providing equal and equivalent access to learning experiences and opportunities for students with disabilities? These are all important questions to ask ourselves, and open education is a great place to tackle these questions.

Now I’d like to highlight some concrete examples of what equal and equivalent access might look like by examining some of the work being done to tackle these questions in the STEM fields. Digital technology is making STEM content a lot more accessible for students with visual impairments. More and more tools are coming out that have been designed to help blind students interact with math and visual content. While most of these tools are not open, many of them are free to use, and I think they offer some great ideas for how we can make open publishing platforms and the open educational resources we create more accessible and inclusive.

Non-visual access to descriptive statistics

Ed Summers, Director of Accessibility at SAS (Statistical Analysis Software), has developed a tool that makes it easier for blind people to access and process data through the SAS Graphics Accelerator Chrome extension. This tool allows you to import data from Excel or a table on a website, filter the data, and generate descriptive statistics through numbers as well as visualizations that can be explored in non-visual ways (e.g., through sound). The tool is free and fully accessible and allows you to export the output to share with others.

Interactive STEM content

The PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free, interactive math and science simulations that allow students to learn through exploration and discovery. These simulations are open educational resources (OER) and available under CC BY licences. One of the things that PhET is working on is making their simulations accessible to students with disabilities through inclusive design. This means the simulations can be navigated with both mouse and keyboard, they include a simple and dynamic description for people using screen readers, and there may be sound and sonification to support the learning experience. Check out PhET’s Accessibility Simulations for more information on this project and to find accessible simulations.

Accessibility in writing math

There were a number of sessions that addressed how to make it easier for people with visual impairments to write math, not just learn math. Writing accessible math content is difficult, and not all math languages are accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.

One session introduced a study to address the need for an authoring tool that is both accessible and easy to use for creating accessible scientific documents – that is, any kind of document that uses formulas, complex images and graphs, tables, and citations. Out of this study came AROW, the Accessible RMarkdown Online Writer. The tool allows you to write Markdown and R code, insert symbols, and manage citations. When done, you can export your file into HTML, DOCX, PDF, PPTX, EPUB3, and more. You can read the full study by JooYoung Seo and Sean McCurry here: LaTeX is NOT Easy: Creating Accessible Scientific Documents With R Markdown.

Another session highlighted an Accessible Equation Editor developed by Pearson. This tool allows someone to create math expressions in printed math notation and have it automatically translate into Nemeth braille (a braille code specifically for math and scientific notation). It also works in reverse, so a blind person could write in Nemeth braille and have that equation automatically translate into printed math. Pearson also has a Nemeth Braille Searchable Database that is available for free online. This database allows people learning Nemeth braille to look up Nemeth symbols and what they represent.

Another recommendation for people to check out is Desmos, an organization that builds free, accessible math tools such as a graphing calculator, scientific calculator, activities, and assignments.


What all these tools have in common is that they empower visually impaired students not only to access information, but also to interact with and become active creators of STEM content. Learning isn’t just taking in information, it also involves output, creation, interaction. Text may be an alternative form of access, but it is not always an equivalent form of access. We learn not only by reading and listening; we learn by doing, creating, and interacting, and there needs to be a way for students with disabilities to do that independently and effectively.

[1]“South Carolina Technical College System OCR Compliance Review No. 11-11-6002,” U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 28 February 2013,

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