The 3rd International Workshop on
DEIMS2016 Keynote Lectures:
"Assistive Technologies for STEM Subjects - From Bitmap Graphics to Fully Accessible Chemical Diagrams"
Prof. Dr. Volker Sorge, The University of Birmingham, UK
Chemical diagrams are an important means of conveying information in chemistry and biosciences to students, starting as early as secondary school. However, even in electronic teaching material, diagrams are commonly given in standard image formats leaving them inaccessible for visually impaired learners.
In my work I aim to provide end-to-end support for making these diagrams Web accessible, by employing image analysis solutions to recognise and semantically analyse diagrams, and by regenerating them in a format that makes them amenable to assistive technology. We provide software that allows readers to interactively engage with diagrams by exploring them step-wise and on different layers, enabling aural rendering of diagrams and their individual components together with highlighting and magnification to assist readers with low vision or learning difficulties.
The technology builds on open standards, supporting a number of computing platforms, browsers, and screen readers, and is extensible to diagrams in other STEM subjects.
Prof. Volker Sorge is a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He is heading the Scientific Document Analysis Groups at Birmingham, working primarily on mathematical document analysis, diagram recognition and handwriting recognition from white boards. As application of this work he has been concentrating on making scientific content accessible and is currently working on assistive technology for STEM subjects with the start-up company Progressive Accessibility Solutions (progressiveaccess.com).
His work includes producing accessible mathematical content in the context of the European Digital Maths Library, integrating maths support into the ChromeVox screen reader as a Visiting Scientist with Google and, most recently, exploiting image recognition to generate web accessible chemical diagrams.
"STEM Education for Blind and Low Vision students: The Socio- Technical Challenge: The Indian Perspective"
Dr Sam Taraporevala, Associate Professor & Head, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai; Director, Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC)
STEM education for blind and low vision students the world over and similarly in India has been held hostage to a combination of fear, doubt, lack of knowledge, lack of teacher training skills and resources combined to give the false verdict ? It is not Possible!
“It is too visual!”, “We will not be able to cope and marks will suffer”, “What is the point of learning this now when there is no career prospects?” These are often repeated conversation trends within families, schools and oftentimes within organization working for blind and low vision persons as well.
These views over time found a way of being institutionalized as part of education courses where primary education boards permitted for exemption of students with blindness and low vision to take up regular mathematics and science. Whilst this was offered as a choice it soon became the mandatory thing. Encouraging students to drop these subjects meant lesser work for schools, easier options for parents.
This however has had an enormous impact on career choices. Not studying primary level mathematics and science, students automatically dropped out of eligibility criteria for higher education STEM courses. Careers by default had to be picked in the humanities or commerce fields. The spiral leading for a greater advocacy of encouraging students to drop primary/middle education STEM on reaffirming “No blind students take up STEM? hence it must not be possible”
When a trend or an experience becomes part of collective social consciousness for a long time, imaginations assume the power of truths relegating fact to the realm of fiction. These misconceptions pose the biggest challenge in transforming higher STEM education for students with blindness and low vision.
As an organization convinced about the need for STEM education at all level, not only as a basic pillar for holistic education but also as a right of choice over ones career the XRCVC (www.xrcvc.org) has been striving hard to start a wave of change.
Our work started with a research study in the year of 2012 which tried to uncover for India what the key challenges were that stopped STEM pursuits amongst the blind and low vision. The research findings published as a report titled “Numbers and Reactions” reiterated the understanding we had. Myths about the impossibilities fueled encouragement for dropping out. If students did not drop out, lack of teachers trained in appropriate pedagogy (not rocket science) as also basic resources of books and teaching learning aids made things more difficult, further leading to discouragement and dropping out.
XRCVC through the past two years has started a multi-pronged approach to tackle this situation. Our awareness work has started spreading ideas on possibilities of scientific learning and careers for blind and low vision persons. Simultaneously we have begun working on resource libraries for textbooks and teaching learning aids. Our aim is that if we can build up a resource pool of concept learning aids with detailed handouts in a way that anyone ? a parent/teacher/friend through a simple concept search framework will be able to locate a ready to use aid with a complete lesson plan ? this can snowball the learning experience and demystify the “it’s too visual and hence out of reach for the blind” idea. Subsequent to having created this library we also aim to start building human resources through teacher training programs for both special educators and mainstream teachers.
Myths that have become entrenched in the social psyche need time to be plucked out one at a time and be replanted with new and current reality based ideas. Our challenges remain endless. As our first students in Bachelor of Physiotherapy courses, engineering courses make their way through mainstream formal education degree programs the constant question of “But how can we say he/she is doing it if they are relying on sighted assistants to either give them information about how a wound is taped, or put a chemical in a test tube?” keep coming our way.
Some of these challenges we face are more to do with how education is structured and what we consider learning to be. When physicality of the task of putting a chemical in a tube is considered a greater learning point over knowledge of the chemical being used and the reaction at hand, then the battle is more on the ground of what our ideas on teaching and testing are and less of blindness.
The fact that this battle of education interferes with myths on blindness, the combination becomes explosive. If teachers believe that blind students cannot study STEM subjects coupled with their belief that the only true test of learning is the physical act of doing then we are facing a wall which is difficult to penetrate.
There are many such walls in our path, and at the same time many more doors which are willing to open. Technological advances have come a long way in making things possible for blind and low vision students to independently access STEM subjects. The biggest challenge of today remains in the human mind - whether we will adapt and change to these new realities or continue to ask the old questions.
We hope with our resource libraries, training programs and awareness efforts we will be able to reach a point of critical mass in the journey over the next few years that will compel the current walls to break and make the shift themselves or the critical mass will demolish them chartings its new path.
In addition to these, for nations like India with multi lingual user bases, cost still a big factor to enable access even though solutions exist the list of technological challenges are also far from being overcome fully.
The future for STEM education for the blind and low vision hold an enormous possibility of not only opening up a career choice for them that has traditionally been denied but a proof of concept on how human societies are always capable of changing landscapes without being stuck in the dogma.
Dr. Taraporevala has been involved as study director for research projects at the Department of Sociology, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and has directed a number of projects like:
As a Member, Board of Studies of Sociology, University of Mumbai he has been in charge of curriculum development for diverse programs at the undergraduate level.He has presented at various national and international seminars, workshops and conferences. His prime focus being on the theme of social inclusion. Dr. Taraporevala has been instrumental in setting up the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai of which he is currently Director with a view towards inclusive education. The centre, established in 2003, has state-of-the-art accessibility facilities for the visually challenged, its basic goal being a holistic development of the visually challenged and social advocacy on accessibility issues for the visually challenged focusing primarily on educational and financial inclusion as also access to the printed word. To know more about the work of the XRCVC, visit www.xrcvc.org.
Through the XRCVC, Dr. Taraporevala has been instrumental in making numerous services, facilities, educational and employment opportunities possible and accessible in the city of Mumbai and is working towards making this a reality throughout the country. He was an integral part of the core team involved with ensuring that the Parliament of India passed an amendment allowing for a special exception for persons with disability to the Copyright Act of the country. The XRCVC has also been at the forefront of working on the rollout of accessible talking ATMs in India. He also played a pivotal role in the development of the first audio-tactile-sighted print menu card which was launched by the Bombay Blue chain of restaurants.
He has played a key role in compiling, authoring and editing a number of XRCVC publications, namely Equip Your World, I for Inclusion, Numbers and Reactions, The ABC of Inclusive Publishing and Write Right.
His work at the XRCVC has earned him many accolades and awards recognizing his efforts aimed at changing the system for a better tomorrow. He is the recipient of The NCPEDP- Shell Helen Keller.
If you have any questions, please contact Katsuhito Yamaguchi at
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