‘I Stuck With It’
“Math was very painful for me as a student,” says Su Park, a high school student who is blind.
Until her sophomore year, general education teachers would convert math lessons in to Braille. Su would use those converted lessons to learn concepts and complete classwork. Then her work would be converted by hand back into forms that sighted teachers could understand.
“I struggled to learn Braille, my teachers didn’t always know Braille,” she says. “And feedback was always delayed.”
“I figured if I stuck with it long enough,” Su says, “something would come along that would make the whole process a lot easier.”
Understanding the Barriers
In February of last year, a team from Pearson showed up at Su’s school in Texas. They wanted to talk with blind and visually impaired students about the barriers they faced in math class.
“It was more than anybody else in education was doing to smooth out struggles with math class,” Su says. “But I remember thinking, ‘What are they going to do about it?'”
“I honestly didn’t expect anything out of it,” she says.
Her First Challenge: 948 Math Problems
Su’s contributions during those brainstorming sessions at school led the Pearson team to hire her as an intern last summer.
The team was developing the Accessible Equation Editor, new software and hardware that allows students using Braille to interact with math on a computer the same way that sighted students interact with math on a computer. (We describe the innovative hardware and software in this LearnED story.)
“We needed someone to read the Braille from the perspective of the student and tell us whether we were getting it right,” says Sam Dooley, a senior developer at Pearson who helped lead the project.
“It was very surreal,” Su says. “I went through 948 math problems and, because it seemed so seamless, I was too caught up in the moment to realize what was actually happening.”
A Long Summer
Eventually, the Pearson team asked Su to write an instruction manual for the Accessible Equation Editor from the perspective of a blind user.
“I thought it would be easy,” Su says. “But I’d never written an instruction manual before and I’d never thought about guiding a blind person through a visually-oriented task with words.”
“Sam and Dan Brown were the people who kept me on track and taught me how to do everything,” Su says. Dan Brown is Pearson’s senior engineer for blindness technologies who is also blind. “When things got tough, they helped me take a break.”
‘I Think Math Will Be My New Passion’
“For years, I told myself I’d never work in a math-related field,” says Su. “Now, with a couple more years of learning and exposure to concepts, I think math will be my new passion.”
“This makes history for everyone involved,” Su says. “For blind students and general education teachers who are working with these students in advanced math.”
“What’s important to understand is that ‘accessibility’ is not about technology,” Su says. “‘Accessibility’ is made by people like Sam who tackle challenges and endeavor to fix them in ways no one has ever tried before.”
Su, now a junior in high school, still can’t really believe the Accessible Equation Editor works so well.
“It’s our first chance to see eye to eye with sighted students in the classroom.”