[Athen] athen-list Digest, Vol 131, Issue 11

Damian A. Sian dsian at Princeton.EDU
Mon Dec 12 08:57:03 PST 2016

Hello Randi,

On the topic of accessibility in PDF, as Bevi mentioned, the format can be created in such a way as to fully conform with WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards. When it comes to support for math equation there are limitations. I explored this topic on the IAAP website with a group from the state of Minnesota a couple months ago. I will share my findings in full, but the summary is this… PDF does not support the math markup language called Math ML. Math ML is the correct way to visually format, and programmatically author, math expressions in a digital format.

The findings of my research my be out of the confines of your current set of constraints, but I wanted to share with you any how since you’re on the path of finding different modalities in communicating math expressions to the non-sighted. I do review specifically the interactions with PDF math content and the JAWS screen reader.

Here is the name of a vendor who can remediate PDF content for you if you’re in a time crunch:

You may be interested in the work being done by Central Washington State in the field of tactile representations as well:

Online training:

Here are my findings from my research and investigation:

Accessible: When we say make a PDF accessible, I interpret that to mean WCAG 2.0 Level AA and functioning with best user experience for a screen reader. Conversely, I am not referring to Section 508.
Screen Reader: The screen reader testing and validation used was JAWS version 15 from Freedom Scientific. There are others, but I have not tested or investigated for them.
Semantics: When we tag content in a PDF we are giving it a semantic structure that the screen reader will interact with. There are limitations to this in the PDF space that greatly influence the approach for PDF versus Web.

Syntax: In terms of presenting Math equations to a user, there are decisions to be made in expression. For example, would you say “One Half,” “One over two,” or “Fraction one over two.” Each statement conveys the same meaning and my research did not yield a single standard to adhere to. For purposes of this development and testing, I have used the speech output feature MathMagic’s Personal Edition that comes with Adobe Captivate to provide the syntax for math expressions. I would recommend doing research on this and using a consistent delivery throughout your documents.

MathML: This is a markup language that will provide accessible, semantically accurate math equations in a Web presentation. The syntax is also governed through this method. This solution requires having a JavaScript library called MathJax on the Web server to accomplish the correct rendering of the math expressions and interactions with screen reader.

Freedom Scientific on MathML
Per Freedom Scientific, they do support Math ML, but only in Internet Explorer Web presentations. You can turn on JAWS and listen to the math expressions via the link below. They have coded the pages with MathML and are using MathJax to render the expressions. The math expressions are fully accessible semantic markup.

Limitations in PDF
I have done some research into whether the PDF format offers this same level of integration and, regrettably, I do not see the same level of support offered as for Web. If you’re looking for a workflow or tool that will allow you easily code math equations in MS Word and have them come out as semantically meaningful tags in the PDF. I was able to find information pointing towards people developing customized scripts to achieve this, but I could not even find samples where this was proven to be effective.

The Formula Tag in PDF
Tagging a math expression in Adobe Acrobat as Formula offers no semantic understanding to the screen reader. For example, tagging content as Table, Figure, or Link will provide a level of interaction for the non-sighted user by announcing those elements as Table, Graphic, and Link (respectively). My research indicates that tagging an equation as Formula offers no such interaction for the screen reader in the PDF format at this time. So, adding this tag offers no value other than making your QA easier during development and testing of your PDF documents.

Coding MathML in PDF
I tried coding MathML into the PDF to see if the semantic tagging made any difference to the screen reader. It did not. The example equation below that expresses adding two fractions together simply read as one two plus one two equals one. See attached PDF titled “MathML in PDF.pdf" and review the tags tree. Whereas all of the text is tagged in MathMl semantic markup, it offers no semantic understanding of an equation and the syntax is not correct for fractions.

Here is a sample of the tags tree with MathML markup applied.
<image PDF tag tree with proper Math ML markup for a fraction using mrow and mfrac>

The screen reader simply, and incorrectly reads:
One two plus one two equals one.

This demonstrates that the MathMl semantic markup is not natively supported by Adobe and JAWS to provide the correct experience for the non-sighted.

Achieving Proper Semantic Structure
For the sample in the attached PDF “Simple Equation Test.pdf” I first deleted the tags that came from MS Word as it created a single tag with the whole string of text in it. I then used the Touch Up Reading Order tool to manually create P tags for each element with exception of the divider lines. This will allow the screen reader user to move through each element of the equation rather than hearing the whole string at once. Not a big deal for a simple equation, but it would be a real value for a large equation so the non-sighted could step their way through the equation back and forth.
NOTE: I did wrap the whole thing up in a Formula tag, but that has no interaction or value for the screen reader. I just like keeping my tags organized for when I do my QA tasks.

Achieving Proper Syntax
In order to get Adobe Acrobat to announce the equation in proper syntax, I recommend using the “Actual Text” feature for each P tag. I used a tool called MathMagic to output a speech file to get a syntax that worked. You may do whatever you choose as there are no WCAG requirements surrounding this that I was able to find. I would either attempt to find out how it would read in a MathML Web presentation, or use a tool like I have mentioned. The personal license for MathMagic is only $69 per seat, so it would be affordable.

Example Equation
<image showing ½ + ½ = 1 equation>

In the file “Simple Equation Test.pdf” the screen reader now reads:
Fraction 1 over 2, plus fraction 1 over 2, equals 1

In addition, the non-sighed user can move from one element in the equation to the other using the up and down arrows. What the solution lacks is a mechanism to announce the user is in a Math equation like the Web presentation offers and a way for a user to navigate from equation to equation like they could with other semantic markup like Tables, Figures, or Links.

Using Images
I do want add a note here about the approach of using images of equations. Using images of text should be avoided when possible per SC 1.4.5. Tagging text as P and using the Actual Text feature will negate the need for presenting math as images.

Defining an Approach
Ultimately you will have to decide whether tag the whole equation and add Actual Text, or tag each element and add Actual Text. But I don't see a way to automate this process in Acrobat, or through any tools like Common Look, by simply tagging an equation as Formula <-- CommonLook team please correct me if I'm wrong. The process to provide full understanding would have to be more manual in order to really convey the equation to the non-sighted.

Your approach to either tag the whole string or to create individual tags really depends on:
• How many equations you have to do in a document, or portfolio of documents and what resources you have to allocate to this task
• How much time you have to do them (i.e., are these docs updated weekly, quarterly, yearly)
• How important you feel the equation is to the context of the purpose of the piece

Those factors will help determine an approach for your workflow that makes sense. I do advocate for tagging individual elements rather than the whole equation at once in order to provide the best experience for the non-sighted. And as I have expressed already, I do not advocate for placing equations as images and providing alt text.

Whereas I do not see a streamlined and automated path to compliance here, I do see a path to providing accessible math equations in PDF format using the actual text feature. As the topic of presenting math equations is closely tied to education, and education is an area that receives great attention for accessibility, I would expect that this topic will have to be addressed by Adobe and Freedom Scientific sooner than later. From my research, I do see some movement on this topic in the PDF U/A space which is pointing in the right direction. The avenue of creating scripts to automate the process is certainly possible, but when you start talking about coding customized solutions, most things are possible (but not always feasible/likely to occur in a given organization). What I have presented here is a practical, albeit time consuming, solution with "off the shelf" technology and processes.


I hope this is helpful in your pursuit of finding inclusive formats for your content.

Damian Sian
Senior Web Accessibility Advisor
Princeton University
Office: (609) 258-6288
Mobile: (908) 938-8220

On 12/12/16, 11:31 AM, "athen-list on behalf of athen-list-request at mailman13.u.washington.edu" <athen-list-bounces at mailman13.u.washington.edu on behalf of athen-list-request at mailman13.u.washington.edu> wrote:

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Today's Topics:

1. Re: JAWS and PDF/Word/Text files (Jiron, Randi)


Message: 1
Date: Mon, 12 Dec 2016 16:30:08 +0000
From: "Jiron, Randi" <RJiron at roguecc.edu>
To: "chagnon at pubcom.com" <chagnon at pubcom.com>, "Access Technology
Higher Education Network" <athen-list at u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: [Athen] JAWS and PDF/Word/Text files
<MWHPR01MB28314F264474E66ABAA7A244C8980 at MWHPR01MB2831.prod.exchangelabs.com>

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"

Thank you for your response, Bevi.

Well, first off, we haven't worked with a student with needs like this for quite some time. No since way back when we were providing books on tape/CD. So, I'm sure I have a lot to learn about accessibility in PDF files. Also, I was just informed of this student by our coordinator last week and was expected to provide electronic files for her by the second week in January, we will be going on break soon, so unfortunately that limits my time. It would have been nice to have meet with her a month ago to get things ironed out. So, I don't know what her level of expertise is with JAWS and I don't know what software she has been provided on her laptop.

That being said, where can I learn about creating accessible PDF files? We get most of the electronic files from a publishing clearinghouse, so I doubt they are already accessible, but I can send you a sample chapter. We do have access to Adobe Pro which my research tells me can be used to tag the PDF files?? I have also been asked to scan a small book that we don't have a publisher file for. Can I also tag the file I will be creating? I don't even know where to begin on the math book since I'm sure there will be special software to make the math equations accessible.

Thanks again for your response, any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


Randi Jiron, MBA/TM
Disability Services Specialist
Redwood Campus
Rogue Community College

From: athen-list [mailto:athen-list-bounces at mailman13.u.washington.edu] On Behalf Of Chagnon | PubCom
Sent: Friday, December 9, 2016 4:36 PM
To: 'Access Technology Higher Education Network' <athen-list at u.washington.edu>
Subject: Re: [Athen] JAWS and PDF/Word/Text files

I'll let others address math-reading software.

But in terms of giving a PDF versus a Word versus a text document, I'd go for the PDF. That is, if it is tagged correctly for full accessibility.

A lousy PDF is a nightmare, but a well-tagged PDF with the correct reading order can be an excellent experience.

Word has its accessibility problems: one key problem for textbooks is that text boxes that are often used for pull quotes and sidebar material are not accessible in Word. But they can be made accessible in a PDF.

Text files shouldn't even be considered because that file format lacks so much:

n Headings, which are critical for comprehension and understanding, as well as for navigating the book quickly.

n Alt-text on graphics, which most likely will be the formulas and equations.

n Hyperlinks for accessing websites, cross-references, tables of content, footnotes, indexes, and anything else that should be clickable.

However, before going further, I suggest you investigate 2 things about the PDF the student was already given:
1. Is it fully accessible? That is, does it have the correct tags, reading order, alt-text, etc.
2. Does the student know how to use JAWS? A short briefing in how to access documents quickly via keyboard shortcuts could help.
3. And does her computer have software to specifically assist with reading math, science, etc.?

There are plenty of us on this list who could probably test the PDF for you. Just ask.

--Bevi Chagnon

- - -
Bevi Chagnon | www.PubCom.com<http://www.pubcom.com/>
Technologists, Consultants, Trainers, Designers, and Developers
for publishing & communication
| Acrobat PDF | Print | EPUBS | Sec. 508 Accessibility |
- - -

From: athen-list [mailto:athen-list-bounces at mailman13.u.washington.edu] On Behalf Of Jiron, Randi
Sent: Friday, December 9, 2016 6:49 PM
To: Access Technology Higher Education Network (athen-list at u.washington.edu<mailto:athen-list at u.washington.edu>) <athen-list at u.washington.edu<mailto:athen-list at u.washington.edu>>
Subject: [Athen] JAWS and PDF/Word/Text files


We have a new student who is blind and requested alternate format for her books. She is a JAWS user and first requested PDF files but then said JAWS wouldn't work well with the PDF and asked for Word docs. We provided the Word docs and she says her computer froze up while trying to access. She is now asking for TEXT files, one of the books is a math book. She is working with Commission for the Blind, who has provided her with the laptop and the software that she is using. I suggested that she contact her advisor at Commission to ensure the computer is working properly and to see if there is tech support through that organization. Other than that, do you have some suggestions for us on providing electronic text for this student especially the math book? Isn't there special software for converting the math portion of the math text book?

Thank you for your time.

Randi Jiron, MBA/TM
Disability Services Specialist
Josephine County
Rogue Community College

541-956-7214 Redwood Campus
541-471-3550 FAX
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