White House event: STEM Equality For Americans With Disabilities
Steve Noble, Accessibility Research Consultant (Guest Writer)
It was a distinct privilege to be among the hundred-plus people in the audience yesterday as the White House recognized fourteen people for their contributions toward advancing access to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) for people with disabilities. The event, Champions of Change: STEM Equality For Americans With Disabilities was the latest in the “Champions of Change” series which recognizes leaders in various fields across the county and brings them to the White House “to share their ideas to win the future.”
According to Kareem Dale, special assistant to President Barack Obama for disability policy, “The leaders we’ve selected as Champions of Change are proving that when the playing field is level, people with disabilities can excel in STEM, develop new products, create scientific inventions, open successful businesses and contribute equally to the economic and educational future of our country.” Mr. Dale, who is blind himself, pointed out the importance of providing an equal opportunity in the STEM fields to people with disabilities, and that “there’s nothing that we can’t do as people with disabilities when given that equal opportunity.”
I was delighted to see friends being honored whom I have known for quite some time--like George Kerscher of the DAISY Consortium and Virginia Stern of AAAS, as well as a number of younger people just starting their careers whom I had never met before. It was especially encouraging to see a number of successful graduate students with disabilities who are distinguishing themselves in the STEM fields, something which is certainly a testimony to Kareem Dale’s affirmation about the ability of people with disabilities to excel when given an equal opportunity.
I thought it would be fitting to add just a few special comments about four individuals recognized at the White House who have a special connection to making math accessible.
George Kerscher serves as Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium and President of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). George and I have worked together in the field for over two decades--since his days running what was then called Computerized Books for the Blind. Kareem Dale introduced George as “a legend in his own right”, and I couldn’t agree more. George brought our own Neil Soiffer on board to chair the MathML in DAISY Working Group, for which George was a member and key contributor. Over the years, George has been instrumental in ensuring that accessible math is a component of digital document standards, like DAISY and EPUB 3.
During the event, John Boyer mentioned that as a deaf-blind student in the 1940s he could not find enough STEM materials in braille to satisfy his hunger for science, and that this experience led him to work on braille translation systems which could better handle mathematics. John’s previous work on liblouis and his current BrailleBlaster translation technology are examples of open source products which include the capability to translate MathML into to various braille math codes. Design Science has been involved with John’s work and we’ll be using it as part of MathPlayer 3's braille support for refreshable braille displays.
Sina Birham, a blind graduate student at North Carolina State University, is an up and coming star and soon will be getting his PhD in computer science. Sina is working with us on adding math expression navigation to a future version of MathPlayer.
Steve Jacobs, President of the IDEAL Group, is someone I have known for years, having served together as co-presenters on sessions and members of committees. Steve has worked to spread the news about accessible math and his company has worked to produce a number of applications which help to make STEM content more accessible to people with disabilities.
Of course, these are just a few of the Champions honored by the White House. We would like to enthusiastically congratulate all the Champions, and recognize their accomplishments in the STEM fields. The White House is certainly to be commended for its efforts at drawing attention to this vital issue.
Steve Noble is a research consultant with a core focus in mathematics accessibility and assistive technology. Currently he serves on grant-funded research projects with both the University of Kentucky and Bridge Multimedia, and previously served as Director of Accessibility Policy for Design Science.