GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 201, Judy Dixon is here to discuss her latest book, “Audio Description: What It Is, Where to Find It, and How to Use It.” Then blind math professor Betsey Doane, who spent over 30 years teaching sighted students and came up with lots of creative ways to present math visually. That’s all upcoming on our podcast for June of 2021.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon welcoming you to Episode 201 of our podcast. Who would have thought 200 episodes ago that we’d still be going strong nearly 15 years later. Probably Jonathan Mosen. He’s the guy who envisioned doing a podcast when podcasting was far from a sure thing. But it was taking off. Social media was taking off. And this was sort of our first toe dipped into the whole podcast arena. And we have Jonathan Mosen to thank for being so forward-thinking those many years ago.
Back on our last FSCast, in fact it was Episode 200, we had the replay of FSOpenLine. There were a couple of issues that came up there that I wanted to comment on. One of them is that several people, but by no means everyone, are experiencing a timing issue, where when you’re responding to or creating a new Outlook email message, sometimes you’ll intend to type a letter, and what you’ll hear is “Quick key not available,” or “Form field not found,” or some other message that prevents the character from being inserted.
We have investigated further. That is indeed an issue that we now better understand. We have a fix being tested as I speak to you, and it’ll definitely be there in the July JAWS and Fusion 2021 updates. In the meanwhile, if you experience the problem, the quickest way to nirvana is to press INSERT+Z. That’ll toggle off Quick Keys and the virtual buffer, and you’ll be able to create or respond to your email.
The other issue relates to WordPress. Paul called in on FSOpenLine and said he was no longer able to edit WordPress posts. That kind of surprised me because we were having no problem with our WordPress site. But guess what? Paul was on the bleeding edge, and we were falling way behind. As soon as we updated our WordPress version to 5.7, 5.7.2 in fact, we began to see the problem. It’s very obvious. As best I can figure, it started with WordPress 5.6. They made some changes that are incompatible with some screen readers, JAWS included. We have a change in the works that’ll be part of the July update to remedy this on the JAWS side. But I’m talking to the WordPress development team, and it may be that they can make a further change at their end so that JAWS can work without requiring an update from us. So stay tuned, and one way or the other WordPress editing will return to normal.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip. It’s courtesy of Ted Larson. And he reminds us that, if you’re not seeing all you expect to see on web pages, there could be a really good reason. He is indeed right. And that reason is the size of the window or the amount of zoom that’s applied. And the reason these matter is because web authors use something called “responsive design.” And that’s nothing more than to say they look at the size of the screen that the page is rendering on. The smaller the screen, the less they put up there, and the more they put behind extra buttons that you need to click on before you can see the content.
So this matters on the desktop, even though you have a large screen, because you can make it appear to the web page designer that your screen is much smaller. There are two things that contribute to that. One of them is whether or not your web page window is maximized, so ALT+SPACE and then make sure “Maximize” is chosen. Or do what I do, simply hit X. If it’s already maximized, nothing happens. And if it isn’t, it will be. That’s one factor.
The other factor is zoom. And you want zoom generally to be 100%. You can get to the zoom option in Edge, Chrome, and Firefox. But in all three of those browsers, you can simply hit CTRL+0. In all but Firefox, if you weren’t already at 100% zoom, you’ll be told that you’re changing to it. In Firefox you won’t get any announcement, but you will be zoomed to 100%. So with your window maximized and the zoom set to 100%, you’re sure to see all the content that’s expected on a desktop browser.
We thank Ted for reminding us of this. It’s come up before on the podcast, but it’s so important. And it affects all of us, myself included, over and over again because inevitably zoom gets changed, whether we fat-finger it or something, and/or the size of your window sometimes gets smaller because most of the time for screen readers windows size doesn’t really matter. For sending in his Power Tip, Ted gets a year added onto his JAWS license. And we are a little short of Power Tips currently. If you’ve sent one in and said, well, mine didn’t get used, that’s probably because it’s not all that screen reader-specific. It’s more general about other applications. And although we sometimes just have a Power Tip about Word or some other app specifically because it’s really important, we try to feature those things that are unique to one of our products.
So if you can come up with a feature that’s not commonly known, someone who’s getting started or even is a fairly seasoned user might not know about, that’s the kind of thing we want to hear from you about. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, FSCast at V I S P E R O dot com. That same address applies if you have ideas for guests, you want to complain about something, you need some help, and you feel like you’re sort of at your wits’ end, I’ll do my best to help you, and I absolutely will answer your email. Again, so that’s email@example.com.
GLEN: With me now is Judy Dixon. She’s been the Community Relations Officer at the National Library Service for the Blind for nearly 40 years and has generally been involved in the blindness community for far longer than that. And I can’t believe we’ve never had her on FSCast. We’ve had 200 episodes to do it, but it seems that it hasn’t happened till now, now being the occasion of her 13th book, put out by the National Braille Press. It’s called “Audio Description: What It Is, Where to Find It, and How to Use It.” Judy, welcome to the podcast.
JUDY DIXON: Thanks very much, Glen. Happy to be here.
GLEN: Am I correct that this all goes back to one guy who theoretically, as the story goes, was describing a movie to his blind roommate and decided, oh, this should be a thing?
JUDY: Gregory Frazier is his name. He is the one who’s credited with really starting the idea. He was in San Francisco. You’re exactly right, he was describing for – but at that time he was an undergraduate, when he had that experience. But he did his master’s thesis on audio description, but I think it’s called something like “Movies for the Blind.” And he then got involved in describing things in theaters, because this was the ‘70s.
But the person who really, really moved it forward is a woman who was in the D.C. area named Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl. And she’s the one who went to GBH and got them all interested in it. She also was involved with audio description in theaters here in the D.C. area. She was a blind woman, and she was very, very passionate about it. And she really pushed it forward. It’s kind of ironic, I think, that PBS was so involved in the beginning, and so lackluster about it now. It’s really too bad.
GLEN: Somehow I got a copy of “Pretty Woman,” the movie, with audio description. And I had seen the movie without audio description. So my first thought was, no one describes the world when I’m out in it. I can do just as well with movies, picking up on dialogue. And this particular movie didn’t improve the audio description cause in my mind because it was describing her dress and the color of her dress and so forth. So I was sort of completely turned off to them until actually really recently in preparing for our conversation. I said, “I’d better watch something.” And I watched a PBS episode about Queen Victoria, which I wouldn’t have gotten anything out of without the audio description because there are long pauses with nothing being said. And with the descriptions it actually made it enjoyable.
JUDY: I had that experience recently. I watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” with audio description. And, you know, I watched it when I was in high school. And, I mean, there were long pauses, long places where they just play this Strauss music and that’s it. You don’t have any clue. And I remember asking whoever I was with, you know, “What’s going on?” “Planets are going by.” Well, there’s a lot more going on than planets going by. And it was really interesting to listen to that described. But I agree with you about a movie like “Pretty Woman.” I mean, that movie is all dialogue, and you can totally get the gist of what’s happening. I mean, you might get some details from audio description. But not necessarily adding a huge amount.
GLEN: What do you think has caused companies like Netflix and Amazon to actually begin to do this, and to begin to do it reasonably passionately on all their in-house-produced content?
JUDY: I think it’s competition is part of it. A few lawsuits have helped. And but Netflix really began in earnest in 2016. And so when Disney and Prime Video came along, they started doing it, too. And then Apple TV+ describes all of their original content, in nine languages, no less.
GLEN: Those of us who are not very creative look at a title like this and say, yeah, that would be a great article. That couldn’t possibly fill up a book. What allows you to make that mental leap that there really is more content than you think about just giving it a 20-second thought?
JUDY: I’m really a scientist. So I like to experiment, and I like to – and this book is a large experiment because I took – and I had to fill in things around it. So there’s an introduction talking about how great audio description is, and the fact that movie lines are in our everyday language, and who knows what they mean? I use as an example “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Well, people say that all the time. But what exactly does that mean?
Well, I mean, I think we all know it’s from “The Wizard of Oz.” But we still, you know, there was this wizard behind the curtain, but he was behind a curtain. So I got a described version of “The Wizard of Oz” and listened to it. Turns out while the wizard was talking to everybody and being wizardy, Toto went over and pulled back a corner of the curtain and revealed him. Well, we didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. And I’d seen “The Wizard of Oz” a bazillion times. So it’s in the introduction of this book, and I start talking about, you know, the things we don’t know that’s just part of our everyday culture.
And then there’s a whole chapter on history and legal aspects and all of that because, you know, you have to do a well-rounded thing here. And then there’s a chapter on broadcast television and how you – and cable television. That was the hardest part. I couldn’t try all the different cable services, so I had to gather that from other people because I’m a cord cutter. But the majority of the book, the heart of the book, the experimental part of the book, was accessing audio description when using streaming services.
So I had seven devices and seven streaming services. So I go through each device and try it with all the different services – Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+, and Prime Video – and talk about how do you get audio description to work? How do you turn it on? Well, first of all, how do you even get the access technology to work on that particular device, you know, how do you get Roku to talk? How do you get Fire TV Stick to talk? And then how do you access audio description on each of those things? So that’s almost half of the book, in the middle of the book. So it wasn’t hard to fill up a one-volume book when you have that kind of content to throw at it.
GLEN: And it’s a really nice writing style. It’s friendly. It’s direct and to the point. And it’s not flowery language, which from me gets you a lot of points.
JUDY: Yeah, I don’t do that.
GLEN: I know it’s an unfair question, but if someone is wanting to sort of dip their toe in the water, they’ve not tried audio description for whatever reason, can you to some degree rank order what’s the easiest way to start? And then conversely, what are some of the harder things to actually get working?
JUDY: A really simple way to do it would be get a Fire TV Stick and watch Netflix. And for less than 50 bucks you could have mountains of audio described content and access. The access is very, very easy.
GLEN: So if someone who’s blind wants to do this, and they don’t care about the screen, would that still be your recommendation? Or would you suggest something like Netflix on the iPhone?
JUDY: Well, if they have an iPhone, then you’re right, Netflix on the iPhone is the way to go. Any, I mean, all of these things, all of these streaming services have iPhone apps. And their iPhone apps are really, except for a couple, and I’m very clear about that in this book, “The accessibility of this app is not the greatest,” or “Does not work well.” And there are a couple of instances where I just say, “I wasn’t able to do this.” But the iPhone tends to be one of the better ways to do things. There’s a small box you can get called an HDHomeRun. And you connect that to your WiFi router, and you can add an antenna, and you can have all the live TV you could ever want on your iPhone.
GLEN: I’m realizing my assumptions because my world and the people I know have iPhones [dogs barking]. And dogs. I sort of assumed that that was necessarily true. But clearly it’s not. It’s just it’s perhaps becoming more common. So things like the Fire Stick, which do not require some kind of phone, is a good option.
JUDY: And the Fire Stick’s just so easy. I mean, you just plug it in, and it goes, and it’s – in this book I do talk about how to get each one of these things going. I mean, the Roku, the Roku Express is a $24 device. And it’s got accessibility built in.
GLEN: Were there surprises for you, researching this, things that you didn’t expect?
JUDY: I had fun with the part of the book where I talk about – there’s two chapters in the book where I talk about kind of audio description elsewhere, you know, movie theaters, live theater, museums, national parks, live events, all that kind of thing. And then there’s a section where I talk about education, and airlines, describing current events. Well, the describing current events part was quite fun because I got into audio description podcasts. And there are podcasts about audio description, but then there are podcasts describing things.
And it turns out there’s a podcast called Talk Description to Me that they – a blind woman and a describer go through different topics. And they go through topics like the Mars Rover and Ingenuity, and topics like the Suez Canal and this boat that got stuck. It was so interesting. I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely fascinated.
GLEN: I’m just fascinated by the fact that folks are doing this.
JUDY: They are. And then I didn’t know what a meme was. I mean, maybe that’s the particular rock that I live under, but I didn’t know what a meme was.
GLEN: No, we live under similar rocks.
JUDY: Well, then I discovered a podcast called Say That Meme or something like that. Anyway, they describe five memes in each podcast on different themes. And I listened to a few episodes, and I still wasn’t very taken by what a meme was. Apparently they take a picture of something and put it in other contexts that make it humorous. Till I finally heard about a meme that I thought was actually funny, and I got it. And the meme is a bottle washes up on shore, and it has a message in it, and the message is “I’ve been trying to reach you about your vehicle warranty.” And that was the meme that actually finally made sense to me. You know, I totally got that one.
GLEN: I was actually fascinated by the part in your book talking about describing live theater and really having a describer sitting in a soundproof booth somewhere, trying to keep up pace with the action.
JUDY: They do that. We have the Kennedy Center here in D.C., and I have been to described live theater. And it actually works quite well.
GLEN: And they give you headphones?
GLEN: Another place you can get headphones is movie theaters; right?
JUDY: Well, yeah, but...
GLEN: I mean, I sort of knew this conceptually, but I’ve never tried it.
JUDY: Oh, I’ve done that a lot. And the difficult part in movie theaters is I would say for us maybe 25% of the time the headphones are not tuned to the – they’re tuned to assisted listening or something else, or a different movie theater. And it’s really funny because you can get a headset that’s actually tuned to the one next door, so you hear that movie being described and not the one you’re sitting at.
JUDY: So you have to – I have figured out that the way to deal with this is to get the cell phone number of the movie theater and just call them. “I’m in Theater 6, and our headset is not working.”
GLEN: That’s great because then you can still continue to listen to the movie without missing it while you go wait in line.
GLEN: And you can get the reactions of your fellow patrons saying, “Don’t use the cell phone in the theater.”
JUDY: Well, usually you can tell before the movie actually starts.
GLEN: Is it true that the technology often used for audio description is the same one that’s used for second language, and so the people who are creating something basically choose, do I give this a second language, or do I give it audio description?
JUDY: Yes. It is true. And that’s likely to change in the relatively near future. There’s been talk for many years about having more than one secondary audio program. So let’s have a tertiary audio program, or whatever the next one is. And there’s been talk about that. It’s actually being tested in some areas.
GLEN: What’s the intersection of audio description and non-English content?
JUDY: That’s a good question. Apple is certainly dealing with that in a major way. And Disney+. There are instances where there is non-English audio description that you pair with your non-English content. But you have to do it separately. So you select the language of the audio description when you select audio languages, and then your phone or your device is playing whatever language you choose to have it play. So you could have non-English audio description while you’re listening to English content.
GLEN: I was fascinated by the section in your book, and I can’t remember what it related to, where you could have audio description playing on your phone or other personal device that got synced to content that other people were listening to without the audio description.
JUDY: Yes. There’s an app that does this. It’s from Spectrum TV. It’s called Spectrum Access. And there are hundreds of movies on it. And I actually tried it. I had trouble finding a movie that wasn’t on some other service. And if I was going to get a movie, I was going to do one that didn’t exist anywhere else. But I finally found the description of “My Left Foot,” which is about a guy whose disability is so severe that he can only use some movement of his left foot. And so I downloaded that movie from iTunes, played it on my Apple TV, had my phone listen to it, and then it started speaking the audio description. It took a full minute, maybe more, to actually sync. But once it did, it stayed together perfectly for the whole movie.
GLEN: It’s odd that they would have access to any audio description that’s not available elsewhere on a movie.
JUDY: The whole – this is one of the real sad and difficult things about audio description. There have been instances, I mean, ever since 2018, virtually every movie in the movie theater is described. And yet when it shows up on iTunes or Amazon Prime or wherever, it may or may not have description with it. And it has to do with the rights because the audio description rights don’t go with the movie. And it’s a very, very complex process that is apparently a long way from being solved.
GLEN: Who is the nutcase who came up with that licensing agreement?
JUDY: Yeah, right.
GLEN: What else are you going to do with audio descriptions if it doesn’t go with the movie?
JUDY: That’s a good question.
GLEN: How about crowd sourcing of audio description? Has any of that happened?
JUDY: There is an app called YouDescribe. And this was originally developed at Smith-Kettlewell in San Francisco. And the YouDescribe app is a crowd-sourcing of YouTube videos description. So if you want something, a YouTube video described, all you do is go into the app and put it on your request list, and then some volunteer describer will pick it up, eventually, and describe it.
And they do the descriptions, the describer has a choice of doing it in one of two ways. They can either do traditional audio description, where they try to fit the words into the pauses, which is very, very difficult for an amateur to do, and without special software and so forth. But they also have what’s called “enhanced audio description.” And that’s where the playback pauses, the audio description is inserted, and then the playback continues. And that works pretty well because amateurs can do that fairly readily.
GLEN: It is interesting that how much audio description there is is based usually on how much silence there is. And that may or may not be a good guide for how much you actually need.
JUDY: Well, sometimes they – if you watched the Apple WWDC presentation on Monday, it was audio described. And they would put people’s names as a new person was presenting, or some such. And it was shoehorned into the silence. I mean, it was so compact and compressed, it was amazing. They had to have done that with a very, very, very fine splicer.
GLEN: How come it brings to mind the end of these commercials for a medication you didn’t know you wanted? And then they basically tell you you’re going to die in about 87 ways in two seconds?
JUDY: Oh, and they do it, and they speed it up.
GLEN: Yes. Yes. It reminds me of that.
JUDY: I haven’t ever seen speeded-up audio description. I don’t know, I mean, I probably shouldn’t give them any ideas. They might try it. Because there would certainly be people would have issues with that.
GLEN: Yeah. Is there anything about audio description that I have not asked you, that you think is worth bringing up here?
JUDY: It’s complex. I certainly understand that a lot of people don’t use it and are intimidated by it because it is complicated. But I think if you just approach it by device: I’m going to take this one device, and I’m going to figure out how to get audio description from one thing. And listen to that, and see if it works. And if you like that, then you can take that same device and get audio description maybe for another service. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, there’s loads of free audio description on Prime Video. And there’s lots of other, I mean, it doesn’t have to be expensive.
GLEN: The book is “Audio Description: What It Is, Where to Find It, and How to Use It.” It’s available through National Braille Press?
JUDY: In braille, in electronic braille, in Word, in Daisy formats, from National Braille Press. It’s a one-volume braille book.
GLEN: Thank you very much for joining us. This was great, and I look forward to talking to you when your next book comes out. Not that there will be one.
JUDY: Thank you. Well, I’ve already signed a contract for the next book.
GLEN: Are you giving any sneak peeks?
GLEN: That’s really cool.
JUDY: Now, for all my other books I’ve actually done the thing. Do I have to do this?
GLEN: Yes, I think that’s part of it. It gives you credibility.
GLEN: Well, thank you, Judy.
JUDY: Thank you.
GLEN: With me now is award-winning math professor Betsey Doane. She spent over 30 years teaching math courses and coordinating the computer science transfer program at Housatonic Community College in Connecticut. She has received Teacher of the Year as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work. Now in retirement she continues to teach, but now she’s teaching blind students in coordination with Dr. Denise Robinson and TechVision, helping blind students through their high school math courses. Betsey, welcome to the podcast.
BETSEY DOANE: Well, thank you, Glen. Yes, I do some of that work on the side. I still teach at the college, online now, even though I’m retired.
GLEN: So you can take the teacher out of math, but you can’t take the math out of the teacher, apparently.
BETSEY: I really enjoy my work.
GLEN: Was math something that you remember being interested in really young? How did that all come about?
BETSEY: Oh, I really was. And actually I got my main interest from a class in high school. And we went to Notre Dame High School as seniors. And this nun who taught pre-calculus was just amazing. And I was so excited about it that when I went to college I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And I thought when I started teaching that everybody knew what they wanted to do, and I found out that that’s not the case. But I sure did. I knew then that I wanted to teach math.
GLEN: You were working in Nemeth for the most part yourself, right, at that point?
BETSEY: Yes, I was.
GLEN: Nemeth is not a terribly visual or layout-oriented way of presenting math. It seems like it’s much more linear. And so I’m curious if the way you learned things and understood things was sort of fundamentally different than the way your sighted friends needed to comprehend it. Did you need to do any kind of translation?
BETSEY: Oh, that’s an interesting question. When I studied what Dr. Nemeth wrote, he always stressed the need to understand the print context from the braille. In other words, there had to be direct translation. So for a vertical fraction, for example, you use the open fraction indicator, et cetera. And you had to understand that the numerator was on top, the denominator was on the bottom.
And so when I started transitioning to developing my transparencies for the sighted world, I did check to see how all of that was laid out. And I learned that numerator and denominator had to be centered with respect to the fraction line. So I paid attention to how mathematics was written, especially as I thought about teaching, and even in my work as a student because I wanted to be able to present my material if we had seminars and the like.
GLEN: In your student days, how did you present? Did you dictate to someone, and they transcribed it? Or even back then were you coming up with creative ways?
BETSEY: Well, in my early days as a student, yes, I would have to dictate and transcribe. But later on I typed my master’s using an electric typewriter. Now, the ribbon came through a slot, if you remember. And what you had to do is solder another piece. Think of two vertical pieces. And those pieces were soldered perpendicular to the slot that the ribbon came through. That went on the typewriter. Now, they were these pieces that technical typists used, and they were called “Typits.” So I had a set of about 35 or 40 Typits in a special box, and each one went into a slot. And I made a chart of that whole Typit box. So I knew which symbol was where.
Anytime I did a subscript, the roller had to go down one half space. A superscript, the roller had to come up one half space. When I wanted a special math symbol, it had to be picked up. It had to go into that vertical slot. And then you pressed the letter G or H. The key from the typewriter came up and hit a spring on the front of this and printed the symbol. Once that symbol was printed, that Typit had to come out of the machine, put back in the holder, and then I continued. And the next time I needed it, it had to go back. So sometimes it was pretty tedious to make a proper perfect master for the transparency.
GLEN: And that implies that you did everything else perfectly because, if you made some other mistake, or you put the wrong symbol in, didn’t you essentially have to go back to the beginning of that transparency and do it again?
BETSEY: I had to tear the master up and redo it. Yup. If there was a mistake, then the master, which was a regular piece of paper in the typewriter, had to be torn up, and you started over, redo the page so that, when you ran it through the 3M machine to make the transparency, it came out great. Yup. And then the graphs at that time were drawn by hand. I had someone do it. Actually my dad did some of them using drafting tools.
BETSEY: So I wanted them looking nice because really I had some very well-formatted masters. I knew that my presentations had to look really good in order, you know, I wanted to keep my job, and I wanted to do well. So I made them look good. Everything got centered. When you had to do big sums with capital Greek letters and stuff directly under it and stuff directly over it, everything had to be centered. And everything had to be over the equal sign or under the equal sign, which meant you had to count, do the arithmetic, find the center, and figure it out.
GLEN: When did you first start using computers?
BETSEY: I started really with a calculator. I started with a TI-59, a programmable calculator that had a drive in it, and you could store programs on a little magnetic card. And the first thing I did is I wondered how one would program it. So I had no input that I could read, and I had no output that I could read. So I wrote down the layout of all the keys. And then I read a book on how to write a little program because I wanted to write something that would teach the math theory to people going into calculus. How could I write something to do that?
So I read this little book about how to program. And then I wondered, oh, my gosh, it said to add you do x = x + 1. And I said, oh, my gosh. How could I do that? If I do that, I’m going to get 0 = 1 if you solve that little equation. Then I learned, oh, no, it means the new address is the old address plus one. So I was then on my way. And the first thing I did was to write a program to find the area under a curve that had a little parabola and had the boundaries, a little baby parabola. And I said, if I could do this, it just requires adding. And then adding more pieces, and then adding more pieces and more pieces and more pieces and more pieces until you get the answer. And that would show people about the concept of limit. And so I did that. And I would run to my grandmother to read the answer. And when it came out right, I was overjoyed.
GLEN: So what was the output of the program? What was the part that the students saw?
BETSEY: Well, of course the main output was the answer. But then I bought a little baby printer that came with it. As I added pieces to the program, I told it to output each of the partial sums. So now the students could see the answers come closer and closer and closer together.
GLEN: And what did you do? Take those pieces of paper and turn them into a transparency or something?
BETSEY: No, no. I had the calculator and the printer right in the classroom, and we did it live. And then I told them – and then I took the paper out, and I showed them, and said pass it around. See, look, look at this. Or I might have even put part of it on the projector. But we just passed it around so they could see, or they could even come up and watch it go. It was fun.
GLEN: That actually – that brings to mind sort of a side topic, which is typically math teachers do a lot of writing on the board, expositorily in response to student questions.
BETSEY: Oh. When I would go into the classroom, my first day I would walk in, and I would say – you know, they would see me approach the desk, and I would get things set up. I had to project, you know, things to do. So I would introduce myself, and I would say that “I’ve been teaching for many years and love teaching. You probably can figure out already that I can’t see. Don’t raise your hand because you’ll be waiting for a long time before I see it.”
So I would smile, and I’d say, “Now, look, the way we do this, we are all a community of learners, you and me together. So I’m going to say what I write, and you’re going to go to the board, and you’re going to say what you write. And no one will ever be embarrassed at the board. This is going to be fun and easy. And you don’t have to worry about a thing because, if you get stuck, we’ll help you. And sometimes you could go to the board and give me a hand and write something down. So no worries. Not one single worry about going to the board.”
And you know what? Some of the students, even those who had trouble, they would actually run up, “I want to try it, Professor either Lombardi or Doane. I want to try this. I want to try this.” And they’d run up to the board and try it, and maybe get stuck, and we’d all help them. And they felt so victorious. Oh my gosh. We had fun.
GLEN: Back to the topic of technology, how did you start using more of it?
BETSEY: I went to a math conference, and I found that some professors were using computers in the classroom. And I came home, and I said to my husband, actually I felt very bad because I thought that that would never happen for me. How would I ever do this? And then we bought the Apple, and the output was in Morse code because I’m a ham radio operator, as is my twin, Barbara, and I used Raised Dot Computing’s Braille-Edit software, created by Dave Holladay and Caryn Navy. And they had a program called MathematiX, M A T H E M A T I X. And that worked with Braille-Edit. And the interesting thing is you could use TeleSensory’s braille terminal called the VersaBraille that could be connected to a computer. You could actually write the Nemeth code, and we could print our math. And then I could create transparencies from that printed output.
But then after the Apple, of course, I went on to the PC. And I wondered, how am I going to do PowerPoints? So I googled that, and I came up with this interesting process. I ran into a Ph.D. student in Israel, and he was writing a program called IguanaTex, I G U A N A T E X. He named it because he liked iguanas. Now, this involves, it’s called LaTeX. It’s spelled L A T E X, but we say “LaTec,” which is a text-based way of writing mathematics. You start it with a dollar sign, and you learn how to do it. It’s pretty easy.
But he wrote a program that, if I installed his database, I could use this language to do my PowerPoints. And I did. And it was beautiful. It was error correcting. It was actually a compiler. And I did that. Now, they weren’t accessible, but I knew what I was writing, so I had my braille notes, and I knew what was on every slide. And I could actually create mathematics on PowerPoints.
GLEN: That must have been profoundly liberating, after doing that stuff with a typewriter, and you had to throw the transparencies away? To write something in a form that could be saved, and you could generate and tweak it after someone looked at it? That must have been great.
BETSEY: Well, yeah. It was great. And I could actually do it right in the classroom. So now I’ve got the computer in the classroom. I’m in Word. And you know what? I would present the problems to the class. And I might ask them to do something. I said, “Okay, I’m going to do it, but you do it, too. And then we’ll compare our answers. And don’t look at me. I’m just going to write my little code.” So I would. I finish my code. I select it. I do an ALT+/ and just like magic it turns into graphical math. And they loved it. They would see this code on the screen, and all of a sudden they’d see all the good math and all the graphics come up.
And then of course there came MathType. And with MathType we could do the same thing. And I could then read the mathematics, and now we can read it with JAWS. And not only can we read it, now we can write in Nemeth code and come out with graphical mathematics. So you can use your Focus Braille Display to write your code in Nemeth code and then come out with the graphical mathematics on the screen.
GLEN: And it turns out you can actually use any braille display that works with JAWS to do the same thing.
BETSEY: I am very excited about what Vispero has done with this Math Editor because it will allow students from a young age to really communicate with teachers; and then college students, as well, who are taking courses in math, communicate with their teachers and with parents about how they’re doing their mathematics because there is a viewer, and people can visually see what the student is doing. And there’s no replacement for that. This is wonderful work, wonderful, wonderful.
GLEN: Comparatively, how easy is it to write the math using Nemeth code versus inserting symbols using the keyboard in MathType?
BETSEY: I’m so used to it because I do it in Blackboard, as well. Blackboard has an absolutely wonderful editor that allows you to use the LaTeX with a double dollar sign in front and in back. And you don’t have to do any translation. It’ll come out right in JAWS, and it’ll come out right for the sighted person on the screen just from the text editor. You don’t even have to go into the math editor in Blackboard.
GLEN: So when would you encourage someone to enter their math in braille versus using LaTeX code?
BETSEY: I think when they start taking advanced work in high school, certainly, and maybe Algebra II and pre-calc. You know, especially if they’re going to go on into sciences and take a lot of math, I want them to learn that.
GLEN: If you’re trying to explain math to someone who’s sighted, is there anything fundamentally different in some areas than explaining it to someone who’s blind?
BETSEY: Certainly for the blind student in graphing they need models. Some blind students have a hard time understanding raised line graphs. So lately I’ve been using the graphing calculator Desmos with the audio graph. And they can use the Orion graphing calculator, which is wonderful also. That’s a talking graphing calculator, and you get audio graphs from that.
GLEN: But that’s a standalone device?
BETSEY: That is. And then the Desmos is an Internet-based graphing calculator that both sighted and blind students use to present their graphs. And blind students can learn how to export that graph and bring it right into Word and come up with very well-presented material to their sighted colleagues. And that’s what we do at TechVision with Dr. Robinson. In fact, one of my students was a Student of the Month in February. She worked with Your Tech Vision. And Campbell was the student. You can read about her in the blog. And she studied AP Calculus as a high school student, and I helped her through that.
GLEN: I remember Campbell’s piece on the Student of the Month. It had a little excerpt of you talking about how it was so wonderful to find a student who really loves math and really gets it, and that she’s one of those students.
BETSEY: She was excited about calculus, as was I. I remember sitting in a calculus class. And, you know, the professor stated a theorem, and I was so excited about it, I was ready to just jump out of my chair. And so, yes, Campbell was very excited because she had studied pre-calc, and she understood how everything she learned led into this. And so it was exciting. I also taught a student geometry last year. I had only the braille book on the braille display. But she was so astute at describing the pictures that we got through the geometry course, and she did beautifully. Oh, my gosh, beautifully. We had an interesting time, and I learned a lot, too. It was just wonderful fun.
GLEN: To what degree is math pretty much learnable by anybody, and to what degree does someone need to have, quote, an ”aptitude”?
BETSEY: First of all, there’s a lot of stuff about math anxiety out there. So we need to relax a bit. And I think people need to be taught in the way they view numbers and in the way they conceive numbers and view graphs. It’s hard for some. But I think there is certainly something to say about an intuitive notion. I mean, I’m not intuitive about poetry. I can’t do that. My sister can. She understands all that. My twin gets it. I don’t understand some of the imagery in literature. And she doesn’t understand some of the math things that I do. So some of it is always intuition, no matter what subject it is, I think.
GLEN: You probably got really good at explaining things in lots of different ways when teaching.
BETSEY: It’s interesting that when I teach, I’ll get a new idea, just as I talk about something. And it’ll come to me, something exciting will come to me, and I just – then I just try it out. And even in my classroom, sometimes I would tell the students, you know, I want to – “Do you mind if I play? Let me play a minute. Because I think this might work.” And they’d love it. “Oh, yes, Professor, yes, yes, please do play.” And of course they thought I would give them a break, but I never gave them a break.
GLEN: Work disguised as play.
BETSEY: Right. But learning is play. I try to tell them learning is play.
GLEN: How do you like teaching online?
BETSEY: Oh, I love it. I do. I’m very organized about it. I have created an accessible math course. The thing I don’t know how to do is close caption it. We can close caption, but I can’t edit the captions, and you can’t depend on the caption editors to handle the mathematics. You just can’t.
GLEN: Yeah. Well, you can depend on it. They’re going to handle it wrong.
BETSEY: Oh, very wrong. F of X comes out as E F F E C T S. So you can’t – and you can’t edit every line. And you can’t even edit because, you know, the timelines. And I don’t know an accessible program that I can use to do that. So if anyone out there knows how to do it, please let me know. I’d love it. But my math course for a visually impaired student is accessible.
GLEN: And what classes are you teaching online these days?
BETSEY: In my retirement, I’ve been teaching pretty much just the review Algebra. Nothing hard. You know, I don’t want to spend a lot of time at it in prep. But I would teach anything that they ask, like pre-calc and the statistics. I use MyMathLab with it.
GLEN: I assume once you’re prepared, doing it from year to year, the materials don’t change a lot? Or do you end up revising every year?
BETSEY: A good teacher will revise every year. You revise some. You tweak stuff. You make things better. You want to add discussion. You want to add certain things that will make things more interesting. I typically find out what the students are interested in and try to find problems that capture their interest. So if many students are in the health field, then I want to find problems in the medical arena.
GLEN: Well, thank you, Betsey. I’m glad you joined us on FSCast. I knew you’d have some great stories, and you did not disappoint.
BETSEY: Could I give my email?
BETSEY: Okay. My email is K as in kilowatt, number one – so it’s K1 – E as in Echo, I as in Item, C as in Charlie, at A T T, that’s alpha tango tango, dot net: firstname.lastname@example.org.
GLEN: Well, thank you for being with us on the podcast, Betsey. This was a lot of fun.
BETSEY: Oh, it was fun for me, too. It’s a real privilege, and thank you for inviting me.
GLEN: Betsey mentioned Campbell, who was our February Student of the Month. We have a blog post and video featuring Campbell. And you can find that by doing a search in your favorite search engine for “Freedom Scientific Student of the Month Campbell,” C A M P B E L L. And the blog post, at least for me, was the second hit of my search.
That’s going to do it for FSCast 201. I’m Glen Gordon. See you near the end of July.