Making physics more accessible for everyone

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Today is the fifth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), raising awareness of the issues around digital technology and accessibility.

GAAD is about promoting, shaping, influencing communities who are interested in making technology accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.

While there is often a lot of interest in this area, many people don’t know where to start.

Today, as part of GAAD, I’m promoting two new projects that the diversity team are working on to raise awareness of the issues around accessible maths, which is often a real challenge.

English is linear. It’s the nature of the words and letters arranged on a line in the right order that forms a sentence, and it’s quite easy to make documents accessible to assistive technology, such as screenreaders, to allow those who can’t read documents directly to still understand their content. Word even has a built-in function that can navigate the uninitiated through a quick check to make sure it’s screenreader-accessible for future audiences.

Maths, however, is non-linear. It’s the relationship between the letters and numbers that determine the functions. It’s the position of the 2 in relation to the x that determines whether you multiply or square, and many screenreaders can’t even read that kind of simple equation.

There’s a lot of technology out there to address this problem, but it’s confusing to know who should use what, when and where. There are few experts who understand the issue at all. So, it’s lucky for us that we are working with a couple of them to help address some of the real barriers to participation in physics.

Our major initiative this year is to work with physics higher education (HE) departments to look at how they can adopt a more inclusive learning environment. This project has been pre-empted by major changes in the way disabled students in England are being funded to study in HE from this September, and we want to encourage physics departments to look at their environment and address some of the barriers to disabled students holistically.

We’ll be visiting departments to discuss with them how we can support them to be more inclusive and then how we can disseminate and spread good practice further.

We are also working with the University of Bath to create an online maths accessibility resource. We hope this semantic wiki, a fully searchable database, will become a valuable information exchange for all those interested in maths accessibility – for disabled students and those working with them. Look out for more details later in the year when we launch it.

It’s exciting times ahead for us working on making physics more accessible. Please do get in touch with me if you want any more information or are invested in any of the issues we’ve raised.

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Jenni Dyer

Jenni Dyer

Jenni is the head of the diversity team at the Institute of Physics.
Jenni Dyer

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