These tools help visually impaired scientists read data and journals

Nearly 240 data scientists have shown themselves capable enough to become certified instructors for the ‘tidyverse’, a popular package to manipulate and visualize data in R programming language. JooYoung Seo is unique among them — the first blind instructor to gain certification.

Most Users of tidyverse present data in the form graphs and charts. Seo, an information- and learning scientist at University This is Illinois At Urbana–ChampaignThe glaucoma caused by glaucoma led to the loss of his sight at the age of ten. He now uses touch, sound, and speech. He One of a growing number of researchers who are working to make science more accessible for people with reduced vision. “The overarching challenge is that content is visually designed,” Seo says. “But visualization is only one of the representation methods. We can represent data in multimodal ways.”

There Although it is difficult to estimate how many scientists have low vision today, a 2020 study will.1 We found that less than 100 of the 52,124 applicants for funding from USA were successful. National Institutes This is Health In 2018, the National Institute of Health (NIH), self-identified as having a vision impairment. “It’s a fraction of a fraction,” Says Bonnielin SwenorDr., an epidemiologist and director at the Disability Research Center at Johns Hopkins University In Baltimore, MarylandThat work was led and directed by. That’s far short of the total number of scientists with vision disabilities, Swenor Because of ableist barriers, many scientists are unable to apply for research grants. And it’s an even smaller fraction of the number of individuals with visual disabilities overall: in 2017, some 7 million people in the United States 2.17 percent of the population lived with them. ‘uncorrectable’ Loss of vision or blindness2. “If the goal is parity with prevalence in the US — which I argue it should be — we aren’t close,” She says.

Avoiding workarounds

That’s in part because, all too often, even the most basic research activities — accessing the literature, submitting papers, attending conferences and reviewing manuscripts — require time-intensive, personalized workarounds. “Blind scientists probably have a way that works for them,” Says Daniel HajasA manager of innovation at the Global Disability Innovation Hub At University College London Who works to bring assistive technologies to market. “But it’s not generalizable and it took them a long time to get there.”

SwenorDegenerative retinal disease is a condition in which a person with retinopathy (degenerative eye damage) recalls that her mentor at the beginning of her career told her that she would need to work four times harder than her sighted colleagues in order to be successful in science. “That should not be the path, for anyone,” She says. But Science is becoming more accessible. New tools are available to help.

People People with poor visual acuity can use screen readers to convert digital text into synthesized text or tactile text.Braille) display.

Screen Digital documents can be navigated using tags that identify the elements, such as headings, figures, tables, and footnotes. But Because they lack tags, PDF files are frequently misunderstood by the devices. The Two-column formats, commonly used in journals, can be confusing to screen readers. Screen readers read from left and right across a page. PDFs can be made accessible, but it’s challenging to do and many publishers haven’t got there yet. “Improving PDF accessibility requires changes to culture, systems and processes that can be challenging for publishers to achieve,” Says Jude RobinsonA global leader for Springer Nature Digital In London. “We are committed, however, to doing this.” (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

An SciA11y is an online toolThe aforementioned was developed by Allen Institute For Artificial Intelligence (AI2) Seattle, WashingtonMachine learning is used to extract the structure and content of PDFs (and other file formats such as LaTeX) from HTML and to render it in HTML. This creates a table with contents that contains links to section headings and can be navigated using screen readers. AI2 also includes bidirectional navigation between inline citations (and their corresponding references) in the bibliography. Jonathan BraggCo-leads this project with.

In An in-depth survey3Six scientists suffering from vision loss shared their experiences with PDFs. One Respondents stated that they have encountered problems approximately two-thirds the time. They also mentioned that they use at minimum six different approaches when reading papers. “It was eye-opening to see the range of tools that people use when reading — and the struggles they have when those papers have not been formulated appropriately,” Bragg says.

At the moment, SciA11y — ‘a11y’ It is Internet shorthand for accessibility — is an online demo: researchers can upload PDFs to re-render them in HTML. But The team continues to work on key functionality. Bragg says. For The software can still make mistakes. For example, it sometimes fails to extract headings and leaves them as body text in HTML. It There are also issues with images and tables, which is currently a focus of development.

In SciA11y does not have to be considered in this regard. For visually impaired people tables and images pose challenges that are harder than text. Precious little scientific literature — whether in PDF, HTML or another format — includes textual descriptions of figures, called alt text, that would enable a blind or low-vision person to understand the images. What’s more, it’s not always clear what sort of explanation would be most relevant. “There are different schools of thought,” Says Amy BowerA blind physical oceanographer at The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution In Massachusetts. “Should you just describe what’s there, or should you add the interpretation?”

Some Researchers include BowerYou can solve the problem by working with sighted translators. Hajas Collaboration with researchers at Massachusetts Institute This is Technology In Cambridge Others to design OlliScreen-reader interface that allows users to navigate up and down different levels of description — from a single sentence explaining a figure’s main takeaway, to a more detailed characterization of the axes and legend, to the actual data values from which it is built. Olli Supports basic chart types such as scatterplots or bar charts. Hajas According to the team, they are currently working on new features such as heat maps.

Seo He is also working on a data visualization tool. The tool, called the multimodal access and interactive data representation system (MAIDR), encodes data as both sounds — termed sonification — and BrailleProvides tactile analysis using a refreshable Braille display. “I can hear the trend of the data in sound, and feel the pattern,” Seo says.

Experiencing Data through touch can be particularly powerful, according to Mona MinkaraA computational chemist and a bioengineer, Northeastern University In Boston, MassachusettsAs a young girl, she began to lose her eyesight. Minkara A 2022 study was co-authored by the two of us4 It is described as data represented by 3D-printed graphics known as lithophanes. Produced from plastic thin enough for light to shine through, lithophanes can encode multiple forms of chemical and life-science data — for example, a scanning electron micrograph of a butterfly wing, the bands of an electrophoresis gel or the ultraviolet spectrum of a protein. The She says technology allows her and her sighted colleagues in the laboratory to work with the same data simultaneously.

Feeling A change in the protein function of your fingers can be interpreted as a difference between thickness and strength. “adds a layer of knowledge”She said that it doesn’t matter if a researcher can see the change visually. “It’s going to embed into your imagination and be more a part of you, so you understand it on a deeper level.”

Sonification This is another way scientists with visual impairments can communicate their ideas. ‘see’ Data, such as in astronomy. “We are used to thinking that astronomy is a visual science, but most of the data that we get are just numbers,” Says Anita Zanella, an astronomer from the Italian National Institute For Astrophysics In Rome. “We translate them into images because that’s a way for us to make sense of them”But, the ears are more adept at detecting faint signals. By translating numerical values into sounds with certain parameters — for example, a star’s brightness might be encoded as pitch — researchers can home in on important changes5.

Researchers in genomics And Geology Sonification is also being explored, but shared principles and standards for scientists that would allow them to compare data in auditory formats remain in development. Zanella says. StillYou can use the simple online tools such as the Highcharts Sonification StudioThe following was created at the Georgia Institute This is Technology In AtlantaIt allows researchers from any field to upload data, and explore ways to display them aurally.

In Many researchers interviewed for this article said that in addition to the new tools, attitudes have changed significantly over five years. Developers and researchers now focus more on accessibility. And In the United StatesAccessibility has been prioritized by at least some federal funding agencies. On 30 DecemberThe NIH published recommendations (see for breaking down ableism and creating equitable and inclusive research practices. (Swenor co-chaired the NIH’s Subgroup On Individuals With Disabilities(The proposals were developed by.

But To be truly successful in research with vision loss, tools must evolve beyond individual efforts. Hajas says. “Unless we make the whole ecosystem accessible — how to find articles, how to read the text, how to access the diagrams and everything else — there will be missing pieces that essentially disable people from becoming good scientists,” He says.

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