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Struggles of Learning Math as a Blind


Now, given my various articles on the difficulties I have written on this blog, you might think that “Oh, Tanish is just here to whine again.”

Well, you’re right. I’m here to do that, the whining, I mean. The only thing I can ask of you is just please hear me (or read me) out.

Math is one of those things in which you either get it, or you don’t. You might be so good at it that everything comes easy to you. Or you might be so bad that you dread the math tests, or the very thought of picking up a math book. And to some extent, that fear is understandable. You can’t get away with just memorizing a bunch of stuff in math. The subject is highly practical, and it gives you the answer depending upon how you solve it.

Just like a computer. A computer doesn’t care about what you mean by “Something”. It only cares to give the output which makes sense to give to the user (you), depending upon your input.

Math is just like that as well. And both of them are unforgivable.

So, despite that, there are students who take interest in this subject is something really awesome. And yet, there are some unfortunates like me.

First, some background:

In my boarding school of horror days, I was introduced to math. At first, it was verbal counting and such. After which, we were taught with these tactile slates used for math, called Taylor Frames. They are different from a normal braille slate. You don’t have any dots on paper in this system. Instead, you get a slate in which you get sells. The size of the slate is determined by the number of cells. For example, it comes in the variety of 18 X 25 cells, and I also have seen 24 X 25 cells.

If you have trouble understanding this, consider this. You’ve got a table, consider filling it with round small holes. You’ve got 18 sells from horizontally, and 25 sells from vertically. (You can take a look at one here.)

We used types, which are inserted into these cells. The types have a cut at the top of them in a straight line. Depending on where that cut points, a number from 1 to 8 is created. For example, to write number 1, you’ll point the cut at the right side upwards diagonally, and to write number 2, you’ll point it at the right side, straight.

The bottom of the type had two dots, and again that straight line. Here, if you put the type in the style of 1, you’ll create 9, and if you put it in the style of 2, you’ll create 0. The rest are the signs, like plus, minus, divide and multiply, decimal, and equal.

You might ask, “Why use such a complicated system for doing math? Just use normal braille.”

And you would be correct. Braille can be done with math. But we were never taught to do math with braille, aside from writing numbers. Still, to this day, I don’t know how to write the signs for the mathematical operations in braille.

But this system was advantageous for schools. You see, paper on which braille can be written, it is not easy to provide for schools. And once used, it can’t be used again. Whereas these types can be easily removed and inserted.

Since we weren’t taught braille math, books written for math using braille remained useless to us. We were completely dependent on the teachers for guidance.

I was taught math with the use of this apparatus. Although we were taught some abacus for a while; it didn’t last. As such, the Taylor Frame remained the primary way of doing math. And soon, it became an instrument of pain for me.

I never hated math. I still don’t hate it. In fact, I like it compared to other subjects. Mostly because you don’t need to memorize stuff so much. Once you know the steps to solve a particular problem, you can solve it no matter the values.

Until I was beaten. As I already stated, we were quite dependent on the teachers for the math. And since the math classes were irregular for us, the older students of the boarding school took the responsibility for “Teaching” us.

Meaning, I was beaten by the lid of my own slate.

The Taylor Frame comes with a small vertical compartment. This is where the types are kept, when they’re not in use. This is covered by a small removable lid, usually made of metal. And when I failed to get the correct answer, (because apparently, I wasn’t taught the concept of digits, and how one digit is at 1’s place, or the other is at 10’s place.) I was struck with this same metal lid on my palms because of that. As a result, I would have trouble actually clenching my hand the next day. Of course, this wasn’t the only way me and kids of my age were being beaten by other students in the name of teaching. They also slapped our ears hard enough that we’ll experience temporary hearing loss. (As a result, I am very protective of my ears.)

I just kept giving wrong answers, and as a result, just kept getting the shit beaten out of me for it. By the time I reached the fifth standard, my will to learn math had died. And it remained dead until I passed my school, and entered my college. And by that point, it was too late.

Or was it?

Trying to learn math after school:

Now, I still ran from math after my school was over, mainly because government exams asked for quantitative aptitude for bureaucrat positions. (Which is bullshit. The old generation can justify it all they want. Their minds have been poisoned!) but since I started to do programming, and read the book Coders at Work, (a book which I definitely recommend,) I realize just how much math underpins computer science.

That, and it kind of started to get on my nerves that I couldn’t do anything beyond the basic four operations. So, I started to relearn math, this time, with the full assistance of a computer. And what I meant by this is that, I got some math books on my system, and I started to read them.

And then I ran into another problem. I tried books from the Dummies series, starting with Prealgebra for Dummies. Most of the books released in the last decade, they are really unfriendly for a visually impaired guy like me. instead of writing numbers and equations like this:

4 + 2 * 3 = 10

They instead put these on a screenshot or on a photo or something like that. as a result, my screen reader couldn’t do anything, beyond telling me that there is a photo / screenshot / diagram on this page.

That isn’t all. The fractions were always (Always!) were explained through some graphically cut or shaded piece, which again, I couldn’t tell. You can’t imagine just how much I ranted and raved on my screen because of this. Because you might think that a question like, “What part of this (Insert an image here,) is shaded?” a perfectly normal question, to me, it felt like a torture because I couldn’t answer it no matter what I do. (After all, I didn’t, and still don’t have the correct hardware for solving such problems.)

Next, I tried getting older books. Since they won’t be so graphics heavy, I thought I could work with them. And from what I discussed with people online, they actually agreed that the older books for me from 1960’s onward would be perfectly fine. Just avoid anything beyond 2010.

But then I ran into another problem… (Why am I still here? Just to suffer?)

The old books are not available in electronic format. And though people online assured me that it was fine in my position to buy them and scan them and then convert them into a docx file which I could read, I just knew not only that it might invite legal trouble in the future, the output would just suck. It wouldn’t be worth it. Not only would I have to pay for a paper book which will just sit in the house, I’d have to tell someone else to scan it, and then convert it to docx. And converting to docs is the only thing which I could do by myself. And I will have to pay that person who is scanning a 200- or 300-page long book for me.

So, learning math through electronic books was ruled out.

Why not use the Taylor Frame again?

The thing is, the Taylor Frame is horribly inefficient. Not only can you actually run out of types, (imagine you’re doing a long division problem, and you just run out of types, that happened to me, multiple times! I needed to borrow types from other students, and had to suffer their attitude as a result) You only have some limited space to do your problems. I saw some high school students using two Taylor Frames to solve math problems.

Second, it doesn’t have any magic properties. It doesn’t help me with math. I had to calculate everything in my head, and then put down the numbers on the slate. Not to mention, it doesn’t help with graphs, or other high-level stuff.

So, Taylor Frame was out of the question.

But what about the internet?

So, I wanted something like Duolingo. Tell me the theory behind the certain thing, and throw several problems regarding the concept at me, and I’ll try to solve them, getting better every time.

People recommended me Khan Academy for it, which is good when it comes to the part of practice. But about explaining the theory? It quite frankly sucks.

And that is not the fault of Sal. As a blind guy, I cannot learn anything from videos. And this stands true for anything, whether it is exercise, chess, (No matter how much I enjoy watching Gotham Chess,) or math.

That is because just like when a teacher takes certain things for granted in a classroom while doing math problems on a white board. (Mainly that everyone can see and understand what portion of the equation they are pointing to while saying “Look at this.” “We solve it like this.”) I cannot understand what, exactly they are talking about.

Despite that, I stuck with Khan Academy for a while. But after some time passed, I kind of got fed up, and got frustrated with the videos. Videos are a totally worse way to teach yourself math when you’re blind.

Then, I went back to learning with text, and using Khan Academy for practice only. And I found Lumen Learning. And their free text book on prealgebra, (yes, this is the level I’m stuck at. Feel free to laugh at me,) helped me a lot.

Believe it or not, this approach is working for me for now. But I totally know that it won’t last long, especially when I get to the graphs and stuff. But for now, I’ll kick that problem for my future self to solve, and learn with what I have.

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Published by Tanish Shrivastava

I'm a guy who likes programming, chess, and writing.

7 thoughts on “Struggles of Learning Math as a Blind

  1. Dude, don’t apologize for whining, you’re the one with the disability, so you earned the right to milk that shit for all it’s worth! I think the stories of your challenges are quite interesting and informative especially for those of us who never had to deal with this. I am not very good at math ironically because of vision issues. I started getting near-sighted in third grade and couldn’t read the board anymore. For years I got by through squinting and guessing but as you know very well if the teacher doesn’t explain then you don’t know what’s there on the board. I have no clue how anyone could use that Taylor Frame thing. Major major props to you for learning math on your own.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s so bizarre that the challenges posts don’t do as well! I’m sure once more and more people find your blog, you’ll see a jump in views. The essence of a challenge can be quite universal even if the experience is unique.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I watch Gotham Chess a lot too! And I never did think about the challenges of learning when visually impaired, and now that I rewatch his videos with that in mind, I can see how it’s hard to know what he’s talking about unless he specifically mentions the notations. Thanks for bringing this to light, Tanish, and no, it’s not whining at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article. Honestly, I watch him for his jokes instead of learning chess from him. Because I can learn theory from him, I can’t understand the practical implementation of that theory on the board.


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