While screen readers can help the visually impaired read text, they struggle with figures. There’s nothing a text reader can do to help them visualize graphs and diagrams. All that might be about to change thanks to 3D printing.
When postdoc Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer wants to read a journal article, he has to run through an obstacle course of potential problems. First, the Yale University physical chemist downloads the PDF and copies it into a separate text file. Then, he uses a screen reader to read each sentence aloud, going slowly because the reader often doesn’t recognize complicated scientific terms. Sometimes the column formatting doesn’t copy over correctly and the reader ends up dictating a jumbled mess. Sometimes it includes every single reference number; sometimes it stops midsentence to read out an advertisement.
But the biggest struggle is always the figures. There’s nothing a text reader can do to help him visualize them. He has some vision, so by magnifying a graph or diagram up to 1000% he can see one tiny fragment of the visual at a time, eventually piecing together a patchwork picture in a process he compares to the story of the blind men and the elephant. But usually it isn’t worth the effort, and he hopes whatever text description the authors gave of the figure is enough.