You are here

R

A university in Holland is looking for a solution for a blind student who has to take a bachelor/premaster course in statistics. The faculty in question uses SPSS.

Please share experiences and tips:
- is SPSS accessible?
- if not, would you recommend to use R?
- if we use R, does this require extra effort (and how much extra effort) from the side of the teachers, e.g. adapting course material/explanation?

Also please give us your opinion about the (im)possibility of creating a (EU?)statistics course for blind students (using R instead of SPSS) that will offer an equivalent exam allowing blind students to work independently with R during their masters phase and professional life. This would make it much simpler for individual universities/faculties to deal with this question and would at the same time help blind students.

I am posting this comment on behalf of Jonathan Godfrey, who apparently doesn't have a log-in yet. John Gardner.n:
"In a general sense it is always preferable to use the same software as your classmates. Peer support and use of existing class resources are two very good reasons, but the other issue is that the staff for the course may not be comfortable with the alternative software.

The reasons for not using the same software need to be communicated to the course staff by the student and well understood by both.
1. SPSS uses Java in its standard operation. The student may gain sufficient access to the SPSS environment but may not be working in exactly the same manner as their class mates. Menus and dialogue boxes are a classic example of this as we cannot use the mouse to pick and choose options for some statistical techniques.
2. Not all students will have the ability to actually gain access to SPSS via the Java Access Bridge. Not all blind students have the same ability in a non-statistical sense.
3. The SPSS way of working is a very visual way of working. Teaching resources, both printed and oral may well not cater for the needs of the blind student even if the first two hurdles have been overcome.
4. There are not sufficient resources for the keyboard way of working in SPSS, and few staff are likely to understand this way of working as they can use the point and click environment quite adequately.

Should I use R instead?
Only the student can answer this question. The course staff need to give their support in this endeavour. Reasons for using R over the alternative include:
1. R is free so the student can test the water before embarking on the course using this alternative.
2. R is controlled using commands, whether you are blind or sighted.
N.B. There are GUI overlays for R that this comment does not apply to.
3. R gives only two forms of output. The text output in the command window, or graphs in a separate window. Text is easily read by blind students, while the graphs are no more or less accessible than for any other statistical software.
4. As many graphs in R are built on textual information, the user can access the raw input that forms the graph. For example, a simple boxplot uses five numbers in its creation. A blind user can read the five numbers and not need to create the graph itself unless this is for consumption by the sighted world.
5. Sets of R commands are kept in text files called scripts. A small error can be corrected very quickly. Correcting errors of similar kind using a GUI approach is less efficient, and even more so for the blind user. This is especially useful for creation of graphs where the output is not required until a sighted person or other technology is available to peruse the resulting graph. Fixing any blemish is relatively efficient compared to relying on others to use point and click editing that is common for the sighted software user.

Is R the only alternative?
Certainly not. Stata and SAS are other options that can be used by blind students.

Which software is not an alternative?
Minitab, GenStat, and Statistica are three that I would not use in preference to SPSS.

What resources will need to be altered if a student uses R instead of SPSS?
I argue that the learning of statistics should not be limited to the capabilities of the staff teaching a course or the software option they choose. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and supporting more than one software option does make work for the staff concerned. A clear advantage for the sighted user of any GUI based software is the ability of the student to browse the menus until they find the option that looks like what they want. This browsing is not always so easy for the blind student however so quality resources are required, regardless of the software used. There are many resources available on the internet for sample code for various statistical techniques in R. In many respects, there are too many so that the user may find themselves having to spend time finding out which resource suits them the most.
I suggest that if a student chooses to use different software to the class, that they take the responsibility for learning how to use the software using whatever resource is available to them, but that the staff must support them by helping the student understand the resulting output and linking what is seen in the R output with what can be seen in the output for the software used by the rest of the class. This discussion between student and staff member can become a learning opportunity for the actual material being covered, rather than just a comparison of software.

Should a specific course be developed for blind students using R?
I suspect not. It is difficult to know exactly how many students would have the same course needs to make this venture viable. If someone can show me that this is required then I am interested in being a part of it. I would hope that he Summer University work will filter out to blind students who do not attend as those who have been to the SU pass on their knowledge to the next generation of blind student"s.