The purpose of this talk is to show blind people that we have options for creating documents. You may wish to listen to the delivered talk as well as reading this document which was used as my speech notes. .

What are Markdown and LaTeX?

Markdown and LaTeX are ways of writing documents; they are known as mark-up languages. The files we create using either tool are just plain text with special codes included that doo all the formatting. The most commonly used mark-up language is HTML for (mostly) content delivered via the internet. You could open any HTML file in a text editor to find out exactly what I mean, but you'll probably find it hard reading in plain text.

Strictly speaking, a MS Word document is also written in a mark-up language, but the codes are hidden from the users and everything is done in the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) fashion. Sighted people often want to know how their documents are looking as they are written so word processors have become WYSIWYG since the advent of Windows in particular.

Markdown and LaTeX documents are not WYSIWYG, and as blind people, we probably either don't care or want to be relieved of the stresses of document formatting.

One major aim of using a mark-up language is that we ought to be worrying more about the content as it is being written than the presentation of that content which can be sorted out later. Document styles are easy to add in or change in both markdown and LaTeX, and use of style templates is commonplace.

History of LaTeX

LaTeX has been in common use for a very long time. It is known as typesetting software to many because it predates the use of HTML and the term "mark-up language". It has primarily been used for writing scientific or technical documents and is often used by publishers.

The most common output file format for LaTeX documents is now the dreaded pdf; before that, it was a post-script file for sending to a printer or viewed in a separate tool. In either case, the common pdf documents created by most LaTeX users are not accessible, especially for such things as math content, alt tags for graphics, and even the specification of headings. In addition, the hyperlinks for cross references are often troublesome for screen reader users.

A LaTeX source file for a document is full of commands that start with a backslash. There are lots of \begin and \end commands that enclose so many elements of our documents and hundreds of other commands that generate symbols, math content, and other formatting effects. In addition, the arguments that go with many commands are enclosed using a variety of square and curly brackets. The consequence is that for the novice, reading a LaTeX source file is difficult, and the learning curve for creating them is considered steep.

Effort to make these documents more human readable has been made in a general sense and with the specific needs of blind people in mind. As an experienced LaTeX user, I can read the source files sent to me by my students and filter out the text I need to read from the rest. I still get surprises though as different people use different styles to achieve the same results in a visual sense.

Having presented the negatives above, you might reasonably ask why I use LaTeX. Well, I can do so many things because LaTeX is "extensible". I get to use my own commands so that I know a commonly used element will always look the same throughout my documents; I can add the alt tags for graphics; and it is possible to convert LaTeX documents to a much more readable HTML output file, complete with the math in screen reader friendly MathML. The difficulties I had in writing a PhD thesis were made simpler because I chose to use LaTeX instead of a WYSIWYG word processor.

History of markdown

Markdown is much newer than LaTeX in one sense, but use of plain text files and monospace fonts for documentation has been around for many years. The relatively recent leaps in use of markdown are primarily due to the existence of a tool called "pandoc" which takes a markdown file and converts it into a huge variety of output formats including HTML, pdf, MS Word, Open Office, presentation formats and so many more. In addition, pandoc will make markdown documents from other types of file, thus making it the tool to aid in translation.

There are a number of markdown dialects in common use today. Many documentation projects use markdown, blogs and online teaching environments use markdown formatting for content, and now it is becoming a tool for more common use by people who do not want the hassle of learning LaTeX. I would not contemplate trying to get my undergraduate students using LaTeX, but I now force them to learn markdown for assignment preparation.

Here is a direct quote from a sceptical student to the rest of the class I am about to teach in the upcoming semester: "I'm a full Markdown convert! It is amazing once you get used to it, totally worth sitting down for a few hours and getting familiar with it."

Common features

both LaTeX and markdown support:


In LaTeX we are primarily thinking of the end document being created as the representation of a printed page whereas in markdown, we are generally looking towards a continuous flow document like those found on web pages.

The way we get the formatting we want is different. Here are some examples:

Markdown LaTeX
## My heading \section{My Heading}
## My Subheading \subsection{My Subheading}
*italicised text* {\it italicised text}
**bold text** {\bf bold text}
***italicised and bold text*** {\bf{\it italicised and bold text}}
blah blah

A special note on creating math content

Creation of screen reader friendly math content is much easier in markdown than in LaTeX. The improvements n access to math content over the last five years has been dramatic and due in no small part to the increasing use of MathMl in web content and the use of MathJax to render that content.

Creation of math content in MathML and MathJax enabled MathMl is easily achieved in markdown because it is often the default setting used when converting the markdown into HTML. N.B. often not always.

The same result can be achieved for LaTeX documents too, but there are a number of tools for converting LaTeX source into screen reader friendly HTML and it is difficult to state categorically which is the best because there is ongoing development in this space. I prefer to use TeX4HT because it is shipped with the standard LaTeX installation.

Markdown files can be converted into MS Word files, but the math content is not currently accessible. I think that will change pretty soon. Having said that, the math content in a Word file authored by someone else who does not use MathType is equally inaccessible. In either case, you will need to purchase MathType so you can convert the math content into an accessible form when you open these Word documents.

There is still room for improvement in the way math content is rendered and handled by our screen readers. It annoys me that while there are two commonly used commands for a Greek epsilon (\epsilon and \varepsilon) that one of these is not read aloud by JAWS while the other is called epsilon. Such a pity that it is the variant form that is spoken as "epsilon" by screen readers!

My recommendation

Use the right tool for the job you are doing. I value having both markdown and LaTeX in my toolbox.

I use markdown for simple documents including all new lecture material, reports for statistical consulting clients, and any documents I want to share with other blind people. The notes for my presentations and tutorials this week are key examples of documents that I wrote in markdown; five years ago they would have been developed in LaTeX.

I use LaTeX for complicated documents that have multiple chapters, complex formatting requirements, and journal article submissions. I use it when I need to add equation numbers and cross references within a document. I usually try to render the document in HTML so that I can read it.

I can use markdown to start documents and convert them to LaTeX if required. Heaven forbid, I can even make them into MS Word documents.