Finally, Programming Environments for Blind Students

February 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm 3 comments

At CE21, I got a chance to talk to Chris Hundhausen who told me about his SIGCSE 2011 paper on building programming environments for blind students.  Susan Gerhart has challenged our community of computing educators to think about how our pedagogical tools can be used with visually disabled students.  She’s completely right — we tend to use graphical notations (as in Alice, Scratch, and Squeak eToys) to improve students’ ability to get started with computing, but those are useless for a blind student.

Chris is actually working on several different ideas including audio debuggers and manipulatives (physical artifacts) for representing the programs.  Chris said that his colllaborator, Andreas Stefik (Chris’ former student) is excellent at empirical methods, so all his design ideas are carefully developed with lots of trials.  The paper includes results from a test of the whole suite of tools.

I hope that lots of people follow-up on Chris’s work and direction.  My bet that what they’re finding will enable multi-sensory programming environments that will help everyone.


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  February 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Google employs two blind programmers: Peter Lundblad (Subversion revision control system open source contributor) and computer scientist T.V. Raman.

    I still feel people who can’t type are the most under-served market in computing, in general. Awhile back I felt what that was like for 1 full year, and it was the worst time of my life. I tried everything, including Nuance Technologies Dragon software (the high-end version).

  • 2. Alex Rudnick  |  February 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    It’s pretty instructive to try using a screen reader — even browsing the web like that is really, really hard. It probably gets easier with practice, but I can barely imagine doing development work like that… what a hard UI problem!

    (T.V. Raman is a pretty amazing human, though — we spoke a bit when I was working on making some Google software more screen-reader compatible…)

  • 3. slger  |  February 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Thanks, Mark, for this preview. I’ll try the environments myself and report back and to the developers. Indeed, there are many good ideas here. May I suggest some low hanging fruit for those willing to dip into this field:

    1. Has there been a survey of actual performing programmers? Languages and tools that work for them? Ditto of current students in computing courses? Innovative blind developers are Mark at Levelstar and colleagues at American Printing House for Blind; Mic behind the phenomenal free open source screen reader, NVDA; and the industry veteran at

    2. Upcoming is the CES of assistive tech, the CSUN conference in Sand Diego mid March Hundreds of exhibitors are available for demos and interviews across all kinds of disabilities. The mix includes celebrities like Stevie Wonder, professionals, as in your local A.D.A. services, and also the web accessibility gurus. The tweetup is fun,follow #a11y and #accessibility. has a CSUN preview and numerous resources. It would be great to have a report from a CS educator or technologist in your pubs.

    3. The badge of credibility in the blind tech field is the demo podcast as on and and A really informative voiced tutorial is the best way to convey an enabled product. Conversely, these 1000s of podcasts illustrate both strengths and weaknesses of emerging technology, e.g. listen to VoiceOver iDevice apps. There’s a trove of usability data just by listening.

    Finally, and you won’t like this, but ignore Google. Android architecture limitations, Google docs and WAVE in accessibility, slowness of Chrome openness to assistive tech, and more aggravate blindness advocates and ordinary users. Apple has set the bar very high, Microsoft is really working hard, but Google has not integrated accessibility into its engineering process sufficiently to yield socially acceptable results. Hiring blind computer scientists, funding scholarships and grants, and communicating on blogs are good, but don’t begin to close the gap with user needs Sigh..


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