I was one of the lucky blind people employed full-time without a break after landing my first job out of college. I worked in the nonprofit sector and higher education, supporting the first-generation and high financial need students and promoting community engagement and service. Unfortunately, higher education was hit hard by the pandemic. Last summer, I found myself unemployed. Despite all of my efforts, weeks and then months went by with no job offers.
I learned that funding was available to train unemployed people for in-demand fields. Software development is one of those fields. The most attractive training option was a 12-week, full-time boot camp program conducted on Zoom. I consider myself a fairly advanced technology user, but I had absolutely no experience with coding. I love to learn, so I was intrigued by the opportunity to expand my skill set in a completely new direction.
I liked that the Eleven Fifty Academy is a nonprofit which explicitly seeks to diversify the coding field. They told me upfront that they never had a blind student, but the staff and instructors met with me ahead of time and were open to implementing accommodations.
As a long-time screen reader and braille display user, I am well aware that the accessibility of programs and websites varies widely. The accessibility of a particular tool can often only be determined by using it with adaptive technology. If you’re lucky, you may be able to find online documentation regarding known accessibility problems and any workarounds that may be possible. I tried to do some research before my classes began. I discovered that the information that did exist was scattered and frequently incomplete. I found some videos of blind coders, but they were usually short clips designed to show that blind people can code rather than instruction on how to code using adaptive software and equipment. I found a couple of projects to increase the accessibility of tools or create specialized coding environments optimized for blind coders. However, they were out-of-date or still in prototype. The educational resources and training tools I came across were aimed at introducing blind children and teens to coding concepts and computational thinking. I wasn’t finding substantive resources for blind people training for coding careers or blind professionals already working in the field.
In the boot camp, I quickly discovered that learning software development is indeed like learning a new language. There are many new terms with specific meanings in the world of coding, such as object, method, and repository. New coders have to learn how to think through what steps are required and the order in which they must occur to achieve the desired outcome. Each computer language has its own syntax and structure that requires learning when to use a variety of symbols and punctuation, such as knowing when to use parentheses versus curly brackets versus square brackets and when to nest functions inside of more overarching statements. My sighted classmates and I were struggling with all of this together.
On top of that steep learning curve, I also needed to master a whole new set of keyboard shortcuts to use in the Visual Studio Code environment. I also did not readily have access to the color-coding that helps sighted people quickly spot errors and tell what type of function your coding is interpreted as representing. Because both speech and braille provide feedback one line at a time, it can be challenging to get an overview of your code which can reveal missing or stray punctuation and other code characteristics.
These challenges proved too much for me, and I had to drop out of the boot camp. It was frustrating and discouraging when I couldn’t build executable code and when making a change often yielded a new string of error messages. It was difficult to know if I simply didn’t possess an aptitude for coding or if barriers related to accessibility hindered my progress.
I had met professional blind coders on the internet who were encouraging and provided nuggets of useful advice. I got the impression that many of them were the only blind students in their programming classes and the only blind coder at their companies. I could tell that the successful blind coders were persistent, willing to put in a ton of extra time and effort, and capable of independent problem-solving.
Of course, these are characteristics that are great assets for any coder. Still, I started to wonder if anything could be done to open up coding to more blind people than the current, hardy few. Even if I never became a competent coder, were there ways I could use the skills and experience I have to help make this field more accessible for blind people?
As a result of my own experience and the positive feedback of blind developers and blind people learning to code, I created a pitch for the Holman Prize. The prize, which is sponsored by the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, awards $25,000 to each of three prize-winning projects annually. It is named in honor of James Holman, a nineteenth-century, blind, independent world traveler. Please watch and like my pitch on YouTube.
The video with the most Likes on YouTube by April 8 is guaranteed to advance to the next stage of the competition. Sharing this post via your social media accounts will also help me get several thousand more likes I need. I hope to share more about my experiences trying to learn to code and to give updates on the project, whether or not I win the Holman Prize. Anyone who would like to provide input or otherwise help make coding a viable career for more blind people can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ps. Jana's Blind Coders Blazing Trails project has advanced to the semifinalist level in the Holman Prize competition.
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