Computer Science Education Week: People Who Are Blind Can Harness the Magic of Technology Too!

laptop computer
Photo of laptop computer.

In recognition of Computer Science Education Week, December 6-12, 2021, let’s take a peek into the world of computer science and its accessibility for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. 

What is computer science? 

Do you want the technical or “Shannon” definition? Let’s start with the technical. 

According to Master’s in Data Science, computer science is the study of computers, including computational theory, hardware and software design, algorithms and the way humans interact with technology.  

According to yours truly, computer science is mainly the study of getting technology to do what we want. Software must be coded/ programmed to execute functions: a calculator which adds two numbers, a video game where the character moves at the command of the user, a microwave which—once prompted—vibrates the water molecules in food in order to produce heat, etc. Hence, a computer scientist must learn the language of technology, harnessing the power to command it.  

Is it just me, or does harnessing the power of technology seem intense, magical, and unfathomably difficult?  

It’s not just me. Our kids will likely think the same without an introduction to computer science/ coding. Early exposure teaches (according to Raise Smart Kid) computational thinking, logic, problem solving, how things work, as well as structural and algorithmic thinking; such training and awareness benefits individuals whether or not they choose to pursue a career in the field of computer science. 

This begs the question of whether or not young people who are blind or visually impaired are having classroom experiences which enable them to make sense of and manipulate technology. 

Is computer science education accessible? 

According to On the Design of an Educational Infrastructure for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Computer Science, “[P]eople with disabilities remain underrepresented in computing…Students who are blind must overcome significant educational and technological barriers, including the heavy use of images and visual abstractions in classrooms; prior researchers have examined how the traditional curriculum in Computer Science has not been designed with assistive technologies in mind.”  

Furthermore, the article states text-based programming which is geared for older students is generally more accessible for students who are blind or visually impaired, while many computer science projects and programs designed for younger children are not accessible for blind or visually impaired students. It suggests the importance of furthering equal access to computer science experiences and curriculum, particularly in the elementary years. 

Acknowledging the accessibility need for young blind students, Microsoft designed and APH developed Code Jumper which “assists students in learning computer coding and programming skills through a unique, physical system.”  

Others, too, are working on closing the accessibility gap. Computer science senior Samuel Alex Atcheson developed a 3D-printed system to teach coding syntax to people with visual impairments using the sense of touch. And Apple brought Everyone Can Code to schools serving blind and deaf students nationwide.  

The value of students who are blind or visually impaired entering tech jobs 

After interacting with accessible computer science curricula, if your child recognizes an interest and aptitude for coding and pursues a career in computer science/ technology development, the entire disability community benefits. Laura Allen, who works in Google accessibility and who is visually impaired, shared the following to students who are blind or visually impaired at the virtual 2021 National Coding Symposium, “Your perspective is valuable….”  

Here’s why: The hope is modern technology can be developed with integrated accessibility, as opposed to accessibility as an afterthought. Teach Access is a program enabling unique collaborations among members of higher education, the technology industry, and advocates for accessibility in order to push for integrating accessibility into college computer science curriculum and technology development. Many large and small tech companies are getting on board—they are hiring accessibility experts. 

Your child on a tech development team is an asset to technology development with accessibility in mind, as their experience and feedback are influential. Your child can help ensure accessibility is integrated into upcoming technology. That’s exciting! 

And yes, people who are blind or visually impaired are successfully employed in the computer science/ programming fields. Want to explore a few of their stories? 

So, here’s to the magic of technology and to those who wish to harness its power. Here’s to Computer Science Education Week.