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Programming for blind kids

Programming is an excellent career option for blind children, and a way to have fun and express themselves. But the existing tools for programming are often not suitable for the blind and visually impaired. Leiden researchers will change that.

‘Why should visually impaired kids learn to program? Well firstly, all kids should learn to program!’ Félienne Hermans writes in her blog. Hermans is a researcher in programming education at the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science and heading the new research project into inclusive programming education. In October, science financier ZonMW announced that it would finance this two-year project for a maximum of 146,000 euros.

Programming from home

For blind children two special reasons apply for learning to program, Hermans writes. 'As you can imagine, it is hard to find a well-paid job when you are blind or severely visually impaired. Traveling to a job with public transportation can already be tiring and cumbersome and lots of professional communication is visual. Therefore it is important for blind kids to consider programming as a career option, especially since working from home is also a very viable option in our field.’

Self-expression by programming

Secondly, there are lots of forms of expression and entertainment that blind kids lack, Hermans continues. ‘Drawing is very hard, and so are many forms of arts and crafts. Teaching blind kids to program could help them express themselves in new and exciting ways.’

Screen readers struggling with source code

There are many successful working blind programmers, according to Hermans. They usually use a screen reader, a tool that reads texts aloud. ‘But sadly these things are made to read natural language and not source code.’ The code defa __init __ (): for example, would be read as: 'def underscore underscore init underscore underscore open bracket close bracket colon'. Readers also often miss symbols; for example, person.name can be read as 'person <pause> name'. For programming, this is a very relevant difference, Hermans explains, because points and commas are essential.

Programming together

In order to make programming education accessible to blind and visually impaired children, Hermans will examine whether the existing tools are suitable for this group. She will do so together with colleague Anna van der Meulen and with special education teachers. After this, they will draw up guidelines that teachers can use to assess programming tools for inclusiveness. The researchers will  also do proposals for adjusting the existing tools to improve their inclusiveness. Both sighted and visually impaired children will test those customized tools. Hermans: ‘We are specifically aiming at languages that are inclusive of visually impaired kids, not designed for them. We want all kids to be able to program together, in tools that everyone can use.'

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