Non-Visual Programming, Perceptual Culture and Mulsemedia: Case Studies of Five Blind Computer Programmers

Non-Visual Programming, Perceptual Culture and Mulsemedia: Case Studies of Five Blind Computer Programmers

Simon Hayhoe (London School of Economics, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-456-7.ch808
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The study found that programmers who had been introduced to, and educated using a range of visual, audio and / or tactile devices, whether early or late blind, could adapt to produce code with GUIs, but programmers who were educated using only tactile and audio devices preferred to shun visual references in their work.
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It can be said that blind people have been using MulSeMedia for over three centuries. Since the development of pin-prick data sets in the early eighteenth century by the blind Cambridge mathematician Sanderson (Democodus 1774) and the evolution of embossed reading codes by Braille and Moon (Paulson 1987), technology has facilitated an interface for blind people beyond the standard elements of vision and sound. Indeed, it has only been in the latter quarter of the twentieth century that such technologies were usurped by the informal everyman’s language of Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers (WIMPs) and pseudo three-dimensional geometry, and that touch interfaces became outdated in information technology.

As Steve Alexander (1998) argued in a magazine article in 1998, “Blind programmers could compete quite nicely in the IT workplace when the mainframe was king. But today, as graphically oriented Windows tool kits displace the text-based mainframe development, blind programmers are facing an uncertain future.” As the twentieth century drew to a close this not only made the use of information technologies more difficult to interpret by blind people, it also precluded blind programmers from developing computer applications in these new environments and thus participating in the development of information technologies and computer interfaces. As these technologies became more important in our modern cultures, it was believed that this also meant that people with disabilities of sight became more socially marginalised in business and communications, particularly as the world entered an era of rapid growth in the use of web technologies.

It was as a result of these assumptions that the author developed a research study that investigated the experiences of blind programmers and web developers1, their educational backgrounds and the affects of this education on their ability to understand modern computer interfaces. The research began as a pilot study in late 2006, using data collected through questionnaires and interviews. The case studies described below then evolved from a post-pilot study analysis and was followed up by data collections over the course of the following two years. The aims of this study were: 1) to examine whether Steve Alexander’s statement is valid; 2) to inform the teaching methodologies of IT and computing; and 3) to inform future accessible software development of MulSeMedia style interfaces for blind and visually impaired users. The objectives of this study were thus: 1) to inform a greater understanding of how blind and visually impaired computer users comprehend creating computer programs and two-dimensional interfaces used in the design of computer programs and web-pages; and 2) to inform greater access and equality for blind and visually impaired computer users in the work place and in their domestic use of technology.

What now follows in this introduction is a discussion of the context of this research. Firstly, The Author investigates traditional approaches of technologists to accessible hardware, software and educational methodologies; and secondly, The Author discusses alternative models provided by social researchers and authors in the related fields of the education of computing, technology and the visual arts.

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