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Blind programmers face an uncertain future

November 6, 1998
Web posted at: 10:30 AM EDT

by Steve Alexander

(IDG) -- 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.

Nonstandard graphical components in many new tool kits can't be read by the blind. That's true despite the help of screen translating devices that traditionally have enabled them to work alongside their sighted information technology co-workers. To a large extent, this is shutting blind programmers out of new client/server development projects. And it's hampering their careers more than co-worker attitudes about blindness ever did.

"Most of the new applications right now are coming from tool kits that blind people can't use," says Janina Sajka, director of information systems at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York.

"While there is some hope on the horizon that we can get tool kit companies to be more responsive to serving all people . . . the prospects today are fairly bleak."

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It isn't that people don't care, says Gary Wunder, a senior computer programmer/analyst for mainframes at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who is blind. "But everything these days has to be justified with a business case. If there aren't enough programmers who are blind who want to do something, why do it?"

At the same time, blind programmers must face stereotypical ideas about the limitations of blind people, says Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. Chong, who is blind, is director of technology at the organization in Baltimore.

"IT workers at some companies have learned that blind people can compete. But lots of others have never worked with a blind person before, and attitude-related barriers apply," Chong says.

The friendly mainframe

Chong says blind programmers have long been able to do their jobs in the mainframe world. After all, mainframe languages such as Fortran, Cobol and assembler are text-based. Using screen readers software that converts text on the screen to speech blind programmers were able to read what was on the screen and do the same development work as sighted colleagues.

When PCs arrived in the 1980s, blind programmers could still do their work because the DOS operating system was text-based. The text could be read with screen-reader software, Chong says.

But with the arrival of the Windows graphical user interfaces, which couldn't be converted to text, blind programmers were initially locked out of the newer PC and client/server worlds, Chong says.

That door was partially reopened for blind programmers when screen-reader software was adapted to convert some, but not all, Windows graphical interfaces into screen-readable text.

But there was a catch. Screen readers could convert graphical interfaces to text only if certain programming conventions were followed. And as Windows interface technology raced ahead, software companies increasingly took nonstandard programming shortcuts in their software developer tool kits shortcuts that rendered some items on the screen invisible to screen-reader software.

Barring the Windows

That has left blind programmers at a severe disadvantage because they are in effect barred from developing in some new Windows environments, Chong says.

"I know blind programmers who work in C and Visual Basic in addition to mainframe languages, because as long as they can get at a text file, they can do programming. But if the graphical tool kit you are using requires you to drag and drop items on the screen, you can't do it," Chong says.

Crista Earl, a technology resource specialist at the American Foundation for the Blind, agrees.

"There sure haven't been very many blind programmers who have broken into the Windows world. In our database of 130 blind programmers, maybe a dozen have gone into Windows development. The majority are working on mainframes," Earl says.

Progress is the problem

The problem faced by blind programmers boils down to technological progress in Windows, says Michael Freeman, a computer systems programmer in Vancouver, Wash., who is blind. Freeman works at the Bonneville Power Administration, a government agency that manages electric power generated by federal dams in the Western U.S.

"You can't stop people from innovating, and I don't see that our screen readers will be able to keep up with that," Freeman says. He programs Digital Equipment Corp. minicomputers because they use a text-based operating system. "I still think it's worthwhile for a blind person to try a career as a programmer, but I do fear how well that person will do in the long term."

Although none of the blind programmers interviewed said he believes he is in immediate danger of losing a job, there is concern about whether they will be needed in the future.

Freeman, who is 50, says he hopes there will be enough text-based work for blind programmers to last until he retires. "Up to now, I've been able to avoid Windows NT because the computers that control the power system are for the most part VAXes. But as more things we use, such as time sheets and discrepancy reports, migrate to the NT network, I'll need to do NT. I don't know what will happen; all I can do is try."

Wunder also is concerned about whether he can adapt to Windows in the future. "With Windows, it's not only how do you write a program, but, once you do, how do you make sure that the buttons line up on the screen? How do you make it visually attractive? I don't know the answer to that yet. . . . I'll either be able to do my job here or I won't. And I think the jury is still out. That's not very comforting because my daughter is still going to need food."

Brian Buhrow, a senior systems engineer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who is a blind Unix programmer, says he is comforted that Unix is much in demand these days. "And there also are opportunities for doing things outside the mainstream of end-user programming, such as doing networking stuff that's not inherently visually oriented," Cruz says. "These opportunities may diminish, but they'll be there for a while."

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of the Windows problem for blind programmers is that they are being barred from truly mainstream development, Sajka says.

Seeing eye programmers

Some blind programmers have dealt with the tool kit situation by trying to shift the Windows development projects they couldn't handle to others, Chong says.

"If you were lucky, you could delegate that kind of work away. But if not, and you couldn't get at the underlying text of what you wanted to do, you were out of luck. And that was the frustration many blind people ran into," Chong says. "Then the only way a blind person could do the work was to hire a sighted person as a reader to help run the machine."

That represented big change for blind programmers, who had long used special devices to make themselves competitive with sighted people. Chong says the principal devices are screen-reading software; a braille embosser, which accepts text from a computer and prints it out in braille; refreshable braille displays, which are tactile devices that convert a single line of screen text into braille in real time; and special speech synthesizers that convert text to speech and stop and start very quickly.

Another challenge for blind programmers: "Who will pay for all this expensive adaptive technology, given the fact that when the employee leaves, someone else may not find it useful?" Sajka asks. Cost may not be an issue for the employer when it comes to screen-reader software, which costs as little as $500. But that could change when it comes to the purchase of a braille display for $3,000 to $14,000.

There are other technical obstacles for blind programmers in their everyday work. Something as routine as the project management software used in some IT shops can pose a problem. Many assign priorities to IT projects with a color-coding scheme.

"A sighted person instantly sees the priority of critical to not-so-critical projects," Wunder says. "But how do I get that same information? Sure, somewhere in the program is a number that represents what the color scheme ought to be, but my screen reader can't read that. So I still write down my IT projects on three-by-five cards and work with my boss on priority."

Attitude adjustments

And there are nontechnical challenges for blind programmers as well.

"The problem is one of attitude," Chong says. "What is it that an IT professional expects from somebody who is blind do they think that a person will be able to do work, function as a normal human being, socialize and get along with people in the workplace? Or do they think a blind person is weird and can only pick up a phone? IT professionals should examine their thinking about blindness and root out the typical stereotypes."

Do attitudes about blind programmers restrict their opportunities to be promoted? There's no easy answer, Chong says. It depends on whether management "has a positive acceptance of a person who is blind," plus whether the blind person can overcome society's tendency to undervalue the blind and push hard to be promoted based on merit, he says.

Buhrow says administrative jobs represent an opportunity for blind programmers.

"Blind programmers could do product management that involves making decisions about people and products rather than about where to put code statements. I am a programmer. But I'm also a systems administrator, so I do a lot of things that are not programming but rather hardware installations and configurations."

Alexander is a freelance writer in Edina, Minn.

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