Sixties ushers in program to train blind programmers

Society’s tendency has, all too often, been to treat handicapped persons as second-class citizens. In particular, blind persons are often relegated to jobs well below their intellectual capacity.

In the mid ’60s, the University of Manitoba created a program to teach blind persons how to program in a bid to address this gap. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind expressed interest, agreeing to fund the costs of enrolling four students, with the university providing teaching and facilities.

The program faced some big challenges — at the time there was no documentation suitable for blind persons, no established way for a blind person to draw or read flow diagrams, and all computer outputs required vision to understand.

The pilot course began with an extensive orientation, followed by the instructional material. It was also stressed in the orientation that, hard as it might be, others in the area had been instructed to help only in emergency situations, so students could work independently when they were employed in the sighted world.

Everything about the course had to be innovative. One enterprising, sighted staff member created a method for the computer to print in Braille by placing a rubber band in front of the print head so dots caused a readable indentation, although it was adequate for short-term test results only.

Another problem was the flow charts, which described application logic, and which typically contain symbols with decision points that can alter the flow when the application is run on the computer. The symbols, of course, were useless. So a technique was developed where only one decision was made on each page of computer code. The page numbers, symbols and computer code would be dot coded so the student could follow through the program logic. It worked out better than expected.

Believing it would be acceptable to employers, a target was set — that no more than 10 per cent of a blind employee’s time on the job would require sighted help, mostly to assist in reading various output. Much has changed in recent years so that today a blind person can get by with almost no sighted help (e.g. with text-to-speech software).

Initially, only students who already had some academic qualifications were accepted to the program. These students tended to be the most frustrated in the jobs they were able to get, such as serving in canteens or monotonous factory work. They received an immediate morale boost and knew that after completing the course they could make a significant contribution to society. This was particularly true of those who had lost their sight as adults.

The memory of blind students seemed to compensate somewhat for their disability, because in developing their computer applications, the students very rarely made mistakes (an obvious bonus for their future employers). In fact, their accuracy led to an unexpected problem. Errors do occur in computer work, and therefore it was necessary to ask the blind students to make programming errors so that they could learn how to handle them in future work.

The courses lasted about four months and the success rate was close to 100 per cent Next came persuading the IT industry to hire them. In approaching potential employers, it was stressed that the graduates might need sighted help 10 per cent of the time, but otherwise they were independent, and that help time would be more than compensated for by their accuracy.

Most potential employers responded by asking, “what if they do not work out?” Our answer: then they don’t work out. They are not to be treated differently to other employees. Of the four who took part in the pilot project, three found jobs, while the fourth, Don Keeping, was asked to give future courses, which he did admirably. Keeping continued to run the program for many years, with an intake of between eight and 12 students per course, until the development of modern technology made the program redundant, at which point he became a regular programmer.

Hodson is an Ottawa-based IT industry veteran who has helped develop Canadian computer science programs. Contact him at [email protected].

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