18 - BLIND PROGRAMMERS
by BERNARD A HODSON
My first contact with blind persons was with Tony, who lived a few houses away from us in Blackpool. I was around ten at the time. Tony had been born blind but with the added handicap of a badly deformed face. In consequence people tended to turn away when they saw him. Tony was a highly intelligent person and we knew him quite well. His parents had bought him a tandem bicycle and one of his real pleasures was for us to cycle in the countryside, telling him of the things we passed.
Lancashire in the UK has a particular dialect in English, or rather several, there being a different one for Liverpool, another for Manchester, and yet another for Rossendale, just a few miles from Manchester. My mother wanted her family to get away from the dialect so my sisters and I went to "elocution" lessons. Tony also went and was able as a result to render the most amazing presentations of English poetry and dialogue, lending expression to his presentation which made the dialogue "live". As was the tendency then and, unfortunately still is, Tony, when he started work, was relegated to a job well below his intellect, in Burton's biscuit factory.
When I was hired by the University I learned briefly of an experiment at the University in Cincinatti, in the USA, to train blind persons in computer skills, so went there to investigate, and looked at their recently developed methods. On returning to Winnipeg I decided that it might be appropriate to start a training program at our University, and received permission to pursue such a venture. I approached the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), who expressed interest in a pilot project, and who agreed to fund four students for one year. It was not too easy to adapt the US program to our needs so I developed our program virtually from scratch.
To give an idea of the odds against us, there was no computer documentation suitable for blind persons (no braille texts, no talking books, no established way for a blind person to either draw or read flow diagrams (these are diagrams which give the logical flow of an application destined for a computer)), and normal output from a computer was a printed continuous form. In addition our computer was located adjacent to a laboratory containing electrical power equipment, with "live" boxes. These, however, were placed high enough that they needed to be reached up to for use. The designated quarters for the blind students was such that they had to walk through this laboratory in order to reach the computer site. It was also important that the blind students operate independently with as little sighted help as possible. While initially it was considered by some to be cruel (they changed their mind later) I told all sighted staff on the floor that they were not to help the blind students as a sympathetic gesture but only in emergency, to which they agreed.
One of my enterprising staff did devise a method for the computer to print output in Braille (in Braille a series of raised dots designates each letter). It meant that when output for blind students was being printed the printer ribbon had to be augmented with a piece of rubber banding so that the printed dots (in the Braille code) would cause an indentation in the paper. It was not a useful technique for long term documentation but as computer test results are normally read only once or twice, it was satisfactory for the purpose. It did, however, limit our initial student intake to only those who could read Braille. One further restriction placed on the first group, which was retracted for further courses, was that they did not use a "seeing eye dog" (a dog that is trained to lead a blind person safely through all the hazards we encounter in our daily life). As it happened, in the first series of courses, we only had one dog take the training.
We realised that it was virtually impossible to do away with all sighted help so we set a target of no more than 10% sighted help (to assist in reading output), believing that this would be acceptable to most potential employers (much has changed in recent years with the advent of text to speech software, so that today a blind person can get by with almost no sighted help).
It was also decided to concentrate on those students who had taken the effort to acquire academic qualifications. These students tended to be the most frustrated in the jobs they were normally able to get, such as serving in canteens, in hospital tuck shops and monotonous factory work. By joining the course they received an immediate morale boost and knew that on completing the course they could then make a significant contribution to society. Perhaps the most satisfying results in this regard were those who had lost their sight as adults, perhaps as a result of an industrial or other accident. Their companies would not fire them but would usually transfer them to a position often way under their intellectual capacity. By joining the course, then returning to their employer, they would again get back to doing useful work within their intellectual capability. Even then, unfortunately, we had one graduate who later committed suicide after returning to his employer.
The pilot course began with an orientation, and with instructions regarding the dangers of the electrical laboratory through which they had to pass from the classroom to the computer area. It was also stressed in this orientation that, hard as it might be, others in the area had been instructed only to help in emergency situations, so that the students might be able to work quite independently when they were eventually employed in the sighted world.
The training course itself, the first course being given by me, had to be innovative and it was necessary to try things out. As one example flow charts that describe the logic of an application typically contain a series of symbols with decision points that alter the flow when the application is run on the computer. The symbols, of course, cannot be seen by blind persons so a technique was developed where only one decision was made on each page of computer code. The page numbers could be written in Braille, as could the computer operations desired. In this way a student could follow through on the logic of the program. This actually worked out better than expected.
One very interesting observation developed. The memory of blind persons seems to compensate somewhat for their blindness and, in developing their computer applications the students very rarely made mistakes (an obvious bonus for their future employers). But errors do occur in computer work (very few people can foresee at the beginning all the things that must be done by the computer) and therefore it was necessary to ask them to make programming errors so that they could learn how to handle them in future work.
The courses lasted about four months and, because of the very careful selection process by CNIB, with guidance from the University, the success ratio was close to 100%.
The objective of training blind persons as programmers is to have them employed as programmers, so the next obvious requirement was to persuade industry to hire them, so I needed to visit some of the local employers and discuss things with them. I did stress that the graduates might need 10% sighted help but otherwise they were independent. I also emphasised that their accuracy more than compensated for any such help they might receive.
The typical response was "what if they do not work out", to which I replied that you fire them just like anyone else, that they are not to be treated in any different way to regular employees. Of the four on the pilot project three went to jobs while I selected the fourth, Don Keeping, to supervise and give future courses, which he did admirably. Some time later there was a minor incident in which the Vice President Academic wanted to fire Don, which I refused to do, much to the VP's annoyance. Don ran the program admirably for many years, with an intake of between eight and twelve students per course, until the development of modern technology made the training program redundant, at which point he became a regular programmer. One of the initial four eventually worked in Ottawa supervising sighted programmers. I did not hear of any failures of those employed (this does not mean there weren't failures, just that I never heard of any), other than the unfortunate individual who committed suicide.
After the first course I was invited to speak about the course at the annual meeting of CNIB, which helped to emphasise how the organisation might go about finding suitable persons for the program, and the personal benefits that each participant might expect. This one project is perhaps the most satisfying project of my career, notwithstanding the fact that I have had opportunity to work on very many interesting projects.