Accessible Coding

When I was in high school, i remember being under the impression that only the “really super smart kids” would be able to learn computer code in their “advanced placement classes”.  And for that reason, it was intimidating to even think about learning something that complex. After all, who did I think I was, Bill Gates? 

Add to that, all the coding I’d ever seen was on a black screen with tiny white or green nonsensical letters that were, at least to me, barely visible.  

So needless to say, as a visually impaired individual, and a girl to boot (remember, this was a time when few women were in computer science) I didn’t investigate programing as a career option.  

We’ve come quite a long way in the last couple of decades.  Women and individuals with disabilities are being included at an unprecedented level and encouraged to pursue careers in the STEM fields.  Opportunities and scholarships abound!

As our society begins to depend more on technology and the cost of electronics is coming down significantly, more schools are embracing the idea of teaching coding skills at younger and younger ages.  As this trend takes hold, the demand for coding “teaching tools” is also increasing. The vast majority of these teaching tools and curriculum are visually based, especially those that are free and easy to access.  

Both regular ed teachers and TVIs are often at a loss as to how to include students with visual impairments in these coding lessons.  There is no one easy answer, but there are some programing languages and environments out there that are more accessible to and usable by blind and visually impaired coders than others.  One of these options is Quorum.

What is Quorum?Quorum logo

Simply put, Quorum is a programing language with its own curriculum that is freely available on their website www.quorumlanguage.com.  From there, various resources, tutorials, and downloads are available to help you and your students learn to program using Quorum.  

There are many resources available on the site.  In addition to its own Hour of Code section, Quorum has multiple “tracks” that can be used to learn the Quorum programing language.  These tracks all teach the same concepts, but in different ways.    

  • The Core Track teaches computer science basics without use of specific applications
  • The Visual Track teaches computer science via visual visual applications
  • The Audio Track teaches the same computer science concepts through audio applications
  • The Robotics Track uses robotic programing to teach coding in Quorum

All of these tracks are aligned with the Common Core and contain guides and reference sheets in print and braille downloadable files.  

Sodbeans

Quorum’s IDE (integrated development environment), called Sodbeans, is also freely available and accessible with a screen reader.  Sodbeans is a module suite of NetBeans which adds support for the Quorum language. To learn more, please visit the site’s download page.

Quorum and Accessibility 

The AccessCSForAll Project is a collaborative effort between the University of Washington and the University of Los Vagas to make programing accessible to individuals with disabilities.  Quorum is an integral part of that project. Accessibility is a high priority during Quorum development and, as previously mentioned, reference sheets are available in .brf format.  

EPIQ

Each year, Quorum hosts EPIQ (Experience Programing in Quorum) conference.  Last summer it was held at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and VIsually Impaired and this summer it will be held at the Texas School for the Blind.  The conference, begun in 2010, is supported by a National Science Foundation grant. The focus changes slightly each year and this year’s focus will be on the new Computer Science Principles Standard from the College Board.  

As I mentioned, I was fortunate enough to attend the EPIQ conference when it was held at my school last July.  I had never had any sort of experience with formal programing training so I was pretty nervous.   After all, what if I wasn’t “smart enough” to pick it up and I was stuck attending for a whole week without a clue about what I was doing? 

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about that as much as I’d thought.  I was totally impressed with how knowledgeable the instructors were and how well all of us “newbies” were able to catch on to what they were teaching.  I have to admit to feeling pretty out of my element, but the coordinators and teachers had nothing but patience with me and others that were first time attendees. 

I spent most of my time in the “beginner track” learning about operators and the basics of how Quorum worked on the simplest level.  I was using Windows Magnifier so I could see the very small type and a few of my seatmates were using NVDA or VoiceOver to access Sodbeans or the programing environment in the internet browser.  There were a few glitches here and there related to accessibility, but generally things went pretty smoothly.  

Attending the EPIQ conference was a great experience.  I have to admit I doubt I’ll be taking up coding as a hobby any time soon, I do have a brand new appreciation and respect for coders in general and blind coders in particular.  Those text strings can get really long and if even one number is missing or incorrect, the program won’t work right.  Finding that one error with a screen reader has to be frustrating and the ability to memorize so much coding is incredibly impressive.   But I suppose that’s even more proof that hard work and persistence in the pursuit of your dream career can certainly pay off in the end. 

Approximately 75 Participants of the EPIQ conference standing on the steps of the Wisconsin School for the Blind

For Further Reading...

I have to admit that I came a bit “late to the game” when it comes to accessible coding.  I’m not one of the pioneers in the field by any stretch of the imagination and I can only share what I know and provide resources to help those who wish to learn more.  To that end, here are some links you may wish to explore for further information.

 

 

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