Facing Windows of lost opportunity
by Steve Alexander
Reprinted from Computer World, November 2, 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
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."
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
"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 toread 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,
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 OR A 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.
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."
And there are nontechnical challenges for blind programmers as
"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
"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."
Debunking Myths and Stereotypes
Blind programmers still often face a variety of stereotypes.
According to Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of
the Blind in Computer Science, the challenges that blind
programmers face include beliefs that:
- Blind people aren't mobile and sit in a chair all day. "It's not
uncommon for me be asked to go to class for a week in a different
town, plus check into the office every night and get E-mail," Chong
says. "And when we did disaster recovery exercises, I was expected
to go along."
- Blind people can't handle printed information. "I hire a human
reader for 20 hours a week or use optical character recognition
technology to convert text to speech or to braille."
- Blind people who can do programming work must be incredibly
smart. "If the basic techniques are in place to deal with
blindness, it shouldn't require any more genius for a blind person
to do programming than it does a sighted person."
Steve Alexander is a freelance writer in Edina, Minn.
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