Computer Science for all: are we lacking vision?

NCR UK Development and Support Manager Steve Barton on the joys of Coding Club, and why inclusivity is paramount

As educators and IT professionals, we promote the educational benefits of coding, but let’s never forget; for some, as alien as it might sound to others, coding is an enjoyable hobby.

My son Archie is one of those people, and that’s how I first became involved in Code Club. With no coding clubs operating locally, I approached Archie’s school and offered my services as a coding mentor if they would agree to host a club. They enthusiastically embraced the idea and, with the support of The Code Club network, within a few weeks Deputy Head Mr. Fry and myself were running our first meeting – full of enthusiastic, likeminded children.

But week two threw a curveball; Ted. Ted is blind. We had access to a Big Trak programmable tank, which occupied him for a while. But come week three, as the other children sat in front of their computers creating imaginative, interactive Scratch projects whilst Ted just tinkered with the Big Trak in a space we’d cleared for him on the floor, I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t the inclusive club that I had set out to create. We had to do something more.

But what? And how? How does someone who is blind even code? I’ve been coding for around 25 years and, despite the occasional outrageous brag to the contrary, I really can’t do it with my eyes closed. But then I came across an excellent article ‘A Vision of Coding, Without Opening your Eyes’ written by Florian Beijers, a Coder from Arnhem in the Netherlands. In his enlightening piece, Florian – blind since birth – explains how all he needs to code (or access any other apps for that matter) is a screen reader, which does exactly what it says on the tin and reads the text on the screen back to him, in a kind of Siri/Alexa fashion.

I contacted Florian and through various exchanges, learnt a lot from him.  Mainly that he’s smart. He’s also pretty cool; to start he has a cool alias – Zersiax – that he’s known by in coding circles. Zersiax learnt to code at just 10-years old, almost by accident, when he stumbled across an online HTML tutorial written by an older, also blind, student. Using his screen reader, he followed the tutorial and taught himself to code.

But, in coding terms, 10-years-old is now practically ancient. The UK curriculum is asking children aged just 6 or 7 to learn the rudiments of coding. This is of course where Scratch and other ‘blocky’ code languages come into their own. But here’s the snag; screen readers only read text. The fantastically colorful drop and drag code blocks of Scratch aren’t text, but images, and a screen reader simply can’t work in this instance. As Zersiax explains, “This makes getting started for a kid in this age group trickier than it should be”.

The new CS curriculum was introduced in part to tackle an industry skill shortage, and yet it’s inadvertently eliminating 26,000 potential new coders.

But even with screen reader capabilities, there’s a further challenge; “You need to find some way of giving these kids that same instant feedback sighted people get with Scratch almost morphing in front of their eyes when they build things,” adds Zersiax.

This is an issue. Currently we are expecting kids like Ted to follow the Computer Science (CS) curriculum and learn to code without making equivalent, engaging and stimulating development tools available to them as we do for sighted children. And we are putting them at a completely unnecessary disadvantage.

Figures published by the RNIB estimate the number of children aged 16 and under with vision impairment in the UK and England is 26,000. That’s 26,000 school kids that are not receiving the same level of support in Computer Science as sighted kids, to meet the expectations set in the National Curriculum. How is that fair?

What’s so disappointing about this, is that visual impairment or blindness clearly isn’t an obstacle to becoming a great coder. The new CS curriculum was introduced in part to tackle an industry skill shortage, and yet it’s inadvertently eliminating 26,000 potential new coders. And coding isn’t a bad job for anyone.

But moreover, and putting education and career aspirations to one side, we are excluding children from participating in a fun, creative and engaging activity that other kids can just take for granted. If we are truly to embrace “CS for All”– and we should – then this needs addressing.

So, what about Ted? What Scratch does have is an excellent sound library. To engage and include him in the Code Club, I wondered if it would be possible to develop something using Scratch to leverage that sound library along with some of the key Scratch code categories (Events, Control etc.). The goal was to give Ted a real coding experience, the same as everyone else. It of course had to have voice prompts and use the keyboard as little as possible; just the arrow keys to navigate and the space bar to select an option.

The result was a somewhat rudimentary Scratch project I eponymously dubbed ‘Talk Enabled Development’ (or T.E.D for short). It’s basic, uses my voice for prompts, and probably contains more bugs than an ant’s nest, but until the big guys get fully onboard with this and consider accessibility with their application builds, it’ll have to do. Most importantly, Ted is now enjoying writing code. Mission accomplished.