Facing Windows of Lost Opportunity

                       by Steve Alexander


     From the Editor: The following article is reprinted from the

November 2, 1998, issue of Computer World. Steve Alexander is a

free lance writer in Edina, Minnesota. Clear and honest

discussions like this one are a significant help in educating the

programming world to the real problems facing blind computer

programmers. This is what Mr. Alexander said:


     Blind programmers could compete quite nicely in the IT

[information technology] work place when the mainframe was king.

But today, as graphically oriented Windows tool kits displace the

text-based mainframe development, blind programmers are facing an

uncertain future. 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 Baltimore.
     "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 to read what was on the screen and do

the same development work as sighted colleagues.
     When PC's arrived in the 1980's, 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

     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, Chong says. 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

     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, Washington, 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 fifty, 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 is also 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," Buhrow 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.


                     Seeing-eye Programmers


     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

     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."


                      Attitude Adjustments


     And there are nontechnical challenges for blind programmers

as well. "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

work place? 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 programmers. "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


                 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 to 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 twenty 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."