BUILDING BLOCKS OF INCLUSIVITY

ACCESSIBLE CODING EDUCATION RESOURCES UNLEASH POSSIBILITIES FOR THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED

 

BUILDING BLOCKS OF INCLUSIVITY

ACCESSIBLE CODING EDUCATION RESOURCES UNLEASH POSSIBILITIES FOR THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED

As the tiny robot rolled out the door, the children controlling it quickly burst into giggles. They couldn’t see that the robot had taken a wrong turn, but the unmistakable clatter of plastic on the hard hallway surface told them it had left the carpeted classroom.

Occasional wrong turns aren’t unusual as students learn to code using SAS® CodeSnaps – an app that lets students use code blocks and a tablet to collaboratively guide a ball-shaped Sphero robot through a course.

What was different here was that the students doing the coding were all blind or visually impaired. They were using a newly created braille version of CodeSnaps that gave them the same learning opportunities afforded to their sighted peers.

“All the kids were like, ‘Wait! Wait! Wait!’ and they were laughing,” says Diane Brauner, who has 25 years of experience as a certified orientation and mobility specialist and was leading the activity. “And then they sat down, and they debugged it, and they created the course the way it was supposed to go. So that accomplishment is super exciting for the kids. They love it.”

‘THE MOST MEANINGFUL THING’

Resources to teach children coding are plentiful in the age of digital natives. But unfortunately, coding apps for the blind and visually impaired – who account for just 3% of people under age 18 – are not.

There are other challenges, too, like needing to pre-teach some concepts – ones considered “incidental” learning for sighted students who grow up using screens, for example – before a visually impaired student can use the tools to learn coding.

It also takes a unique combination of tactile and digital tools to make these forms of computer science education accessible to the blind and visually impaired in the same way they are to their peers who can see.

“A lot of times, it’s just a very small modification for the technology,” says a certified orientation and mobility specialist in Maryland who uses CodeSnaps with a blind fourth grader. “And because childhood visual impairment is low-incidence, I think it gets overlooked pretty often. So [for students] to be included in those things, it’s like, ‘Oh wow, I can do this?’ I think that is huge. They realize, ‘Now I can be included.’”

To make that possible, SAS partnered with Sphero – creators of the robots controlled by CodeSnaps’ blocks of code scanned into a tablet – and set out to create a braille version of the blocks to make learning to code collaboratively more inclusive.

Julie Hapeman, a certified orientation and mobility specialist for Milwaukee Public Schools, saw an immediate positive response after introducing a blind high school student she works with to this new version of CodeSnaps.

“He just loves that kind of stuff,” Hapeman says. “And the fact that it’s accessible is the most meaningful thing to him, because in one of his classes they were doing an activity that was not accessible, and it was very frustrating for him and very discouraging. When he can pick up and do what his sighted peers are doing, it’s everything to him.”

SAS partnered with the North Carolina State University chapter of Delta Gamma sorority – whose national philanthropy focuses on providing access and advocacy for people in the blind or visually impaired community – to hold a “block party” where members created braille code blocks for students with visual impairments to use with SAS CodeSnaps.

BEYOND THE BLOCKS

While providing access to coding education is the main objective of the braille version of CodeSnaps, it has other advantages, too.

It’s a touch-first experience, which is critical for visually impaired students’ learning regardless of topic. The blocks introduce a familiar tactile element before moving on to the less concrete experience of listening to what’s on a screen and being able to imagine that.

As the robot moves through the course, it also focuses students on spatial awareness, orienting them better in their surroundings.

And perhaps most importantly, when sighted classmates are learning to code, having the ability to participate creates a sense of inclusion.

“It's huge, because I think you're digging deeper into psychosocial stuff at that point,” says the teacher in Maryland, who describes her student as incredibly social and curious. “If you're being told you can't fully participate, you may not feel like you value yourself as much, or you might question, ‘What makes me different?’”

UNLOCKING CAREERS IN CODE

That feeling of otherness can have lifelong impact on students. Choosing a career path starts with education, so students sidelined from traditional learning resources often struggle to find their footing professionally.

While many achieve good pay in competitive fields, the employment rate for legally blind or visually impaired individuals is just 37%, according to a study in the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research.

The braille blocks for CodeSnaps are just one small step in creating inclusive opportunities that can resonate over a lifetime for a generation of digital natives. With more accessibility options when it comes to computer science education, the laughing children controlling a robot in today’s visually impaired classroom have a better chance than ever of being the coders of tomorrow.

“I am seeing so many blind people going into these really great careers because of the technology and the accessibility. It has a huge impact,” Brauner says. “And of course these folks are bringing a lot of knowledge to these careers and a different perspective. It's a win-win for everybody.”

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