The textureless glass screen of an iPhone or iPad can seem formidable to someone who is blind or visually impaired, and learning to code on those devices could be even more daunting.
Apple is working to change that. The tech giant is partnering with the Chicago-based Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired to bring its coding curriculum to more people with visual disabilities.
Hadley plans to start by developing a series of free instructional videos that teach the audience how to use Apple’s Swift Playground app. The app was developed as part of Apple’s Everyone Can Code campaign, which teaches the Cupertino, California-based company’s programming language, Swift.
It’s imperative that people with visual impairments, both children and adults, are not left behind in the digital age, said Douglas Walker, Hadley’s director of assistive technology.
“Coding is definitely the future for everyone,” Walker said. “Even when you’re in your 50s.”
In 2016, only 43.6 percent of people with visual impairments in the U.S. were employed, according to data compiled by Cornell University. Only 2 percent of employed people with a disability in 2016 worked in a mathematical or computer occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The partnership between Apple and Hadley could help improve those numbers.
“This is an opportunity for students in the blind community to learn coding just like everyone else and then decide from there what they want to do with it, what career paths they want to follow,” said Sarah Herrlinger, who leads accessibility programs at Apple.
Hadley has been remotely teaching students Braille for nearly a century. But nowadays its free videos teaching blind and visually impaired people to use the accessibility features built into Apple devices are more popular than the nonprofit’s Braille resources.
“For a person that’s blind, (a device) is just a piece of glass,” said Walker, who has only peripheral vision. “You have to learn a gesture-based system to move through it.”
Walker swiped right on his iPhone to trigger a feature that read aloud the apps he dragged his finger over – Clock, Maps, NOAA Weather. That’s where Hadley’s videos come in: They teach viewers those gestures, allowing them access to their iPhones or other Apple devices.
Walker narrates the videos, orally walking viewers through the process of using the device or feature. Hadley expects to put out a series of videos this fall for its new partnership with Apple that follow a pattern similar to its other instructional videos, Walker said. It will focus first on teaching viewers how to navigate the Swift Playground app, which uses games to teach people how to code, and expand its offerings from there.
“You’re going to be able to do it the same way that any sighted person could do it,” Walker said.
Teachers of the visually impaired could use the videos, as well as kids or adults who want to teach themselves to code. Often, people suffer vision loss as adults and have to start over, said Colleen Wunderlich, director of the Forsythe Center for Employment and Entrepreneurship at Hadley. People sometimes leave the workforce to adjust to their new reality.
With the proper training, people who are blind or visually impaired could pursue a career in coding, Wunderlich said.
The ability to code is an increasingly desirable skill to have on a resume, and recruiters in the tech industry say the competition for talent is heated. The Chicago metro area added more than 4,000 technology jobs in 2017, largely due to increasing demand for software developers and information security analysts, according to a report from Downers Grove-based trade association CompTIA. That was an increase of 1.4 percent over the prior year, ranking Chicago 13th among major metro areas in tech sector job growth.
Apple launched its Everyone Can Code campaign in September 2016. In December, Apple announced it was teaming up with the city to bring the free curriculum into more Chicago Public Schools classrooms and the City Colleges of Chicago. Area companies and nonprofits joined in by offering internship and mentoring opportunities.
In addition to the partnership with Hadley, Apple also is planning to work with schools for the blind around the country to expand the program’s reach. The partnership with Hadley does not involve a financial contribution from Apple.
Though students of the program learn just one programming language, experts in the coding world say learning one is the entryway for learning more. Swift has fueled the creation of apps such as Airbnb, Yelp and Venmo.
Additionally, Apple has a reputation among the blind and visually impaired community for making devices easy to use. Nearly 76 percent of people that use mobile screen readers use Apple devices as their primary mobile or tablet platform, according to a survey conducted by WebAIM, a web accessibility nonprofit based at Utah State University.
“We consider accessibility a basic human right,” Apple’s Herrlinger said. The partnership with Hadley “allows us to really broaden who we’re able to reach and how we reach them.”
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