You are here:

Architects of The Information Age

Editor's Note: Computer programming has been a solid source of employment for blind people for more than three decades. Technology has changed, but the basic ability required for the job has remained constant. The four blind individuals profiled in this article use a variety of techniques. But one reality does not vary. They are all assets to their employers.

In the mid-1960's someone came up with the idea of training blind people to program computers. The first alternative techniques were fairly rudimentary. There were no personal computers. Programmers key-punched their instructions on to eighty-column cards and fed them to mainframe computers. It usually took a day or so before the programmer knew whether his or her work was acceptable. The computers spit back reams of paper with error messages that indicated where the programmer had gone wrong. One small typographical error on one punch card could delay the successful execution of a computer program for an entire day. If the error were more complex, more time was needed for "de-bugging". Obviously, a high premium was placed on accuracy. Blind computer programmers competed successfully in this tough work environment from the beginning. They typed their own punch cards without any difficulty. The challenge was to find ways to read the computer output.

A very clever programmer discovered that the "period" symbol on the line-printer made a raised dot on the back side of the printout. A program was written that converted print symbols into a series of periods which formed Braille characters. It was a bit crude, but it worked. Blind programmers could read their own output, find and correct their own errors, and achieve results comparable to those of their sighted colleagues.

The first genuine Braille computer embossers came on the scene in the mid-1970's. They were expensive, about $15,000 U.S., at a time when the dollar was worth much more than it is today. Still, they were a vast improvement over the make-shift line-printer. Blind programmers did not have to go through an extra step to get their output. They simply went to their own printer and ripped off the paper like everyone else. Their main worry was the frequency with which their Braille embossers broke down. A failure of one dot to function changed the whole printout. It was clear that new solutions were still needed.

As the punch card gave way to the video terminal, blind programmers were faced with new challenges and greater opportunities. Probably the two most significant changes in technology for the blind were the development of print-enlarging software and the advent of synthesized speech. IBM was the first major computer company to put significant resources into the development of access technology for the blind. A number of small specialized companies, often owned and operated by blind individuals, also entered the field. By the end of the 1980's it would be fair to say that blind people had achieved parity with their sighted colleagues. The operation of PC's was in the MS-DOS environment. By using a PC and a terminal emulation program, they also had reasonable access to mainframes. There were still some problems, but blind people began to talk of a time when access to the printed word would be as readily available to them as to the sighted.

Then the graphical user interface (GUI) came along. Instead of using computer code to print characters on the screen in 80 columns and 25 rows, GUI's permitted the user to design screens which more closely resembled printed pages. Different type fonts and screen configurations became common. Characters were now "painted" on the screen in ways which traditional speech and Braille access programs could not interpret. The computer was getting easier for the sighted to use, but the blind were seeing their hard-won equal access disappear. The situation is changing again. There are now a number of access programs which permit blind people to work in a Windows environment.Still, there are challenges.

Elizabeth Coates works as a consultant (computer programmer) for Sygma, one of the Bell Canada companies. She received her training in computer programming at Alternative Computer Training for the Disabled in Toronto. She has worked for the past several years programming mainframes for sales, marketing, and retail tracking. She works with a 386 computer and a 3270 terminal emulator using IBM screen reader voice software and hardware. In addition, she has an Arkenstone scanner for reading manuals and other printed information which is not on-line.

Elizabeth's productivity in this job easily equals that of her colleagues. Because of the limitations of scanning technology, she sometimes finds that she cannot read computer manuals with the same efficiency as her sighted colleagues. However, they are quite willing to read her small manual sections or to answer questions about program syntax or other issues. In return, she has become expert at certain aspects of programming and often helps her colleagues with their questions.

As she writes program code, she documents her work on her computer. Her colleagues often rely on hand written notes. Elizabeth quickly discovered that her method produces required documentation far more efficiently. By the time her programming work is finished, her documentation is complete as well. Her co-workers often have to go back over their work and re-write their notes in order to turn in proper documentation.

The time-lag between the development of programs for the sighted and those for the blind is currently creating major challenges for Elizabeth. Her company would like her to work in the development of Lotus Notes programs. Speech access technology she attempted to use worked with Lotus Notes 3.2. The company was using 4.0. Her program for 4.0 is becoming available, but her company has now moved to 4.5.

(Programs for blind people are often two years behind.) Despite these difficulties, Elizabeth has found ways to continue to meet deadlines and produce quality work on time. Her employer is committed to helping her get the tools she needs to stay abreast with the latest technology. As her boss explained to her, "it is a good investment for us to keep a valuable employee on the job."

Akhtar Hussain is blind with some vision. He uses magnifying glasses and closed-circuit TV's which enlarge print. His company, Consumers'Gas, purchased an extremely large monitor for him. This permits him to read the computer screen without additional software or hardware. He is responsible for maintaining legacy systems and working with new systems as they are developed.

After completing his studies at Alternative Computer Training for the Disabled, Akhtar received a certificate in business programming and business operations from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. He also has a certificate as a data communications specialist from Centennial College in Toronto.

Because Consumers' Gas serves its customers twenty-four hours a day, computer problems can happen at any time. Akhtar is expected to be on call at all times to help solve problems. He has company software and a modem at home which permit him to do trouble-shooting. However, the problem may require him to go to the office at any time of the day or night. Because of his flexibility and willingness to continually improve his skills, Akhtar is a valued employee.

Phil Wiseman is loosing his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease which causes a narrowing of the visual field. Phil had an uncle who became totally blind from RP. His brother has the same condition. It affects each of them differently. His brother still sees well enough to drive a car. Phil's visual field is less than twenty degrees--enough for him to be registered blind--but his central vision is still quite good.

Phil is currently able to work without any modifications, but he knows his vision is likely to deteriorate. When he first was hired by the Province of Ontario, he used a large print program called Vista. Unfortunately, it is not compatible with his agency's current computer system. He tried another large print program, but he found it awkward to use.

"Through the NFB I have learned that there is a lot more out there to help me than I thought. I know that when I need to do it, I will be able to make the transition to accessing the computer screen with speech. I know that I will be able to continue working no matter how my vision changes."

His employers at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing believe in Phil too. He is currently a project leader doing systems design, developing specifications for programs, analyzing user requirements, and maintaining and supporting the computerized financial system for the Ministry. His employer doesn't care whether he sees the screen or listens to speech output; they just care that the work gets done and they know that it will.

Wayne St. Denis works as a technical analyst for Intria Corporation. He is part of a team which supports scheduling systems on main frame and mid-range platforms. These are systems which allow users to schedule their application so that the computer is used efficiently and programs do not interfere with one another.

Intria Corporation was once a department within the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Although Intria is now a separate corporation, CIBC is still its primary customer. The corporation hopes to do systems management work for other companies and Wayne is excited about the potential opportunities.

Wayne uses a combination of enlarged print and speech. He finds speech more efficient for reading large volumes of material-- particularly documentation. Because he still has some useable vision, he can read large print to check messages and verify the accuracy of his work when minute details are involved. "I simply have to get more practice with speech in order to feel completely comfortable with it.

I like using the vision I have, but I suffer from eye strain and fatigue if I rely on it too extensively."

Wayne uses ZoomText and has just purchased JAWS for Windows 95. "I use OutSpoken for Windows 3.1 at home, but it won't work for Windows 95. I'll simply have to learn to use JAWS."

Wayne works as part of a team. He found that, although he had taken computer courses, his most useful learning occurred on the job. "When you use something everyday, you retain it. The course work was good for teaching me basic principals, but I learned my job by doing it." His cooperative attitude and willingness to take on new challenges help him fit well in a new corporation. There is no doubt that Wayne's skills will grow as the company which employs him develops.