Computer programmers, coders, create websites and apps that keep us connected in an electronic world. Coding is a solid career choice and one that’s particularly well-suited to people who are blind or low vision. To support awareness of career opportunities in computer science and programming for blind and low-vision youth, the APH ConnectCenter and California College for the Blind are co-hosting the free, virtual 2021 National Coding Symposium for students May 11-14 (details below) to expose students to a wealth of information about the field.
One of the biggest reasons coding is such a viable career path for people who are blind/ low vision is because coding is very much text-based, says Enjie Hall, Director of Campus Accessibility and Student Disability Services at Ohio’s University of Toledo.
“At its core, when you look at a string of symbols, that is coding which then translates into developing software and programs,” she explains. “Because it is text-based, it’s friendly to someone who understands language, whether or not they have vision. Because it’s text-based, people who are visually impaired can use the same tools they use to interact with other text to learn about and work in computer coding.”
That means the first requirement for students interested in coding careers is being comfortable with assistive technology, such as ZoomText, JAWS or even a braille display.
“Being proficient in these skills is very important when you’re going into the tech world, because that’s what’s going to provide access,” Enjie says. “It levels the playing field.”
Middle and high school experience is a launching pad to college
Enjie encourages students to take as many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes as possible in middle and high school. There are also summer programs available through high schools and even universities. Parents can ask their child’s Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI), the school’s career or vocational counseling office or simply call colleges in the area. Other resources Enjie suggests are an area Commission for the Blind, Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired, or Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (states may use slightly different terminology). Commission and/or Vocational Rehabilitation Bureaus should have a list of summer programs for youth who are blind/ low vision including those with additional disabilities.
“The sooner students can interact with a computer and software and programming language the better,” she says. “Parents should encourage students interested in the field to participate in every computer and STEM course that’s available to them, whether in school or through other programs. This includes not only computer-oriented courses but other science courses like physics.”
Some states, such as Ohio, offer the chance for middle and high school students to take courses that count toward college credit. This is an advantage when students are applying to colleges, where the STEM and computer programs tend to be competitive. A student’s school would have a list of these courses if they’re available. But students can’t ignore the other core courses, such as English, social sciences and history, because scores on college entrance exams, like the SAT, are also an important factor in getting accepted into college.
What’s more, experience counts. Extracurricular activities such as rocket club, creating computer programs at home or a part-time job doing coding during high school – or later, in college, to build up a student’s resume – can be a big plus.
“Whenever possible, I encourage parents to connect their students with other people who are visually impaired, especially if they’re working in the STEM field or have studied computer science and engineering or have done coding,” Enjie says. “There’s a huge assistive technology community of professionals who are blind.”
Students can ask about mentorships through their school or community organizations they engage with as part of their Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC).
APH also offers a variety of products and online trainings designed to teach students about coding. A quick search of the APH Virtual ExCEL academy’s YouTube channel provides webinar options like “Offline Coding & Coding Concepts – No Computer Required”; and “Basic Coding Part 2.” The Paths to Literacy website also has some great information about the APH Product Code Jumper, a tool developed by Microsoft to help students who are blind/ low vision develop an understanding of computer coding
Choosing the right college is essential
Although most students, and their families, are drawn to top schools; they may not always offer the kind of support that students who are blind/ low vision need to do well in school.
“When you visit the campus, don’t just do the college tour,” Enjie says. “The single most important thing you can do is visit the Disability Resources Office, because that office is responsible for accessibility and accommodations. They can literally make you or break you.”
For example, she says it’s important that the college provide students with braille, large print or closed-circuit television (CCTV) – whatever your child needs to succeed. It might even mean having a lab assistant who can describe information that isn’t visually accessible. Enjie also suggests that families and students ask if the college has any students who are blind or low vision, and are prepared to provide the necessary accommodations and accessibility resources.
“If you go to a college that already has the system built in, you’re going to have a much better experience than if you choose a college simply by how it’s ranked,” Enjie says. “Any top college will help you get a good job, but it’s how you do in your program and how you’re prepared that really counts, so you need a supportive environment that lets students thrive.”
Ultimately, she urges parents to be good partners to their children who want to pursue coding careers – or any career for that matter. “The question parents should be asking is not ‘What can my child not do?’ but ‘How can my child participate?’” Enjie says. “It’s a question to ask of their student and the program, because we’re not interested in what cannot happen – we’re interested in what can happen. That’s the mindset I hope parents have when they’re talking to their kids.”
Enjie is among the many panelists and speakers who will be part of the 2021 National Coding Symposium for students May 11-14, co-hosted virtually by APH ConnectCenter and California College for the Blind. Enjie will be part of a Q&A session on what it takes to get a job in coding, including educational preparation. Other blind/ low vision presenters and advocates will share valuable information about working in the field and how to prepare for careers. Learn more and register for this free symposium on the APH ConnectCenter’s website.