Blind College Student Accesses Computer Science Curriculum
By: Jessica Miller
Cory Samaha hopes to graduate from The College of New Jersey in 2011 with a B.S. degree in Computer Science. His career goal is to work in the field of programming to make all software accessible to individuals with disabilities, especially computer users who use screen readers. This focus stems from the fact that Cory himself is legally blind and has personally encountered the frustrations and problems that arise when a screen reader cannot read aloud a website or software program.
Cory has used assistive technology since his early school years. He began learning Braille at the age of three, and by the time he was in kindergarten he was using a Perkins Brailler, which is a manual typewriter-type device that embosses Braille on special paper. Then, in third grade he was introduced to a Mountbatten Brailler with a Braille keyboard. A Mountbatten Brailler is an electronic Braille writer, notetaker, and embosser. With this technology he was able to build literacy skills at the same pace as his peers.
The Mountbatten Brailler was a good intermediary device between the manual Perkins Brailler and the high-tech Braille Lite (Freedom Scientific) because they use the same Braille keyboard layout, but the Braille Lite offers the advantage of being a lightweight portable device. Whereas the Mountbatten produced Braille hard copies but was not portable, the Braille Lite needs to connect to a computer or an embosser to get a hard copy of produced work. Cory’s high school acquired a Braille embosser so his aide could print out his Braille work for his itinerant teacher of the visually impaired. Using Braille translation software, the aide printed out his work on a standard printer for the general education teachers. Cory described his aide as being very creative when adapting materials for him, especially for math and science classes. For example, she made DNA models in biology and representations of different graphs in math classes.
Screen Reading Software
Since Cory became familiar with technology at such an early age, the transition away from Braille-based systems to systems that would provide him with more independence was a natural progression. At the age of eight, Cory informally oriented himself to the standard QWERTY keyboard on computers, and in a short amount of time he was typing at competitive speeds. He has used several different screen-reading software programs since that time, including JAWS (Freedom Scientific), Window-Eyes (GW Micro), and VoiceOver (Apple, Inc.). He currently has two computers at home, one a Windows desktop with Window-Eyes, which is Cory’s screen reader of choice, and a MacBook that uses the built-in accessibility option, VoiceOver. Cory needs to use the PC for some of his schoolwork, but when he has a choice, he prefers his Mac with VoiceOver. These software programs allow Cory to search the web, read electronic copies of his textbooks, join and participate in social networks, and access many other applications that the computer offers. The computer has been a very important part of Cory’s life and is the inspiration for what he intends to do in the future.
Using computers is at the very essence of Cory’s future goals and he needs to be able to access them in order to fulfill his dreams. Screen reading software has made that possible for him. However, there are limitations to this remarkable software. He has found that screen readers cannot access some websites and programs like Quicken (Intuit), for example. The field of computer science utilizes different operating systems such as Linux, which is a free Unix-type operating system used in some classes. Cory’s screen reading software, or any screen reading software for that matter, does not work with Linux. His teachers accommodate for this by allowing Cory to use his MacBook that has Java software on it to complete the same tasks as his classmates.
Access to College Textbooks
To access his college textbooks, Cory either listens to them on CD’s from Recordings For The Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) using a portable device called the Victor Reader Classic Plus (Humanware), or obtains electronic copies of the textbooks from the publishers which he listens to on his computer with the Window-Eyes
screen reading software. He prefers an electronic copy of his more technical textbooks because with Window-Eyes, he can listen to a quick overview of the text by turning off the punctuation and then turn the punctuation on to go through all of the programming codes he needs to know. He prefers using the Victor Readerto read novels and less technical texts.
Finding electronic copies of his computer science texts has been made easier by the fact that one of Cory’s professors is the author of some of them. Dr. Peter DePasquale of TCNJ’s Computer Science Department has been working closely with the college’s Office of Differing Abilities to solve Cory’s access issues. One problem in particular could not be solved by screen reading software, and that was providing Cory with access to all the charts, graphs and diagrams that are found in computer science textbooks. Dr. DePasquale’s solution to this problem is described in the cover story of this TECH-NJ.
Loves His iPhone
Cory is not afraid to try any new type of technology to discover the parts of it that are accessible and the parts that need improvement to become accessible. This past summer he purchased an iPhone, because he “wanted to see how accessible it was.” He shared with me that he thought it was a neat gadget and most of its applications were accessible, but he did find that some were not. He also found that the touch screen keyboard takes some time getting used to. The VoiceOver screen reader and accessibility options on the iPhone allow him to press a letter once to hear the letter, and then a second tap inserts the letter. He stressed that all of the applications available on the iPhone out-weigh any of its accessibility drawbacks.
An Advocate for Access
While certainly a technology-enthusiast, Cory has been inspired to advocate for change by the limitations of the assistive technology he has used. If he notices that his screen reader does not work with a particular application, he notifies the producers of that application. And not only does he inform them that their application is not accessible, but he also offers a possible solution. When he graduates he hopes to find a job in the computer science field that will allow him to continue this important work.
For Additional Information:
Freedom Scientific, Inc.
Freedom Scientific, Inc.
Jessica Miller is completing her M.A.T. in special education at The College of New Jersey in May, 2010.
Resources for the Blind
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sponsors the International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC). Located in Baltimore, MD, this is a comprehensive evaluation, demonstration, and training center with over $2.5 million worth of tactile and speech output technology.
The NFB website also hosts a Product and Technology section with valuable information about assistive technology and services for consumers, employers, and information technology and rehabilitation specialists.
for the Blind (AFB)
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has a section on its website on assistive technology. Here individuals can get information on topics such as:
Screen magnification programs
Screen reading programs
Optical Character Recognition
Cell phone technology
www.familyconnect.org is a website that provides information, videos, personal stories, event announcements and blogs to support parents of children who are blind/visually impaired.