New coding tool could aid computer programmers who are blind or have low vision

According to Billah, this is especially useful for blind and low-vision users when navigating empty space or making sense of special symbols — such as indentations or parentheses — which hold meaning in the code and serve as visual markers for sighted programmers in traditional code editors. When used with Grid Editor, a screen reader will audibly state that a cell is blank, indicating to a blind or low-vision programmer that an indentation exists and helps them to perceive their cursor’s location in the code. Grid Editor also uses other audible cues to guide the user, such as announcing in which cell the cursor is currently located, stating whether or buzzing when the user reaches the boundary of the grid. Additionally, Grid Editor applies brightly colored highlights to certain cells, mimicking colors used in traditional code editors to further direct low-vision users.   

After building their initial prototype, the researchers solicited feedback from the online communities of blind or low-vision programmers for two months. Then, to test the functionality of their final prototype, they recruited 12 blind or low-vision programmers for a controlled lab study. Participants used both a plain text editor and Grid Editor to complete various coding tasks. The researchers observed the programmers’ activity and measured accuracy and efficiency. On average, the participants were faster, navigated more accurately and made fewer errors when using Grid Editor compared to the traditional code editor. 

“Think about coding as walking a road; for a sighted person, he can see the road, but for a blind person, the road is dark and as a result he may fall,” one study participant stated. “But if I have something to hold on to while walking, it will help me walk the road more easily. The way I see it, Grid Editor gives me that structure I can hold on to [while coding], as I always know which line and level I am in.” 

Billah, whose expertise lies in accessible computing, hopes that tools like Grid Editor will help encourage more blind and low-vision individuals to explore computer programming — a high paying field — as a career choice. 

“Blind individuals are already at an economic disadvantage, and many of them pursue careers in the music and audio transcription industries,” said Billah.. ”However, computer programming can be a rewarding career choice for them because programming is a text-based activity suitable for their assistive technologies such as screen readers or refreshable Braille displays. Therefore, if enough resources and tools are available to them to learn computer programming easily and quickly, they can make a better living for themselves.” 

Billah and Ehtesham-Ul-Haque collaborated with Syed Mostofa Monsur, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, on the work, which was presented this week at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST), the premier venue for innovations in human-computer interfaces. The paper has received the conference’s 2022 Best Paper Award.  

Grid Editor is free to use and is publicly available online. It works best with Chrome Browser with NVDA screen reader. It currently supports Python programming language, but support for other languages is underway.  

The work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health and in part by Billah’s startup fund from the College of IST. 

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