New coding tool could help blind or visually impaired computer programmers

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According to Billah, this is especially useful for blind and visually impaired users when navigating through empty space or making sense of special symbols – such as indentations or parentheses – that have meaning in code and serve as visual markers. for sighted programmers in traditional code editors. . When used with Grid Editor, a screen reader audibly indicates that a cell is empty, letting a blind or visually impaired programmer know that an indentation exists and helps them perceive the location of their cursor in the code. Grid Editor also uses other beeps to guide the user, such as announcing which cell the cursor is currently in, indicating if, or buzzing when the user reaches the grid boundary. Additionally, Grid Editor applies brightly colored highlights to certain cells, mimicking the colors used in traditional code editors to better direct visually impaired users.

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

“Think of coding as walking a road; for a sighted person he can see the road, but for a blind person the road is dark and therefore he can fall,” said one study participant. “But if I have something to hold on to while walking, it will help me walk more easily on the road. From my point of view, Grid Editor gives me this structure to hold on to [while coding]because I always know in which line and at which level I am.

Billah, whose expertise lies in accessible computing, hopes tools like Grid Editor will help encourage more blind and visually impaired people to explore computer programming – a high-paying field – as a career choice.

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

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

Grid Editor is free and is publicly available online. It works best with Chrome browser with NVDA screen reader. It currently supports the Python programming language, but support for other languages ​​is on the way.

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

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