Visually impaired students learn to code with talking technology


Voice technology is at the center of an app that allows blind students to create computer programs. The tech giant, Apple, unveiled it to dozens of students at Texas School for the Blind Wednesday.

A small group of students gathered on the school’s playground. They peered into the sky, searching for a drone that had been launched. Soon, it made a landing on one of the student’s hand.

“It’s amazing,” said Vicki Davidson, a technology teacher at the school. “Some kids have never been exposed to coding before.”

Launching and landing drones is how the students ended a day of computer programming with several Apple engineers. Two years ago, the tech giant created an after-school coding group at the School for the Blind. But, this was the first time they visited during school hours to teach students one-on-one.

The engineers used a program called Swift Playground which Apple created to teach all students how to code. But with a voice-technology feature on tablets, students can hear screen descriptions aloud, make selections and program drones.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see how the kids have gravitated towards this,” said Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives. “They’ve all embraced this.”

About 25 percent of the students at the school are totally blind. The other 75 percent are partially sighted–they can see some shapes and light, but they require special education services.

Some of the students in the workshop, who range between 13 and 21 years old, saw a hiccup or two while launching or landing their drones.

“What do we have to do?” asked one of the Apple programmers. “We have to try it again.”

Herrlinger, who is in Austin to speak during the South by Southwest Conference, said the tech giant may be able to mine for future programmers among blind students now.

“If learning to code and having an experience in science, technology, engineering and math, we want to be about making that happen,” she said.

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