Our Space Our Place: Making Tech Accessible to the Visually Impaired

 |   Cheryl Cumings, Project Associate at UMass Medical / Disability and Community Services

Our technology-driven world is constantly growing, creating new standards and opportunities. Throughout this growth, though, it is pertinent to ensure that this technology is accessible to all. In the spirit of Microsoft’s renewed focus on the connection between technology and accessibility, Smarter in the City introduced us toOur Space Our Place (OSOP), which provides access to education for blind and low-vision students. Programs like Our Space Our Place (OSOP), bring to the table technology — and tech skills — that empower our youth and bring them to a level playing field. OSOP emerged out of the desire of professionals who are blind and parents with children who are blind to improve the employment outcomes for the next generation of blind youth.

— Aimee Sprung

2. BAA 5K 2015: This is from the BAA 5K last year. I love this picture because it looks like everyone has just finished running and they're walking away from the camera. One of the volunteers has her arm around Nakia's shoulder, it looks like a very sweet moment.

As our society progresses through technology, one of the main questions we have to ask ourselves is how we make tech accessible to all. The influence of technology in our jobs, our schools, and our home lives can’t be denied — so it only makes sense that we all understand it on a skill-based level. That’s why we’re bringing coding to Our Space Our Place (OSOP). OSOP is a non-profit organization, offering a respectful, accessible and fun environment for middle and high school students who are legally blind to participate in team sports, the arts, community service and mentoring in Boston and its surrounding communities.

While technology may be everywhere, access to tech is not. Many individuals who are visually impaired use tools that turn text on a screen into speech, but not every coding language is accessible through these means. And not everyone knows that you can code via speech. So we designed a summer camp that makes the coding experience as accessible as possible.

1. Rock Climbing: This picture was taken in January 2016 at the BU Fitness Center's rock climbing wall. It is a group picture with OSOP students and C.A.S.H. volunteers posing in front of a rock wall.

Our summer camp, a week-long program, will be held this July 11 — 15, hosted by Microsoft at the NERD Center. It is open to anybody who is blind or low vision, who uses speech or magnification software to access a computer. Limited to middle- and high- school age students.This program uses tools on the market that get kids and adults excited about coding. As it currently stands, a lot of tools that exist are based on graphics and use flash, making them inaccessible to somebody who uses speech-based tools. So we decided to go back to the basics — we spend time teaching HTML, CSS and Javascript. It doesn’t make sense to introduce kids to tools and say “Oh, if you’re using speech, you can only do X, Y, and Z.” By having the primary instructor be a professional who is blind, we aim to show the students that learning these tools can be done. After doing our research and talking to people “in the know,” we understand that the fundamentals of coding get you started — and all these things can be done using a text-based format (something as basic as notepad).

I want blind kids to learn how to code because I think a lot of times we limit ourselves to just being users of technology. I’m interested in kids understanding that they can be creators of technology. I want to expand future work opportunities for folks who are visually impaired. We’re looking for that somebody who hasn’t thought of this as a possible career — they know they like video games or doing things on the web, but never thought “I could be one of those people.” They can be.

6. OSOP at NBP

One of the mentors here at Smarter in the City, Tim Buntel, articulated it very well in saying that as we move into the 21st and 22nd century, computers will play a bigger part in our lives. We need to improve our computer literacy. This is all part of that.

I’m hoping that as we put this together and implement it, we’ll start building connections with tech leaders who want to improve accessibility. There are so many local companies embracing tech, and it just seems to me that there has to be a space there for people who are visually impaired. If people know that blind kids are interested in coding, they’ll start creating more internship opportunities and employment options for adults.

One study estimates SSI and SSDI beneficiaries who enter the disability programs before age 30 remain on benefits an average of 33 years and incur cumulative SSDI, SSI, Medicare, and Medicaid, expenditures averaging nearly $600,000 during that period—about twice the amount estimated for all working-age beneficiaries (Riley and Rupp 2015). Kids who begin on SSI stay on SSI.

One of the reasons I started OSOP is because there’s been such a high unemployment rate within the blindness community — and across all the disability community. About a third of the people who are blind who want to work are working, which means two-thirds are not working. That is just completely unacceptable.

As we’re talking about a society of inclusion, we need to make sure that we really are taking advantage of all of the skills of everybody. And everybody includes folks who are blind and low vision.

Find more about Our Space Our Place’s programs — including summer coding camp — here.

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