Cracking the Code

Assistive-tech-7_TodayCoverWhen a blind student in a computer science class at Minnesota State Mankato found that her screen reader wasn’t very effective in sifting through miles of computer code, she asked for help. That help ended up coming from Flint Million, a fellow student who is also blind.

Million, 31, is finishing his bachelor’s degree in Information Technology and is a student worker for Information Technology Services (ITS) at the University. Legally blind but with some vision, Million also contracts with the State of Minnesota’s Services for the Blind, usually to provide training on special computer equipment such as screen readers, which provide a synthesized voice that recites what’s on the screen.

That’s the kind of device the student was using in her computer science class. But when it comes to reading code, that’s a lot of voice to endure while trying to find one particular line of code.

“It would read, but it was very cumbersome because finding the information was taking too long,” Million recalls. “Finding it was taking 20 times longer than the act of actually reading it.”

Million’s solution was to create what’s known as a middle-ware program to serve as a shortcut between the screen reader and the student.

“What I developed was a solution that does some software tricks to locate items on the screen that are of importance … and to provide easy access to that information,” Million explains. His “trick” was to create a custom keystroke—like, for example, alt and the number 9—that directs the screen reader to read a specific piece of information. “You press that key and it will read to you a certain piece of information that’s relevant so you don’t have to go hunting for it,” he says. “You just press that key and have it ready.”

As he was working on that, the University purchased a Refreshable Braille Display, a tool that generates braille code. “So I adapted my software to also work with that,” Million says.

With those tools at hand, the student’s efficiency improved. “She was getting homework done in a fraction of the time, more comparable to what everybody else would take for instance, without having to give up the whole weekend and not spend any time with her friends,” Million says.

A True Triumph

The Office of Accessibility Resources considers Million’s innovative solution to this particular issue a triumph and an example of how they are able to work with University stakeholders to provide equal access to the almost 700 students they serve at Minnesota State Mankato.

“Our role and task is to help the University make sure that any student with a disability has access to anything we do here—curriculum, services, physical buildings, the whole works,” says Julie Snow, the director of Accessibility Resources. “When we have a student in a class who can’t access the curriculum, that’s problematic. What Flint does helps.” While technology has revolutionized academic study, it’s a challenge for accessibility to keep pace. At the same time, Minnesota State Mankato has a collaborative system in place that’s unique among state universities.

“This relationship with ITS and our office is a big advancement that’s happened over the past two years,” said Beth Claussen, the assistant director of Accessibility Resources. “I think that’s an advancement that some of our colleagues don’t have.”

It’s the kind of relationship that produces unique ideas and leads to solutions such as Million’s. In that particular case, a team of leaders from the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, Accessibility Resources and Information Technology Services collaborated to find a solution. Such teamwork gives the University a reputation for being a model school
for students with disabilities.

Jude Higdon, interim associate vice president of technology, sees Million’s development as the kind of program that can serve students beyond Minnesota State Mankato. “It has the potential to be quite impactful and quite revolutionary for blind learners, really, all around the world, certainly all around the country,” Higdon says. While the development could go commercial, he sees a responsibility to make the software available free to anyone who needs it. “We’re publicly funded,” Higdon says. “If we’re doing things for the benefit of our students let’s pay it forward and release it open-source instead of commercializing, and let people benefit from that.”

Million will finish his undergraduate degree this spring, but he plans to stay at Minnesota State Mankato to earn his master’s degree as well. He’ll continue working to improve efficiency in accessibility while he’s at it.

“Just calling something accessible doesn’t automatically make it user-friendly,” he says. “If in order to actually make use of it, it takes 20 times longer than it would for a sighted person, that’s not an acceptable solution in my mind.

“I’m thinking of new ways to present information in an audible format or in Braille tactilely that conveys as much information as we can possibly get at without overload but at the same time does not slow you down significantly,” he adds. “Whenever I write these tools I’m focusing on the user experience.”