Apple Partners with Nonprofit to Teach Coding to Blind Learners

Apple Partners with Nonprofit to Teach Coding to Blind Learners

Apple has formed a partnership with the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired to teach people with visual impairments how to code, the Chicago Tribune’s Ally Marotti reported last week:

Hadley plans to start by developing a series of free instructional videos that teach the audience how to use Apple’s Swift Playground app. The app was developed as part of Apple’s Everyone Can Code campaign, which teaches the Cupertino, Calif.-based company’s programming language, Swift. …

“For a person that’s blind, (a device) is just a piece of glass,” said [Douglas Walker, Hadley’s director of assistive technology], who has only peripheral vision. “You have to learn a gesture-based system to move through it.”

Walker swiped right on his iPhone to trigger a feature that read aloud the apps he dragged his finger over — Clock, Maps, NOAA Weather. That’s where Hadley’s videos come in: They teach viewers those gestures, allowing them access to their iPhones or other Apple devices.

The institute has been teaching Braille and other skills to visually impaired people through distance learning since it was founded nearly 100 years ago. Today, Hadley’s free tutorials on how to use the accessibility features on Apple devices are more popular than its Braille offerings. A new series of videos to be released this fall will walk users through navigating the Swift Playground app, which teaches the language through coding games.

In the US, fewer than 44 percent of people with visual impairments are employed, Marotti notes, citing data from Cornell University, while bureau of Labor Statistics data show that only 2 percent of employed Americans with disabilities are working in mathematical or computer-related professions. Teaching coding skills to people who are blind or visually impaired could therefore expand opportunities for good jobs among a severely underserved segment of US adults. This initiative also stands to benefit Apple and other employers of coders by expanding the talent pool.

Last month, Fast Company‘s Lydia Dishman interviewed blind software engineer Michael Forzano, who has been working for Amazon since 2013 after getting hired through one of the company’s campus recruiting programs (he used his laptop instead of a whiteboard to write his code during the interview). Amazon also profiled Forzano in a post on its blog earlier this year, and here is a segment from an accompanying video the company produced in which he demonstrated how he writes code:

Forzano, who has been blind since birth and does back end development for the Amazon’s Retail Accessibility team, also explained his unique perspective on the code structures that other engineers would simply visualize:

I know that my co-workers often ask me, ‘Can you tell me how this works?’ Because I have a pretty good mental map of the structure of the code and where things are and what part of the system this particular component is in, or the overall architecture of the system. I’ve got it in my head. I can tell someone how something works, where something is, whereas I feel like a lot of my coworkers are relying on white-boarding and drawing diagrams, which is pretty typical, I would say, for people with vision, because they are often visual learners, and just visually oriented people. I’ve never had that, so I’ve been able to, I guess, use my brain power to do things non-visually.

People with disabilities are not often front-of-mind in diversity and inclusion programs, but our research at CEB, now Gartner, has shown that there are concrete business benefits to be gained from reaching out to this community in your recruiting efforts: 92 percent of individuals prefer to do business with a company that hires persons with disabilities and 87 percent of corporations prefer to do business with other companies that hire persons with disabilities. Partnering with the Hadley Institute is a clear win for Apple in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility translating into a reputation boost—all the more so if it goes on to hire many of the visually impaired people who master their programming language through Swift Playground.

This latest initiative by Apple also comes in the context of a broader effort by the tech giant (along with its peers) to grow and diversify its talent pipeline. The tech sector requires a growing number of candidates with specialized skills, who are in short supply in the US and other major markets, so they are taking the matter of developing this workforce into their own hands.

Apples’s “Everyone Can Code” campaign, which launched last May, is part of that effort to develop more developers. Earlier this year, the company expanded the program to 70 more colleges and universities throughout Europe, just months after going global with the program. In March, it brought the curriculum to Chicago public schools and Northwestern University (The Hadley Insitute is based in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago). Also, when Apple announced that it was repatriating hundreds of billions of dollars that it had parked overseas to take advantage of a now-closed loophole in US tax law, it said it would spend $30 billion of those funds over the next five years on capital expenditures geared toward job creation, including education initiatives.