Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:38 AM EDT

A Coding Language for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Apr 25, 2019 07:49 AM EDT

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Code Jumper
(Photo : Microsoft)

There are 63,357 children who are blind or visually impaired in the United States, according to a 2017 American Printing House for the Blind (APH) annual report. Cornell University Disability Statistics estimate that only 15.7 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired complete a bachelor's degree or higher, based on the 2016 American Community Survey data. That means fewer than 10,000 of those 63,000-plus children who are blind or visually impaired will earn advanced degrees if this trend continues. The APH, a nonprofit organization in Louisville that makes braille textbooks and develops assistive technologies, wants to help change that statistic.  This means ensuring that they are properly equipped with enough knowledge and skills for their career development. 

"The problem is, students who are blind or visually impaired, have been left out of the equation. If you lack a visual channel, then all the animations and all the drag-and-drop that's happening on the screen [when learning to code] isn't accessible," APH president, Craig Meador explains. 

This is indeed true, which is why Microsoft developed a coding language that is specifically for the blind and visually impaired, and it is called Code Jumper.  It is different from computer-based programming languages such as Python and C++, since Code Jumper is an educational tool comprised of modular, physical pieces students can string together to create code.  It makes coding tactile and fun -- and it's highly customizable. Students can play single musical notes or complete songs, tell stories, use pre-set sounds and make their own sounds. They have control over speed, pitch, and volume too.  An app, Code Jumper app, is required for the system to work.

Each Code Jumper kit has two main components - a hub and several pods. The hub is a hand-sized white plastic device that runs on four AA batteries. It has a large circular blue play button and a slightly smaller circular blue stop button. It also has a built-in speaker, volume control and four ports that look like traditional headphone jacks. 

Pods are smaller white plastic devices you attach to the hub via the ports. Each pod represents a line of code and has its own ports so you can continuously connect additional pods like a massive centipede, until you run out.

Meador believes students who learn Code Jumper will have a much easier time transitioning to more advanced programming languages like Python. "We're looking at this [Code Jumper] as a career piece," Meador says. Microsoft, Apple and Google accessibility teams have spoken with him about the shortage of programmers who are blind or visually impaired. They're in high demand. 

Code Jumper will be sold starting in July through APH with lesson plans so teachers can learn how to implement it in schools with their students. Pricing hasn't been set yet, but a government grant will allow school districts to get these materials for free. Meador wants to make it as affordable as possible for everyone else, so parents can buy them for use at home. 

At launch, Code Jumper will be available in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but APH hopes to expand to other countries.  

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