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Blind Programming – Literally

Braille reader

Peter Lundblad, by all conventional definitions, would be considered a programming guru. He is a leading contributor to Subversion, an open sourced code management project – a widely used system. For his talents, Peter is also employed by Google (Google Code implements Subversion to host open source projects). Though what makes his story inspirational, is the fact that Peter is blind.

Information Week has published a short interview with Peter Lundblad. The interesting bit was an explanation of how he does it.

“I was trained as a finger typist. I know from the feel of the keys if I’ve made a mistake typing. When looking at code, I prefer Braille.” Lundblad uses a device that presents each line of code on the screen in Braille for him to read by touch.

While skimming through code is severely slowed down, as the field of vision is narrowed to a single line, it is still clear that with enough practise even visually challenged persons can master the art of computer programming. At first this all seems a little bit mind boggling, though then the blindfold chess would make an excellent analogy, and the latter has been around for a long time.

Sometimes computer science students would just stare at their code, wondering as to why something doesn’t work. This story brings up the point that one should think, I mean close your eyes and really think as to what’s going on. Programming is about logic – start running that logic through your head.

Of course the other inspirational bit is that even physical limitations don’t have to hinder your pursuit for something you really enjoy doing.

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Discussion

  1. Posted by AMailer | May 28, 2007, 10:09 am

    Soo true, several times I end up staring at my code, wondering, what the hell is wrong? But when I just start to ‘think’ about what each code does, I figure out the problem.

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  2. Posted by Bashar | June 6, 2007, 9:05 am

    Those people makes a man a shame of him self and what he is doing.

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  3. Posted by Tony | June 6, 2007, 10:27 am

    @Bashar – I’m not quite sure as to what you mean by that. Care to elaborate?

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  4. Posted by Bobrobyn | June 26, 2007, 8:41 pm

    Wow, that’s….amazing.

    I find the staring problem happens to my brother, who was taking a grade 11 class. He’d just sit there, and ask me “why won’t it work?” Really, somehow, the teachers in the highschool need to teach the students how to think logically…to look at a bunch of code, and be able to explain what it does. I think that was missing from my brother’s class. (I helped him a bit with this.)

    Problem number two for my brother involved scaling problems down to smaller problems. He’d look at the question and say to himself: “How do I do that?” I helped him with this…he hated it, but I got him off the computer, took out a pen and paper, and basically got him to tell me what the program needed to do, step by step. Getting away from the computer seemed to help him.

    Another interesting observation on my part, is a few people I know taking a degree in CS at my uni, will stare at their code and say “I coded it right, it just doesn’t work!” I HATE when people say that, lol.

    The blind being able to code….that’s just amazing.

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  5. Posted by Tony | June 27, 2007, 9:52 pm

    @Bobrobyn – actually one could “code it right” and have the program not work. I came across that at University while compiling the same code with different compilers. GCC, Borland, and whatever Visual Studio is integrated with handles NULL pointers differently ;) Although I’m sure that you’re referring to something else entirely.

    Thinking things through, conceptually, away from the computer screen and the syntax of exact implementation certainly helps. I’m beginning to develop a new appreciation for all the written programming exams. Although they never prepare you for that in lectures or assignments. And comes to think of it, often time your writing is still evaluation on the correctness of the syntax. What a shame, things could be done so much better.

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  6. Posted by sikanrong | February 17, 2008, 6:00 pm

    DUDE!! I’ve totally always wondered what would happen if I went blind. Somehow it’s comforting to know that writing code is still possible. Now I just wonder what i’d do without hands. Maybe that should be another article.

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  7. Posted by Brandon | February 19, 2008, 11:53 pm

    Wow that’s incredible. Blind programmers could be the true “Mentats”.

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  8. Posted by epochs | February 20, 2008, 2:11 pm

    @Tony@Bashar:

    I don’t want to speak for Bashar, but I understand how being outclassed by someone with a pretty heavy handicap against them can be a blow to the ego. Being forced to realize that the logic error you coded that took two days to find and nearly halted the development process is bad enough as it is. “Being beaten by someone who can’t see” may sound even worse.

    But when you think about what it is to look through each line individually, it seems like Peter’s view of the code is the same as the ’step-through’ method of debugging in Visual Studio, or placing a breakpoint on every line in a GCC IDE like Bloodshed.

    Also, I’d be interested in knowing if braille readers follow the same grouping patterns that sighted readers follow, for anyone that’s ever read the mispseleld wrods are sltil rdeable if all the ltters are teher, as typos in case-sensitive languages like C/ tend to cause me a lot of frustration, and also if the speed of braille reading is comparable to reading plain text.

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  9. Posted by Tony | February 20, 2008, 2:38 pm

    @epochs — that’s a fairly good analogy (step-through debugging). Though also, if I’m familiar enough with my code, I usually have a pretty good idea of where to look for a specific bug, so I could skip ahead to that block of code.

    I don’t know the limitations or even average braille reading speeds, though I would imagine that someone experienced enough could at least match average reading speeds. Assuming continues reading, not skimming through a page. At that point typos should be more tolerable.

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  10. Posted by Robyn | February 21, 2008, 10:01 pm

    Just because someone can’t see does not mean they can’t think. Not such a big deal really. Blind people do all sorts of stuff. Some of these responses are a bit patronising

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  11. Posted by Kylee | February 22, 2008, 5:22 pm

    Thank you, Robin!! I’m glad to see SOMEONE has a bit of perspective. Braille is not an inferior medium, it is merely a different one; and there have been blind programmers using it to efficiently do their jobs for some three decades or more. As for reading ability, I beat all my sighted classmates at news-reading while at broadcasting school here in New Zealand. I was using a note taker with an 18-cell display, which meant that while they could scan ahead several lines, I could only scan three or four words. I still managed to read more fluently – and with correct pronunciation – than they did. Reading ability has nothing to do with what medium you use. Just because we dont’ have the use of our eyes, doesn’t mean that we are deficient or defective!

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  12. Posted by Rohit | February 23, 2008, 4:00 am

    I’m fascinated…I have a friend in my university who is blind and is a far better coder than any other person in CS. I really don’t know how they manage it, considering that I spend a lot of my program time in visually designing the problem. Hats off to such people!! :)

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  13. Posted by NgTY | November 26, 2008, 3:43 am

    Truely inspiration … My eyes are getting very strained easily these days, due to excessive ‘wear-and-tear’ by prolong staring at the screen when doing development work … i love programming and don’t wish to stop it, and i’m paranoid abt losing my sight one day if my current situation continues … guess it is really worthwhile to pick up blind programming (without the need to acquire special hardware though) … so that i can continue to program even with my eyes closed …

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