Tech Community is blind

Tech Community is blind

Have we failed to be inclusive to one of the most vulnerable social groups?

Sergii Kirianov's photo
Sergii Kirianov
·May 28, 2022·

8 min read

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The Numbers

Disclaimer: numbers are taken all over the world in general and some are from the US, UK, and EU since the data is mostly available for those regions.

As per WHO there are more than 1 billion people in the world with visual impairment, more than 1 billion people with some form of disabilities, and between 110 to 190 million people aged 15 and older with significant difficulties in functioning. Those people are struggling in day-to-day life, because the environment we live in, though on the way to make life easier for them and more accessible, is still not ready. Bureau of Labor Statistics (US) has reported in 2021 that out of all people with disabilities only 19.1 % are employed.

The numbers are bad, though not surprising at all. The daily commute to work is hard, availability and accessibility of public transportation need a lot of work to be done. So what would be the best solution for them? Well, I would say working remotely would be great, also becoming a developer would be really great! What can be done to attract more people with disabilities to the Tech industry? What can be done to make their developer experience seamless and accessible? What can be done to make Tech more Diverse and Inclusive? Let's find out what has been done so far and what has to be done still.

Spoiler: not much has been done and a LOT has to be done.

Accessibility

Most of us are familiar with this topic, some are even evangelists and professionals advocating for accessibility. But have you ever thought of accessibility for developers? How can we call ourselves Diverse and Inclusive if we can't even help people to enter the same field we work in? Most talks about accessibility are aimed at user experience to cover more and more user groups and create an accessible environment for potential customers.

The user-centric design and workflow are great, we do attract more users, more money, and more innovation. But we are being selfish. We don't think about our own potential colleagues. What hypocrisy, right?

During one of the conferences in Brussels, I asked the speaker who had a talk about user accessibility what he thinks about accessibility for developers. Well, nobody could answer the question. I've seen the eyes of all people who looked at me when I asked the question and I saw no answer in them. I realized, looks like most developers never asked themselves this before...Sad.

The biggest issue is that basically, it's extremely hard to find any information on tools for developers with disabilities. The moment you Google anything, most of the results are tools to help you create accessible apps, but not accessibility tools for developers.

Think about it. Even the learning content is so spoiled. Yes, there are lots of courses and guides on how to start, how to learn language X in Y time, and how to set up the project. There are a lot of text guides, but also there are guides that are videos...with code snippets that they show you on the screen...in the video.

So is there anything?

Tools and why they fail

The most common tools for accessibility on an OS level: are a screen keyboard, voice-to-text, voice control, and a screenreader.

I think it's quite obvious even without me explaining it, why those tools are basically useless for people with disabilities who want to start programming. But let me give you a few examples so you can feel all the pain.

  • Screen keyboard

Needless to say that speed of development using the mouse as a single input would be terrible, especially how verbose the code can be and how much stuff we actually type, we barely think of it in terms of characters. After a short research, I have found out that an average programmer makes at least 10-15k keystrokes during a normal working day. This tool is basically one of the "soft" tools that can be used. It basically requires you to have at least hand and the ability to see, which is not always the case.

  • Voice-to-text

We all are in different conditions and for people who have limbs, it's extremely hard to imagine how to type / work / do your chores without hands. And now imagine that you have to write any function bigger than 10 lines of code by your voice, jump from line to line, manipulate cursor position, navigate between tabs/windows/ etc. Well, I doubt you can. It's extremely hard, I've tried, and trust me I couldn't do any of what I do during my normal daily workflow.

  • Voice control

Should I tell you that if your English is not "clear" enough or if you don't speak in a particular way - no control for you...My English is pretty okayish, but hell no this thing will ever understand me. For more insights on voice control day-to-day life of a developer, you can check this article What Software Development Looks Like When You Have a Partial Disability. Keep in mind, this is a partial disability, just a hand.

  • Screenreader

I'll give you the quickest example to understand how bad things are. You're a blind developer and Webpack bundling error generates 100+ lines of errors because of a typo in a component...

I have really just touched the tip of the iceberg, there are way more issues. Issues we don't think about on a daily basis, things we don't pay attention to, things we don't care about. We - developers, we the ones who try to make the world a better place, or at least we say so, we fail to see how bad the whole ecosystem is for people with disabilities. We are gatekeepers for so many people. We have done minimum to open doors for those people who really need it, for those for whom this job could be a gamechanger, a golden ticket to the world.

As I said, we have done the minimum, it's progress, but we are so far from at least OKAY.

What has been done?

There are quite a few initiatives to try and open the gate. I would like to "shout out" them and tell you about them.

  • Serenade - a project created to involve more voice control for development. Voice-to-code tool specializing in writing code by voice uses a code snippets approach and is quite easy to use. But. It's still primarily targeting the developers who have no issues such as disabilities. They don't target people with disabilities specifically and so - paywall...

  • Microsoft AI's research on the tools for people with disabilities - is quite a new initiative by Microsoft, still in the working stage, but already has done some real impact and serves as a pathway for those who want to contribute. You can read more about it here Inclusive Coding for Disabled Developers

  • The list is....short. Really, it's damn hard to find anything. Leave the tools you've heard/know/use in the comments. I would love to test them.

Ask yourself a question

Life is unpredictable. Think about it. Right now you're healthy, this is a gift you have and at most do not realize. You have a job, you love being a programmer, at least I hope you do.

Ask yourself a question "Am I secure at this job?". What would happen to me, my career, and my skills if due to a force major something happened to you and you've got a disability. You lost your arms/sight. Are you able to continue your job? Do you still feel secure? Well, personally, I would think that this is the end of my career. Though I still have the skills, and knowledge to do it. I still can work remotely as I am doing it now. I still can use a computer and sit in front of it for hours. I still can, but unfortunately, I can not work. Isn't it weird?

What needs to be done?

Around 64% of people with disabilities are internet users (An analysis of the digital literacy of people with disabilities in Korea: Verification of a moderating effect of gender, education and age).

For now the most important is awareness! We need to put more people into a state of awareness, educate people on the matter, and start building, innovating, and delivering. We all have got the benefits of working remotely, now it's time to let people who actually have to work remotely join us. Brilliant, smart, innovative people who could be a great asset to the industry. People who will build and contribute to accessibility as no one else would. People who would care.

We need to get the attention of big corporations and influencers to speak out loud about these issues. We must create a friendly community of allies, who would provide assistance to onboard people with disabilities. We must make sure that products and resources are free for those people. We must create a smooth and fast track for them. We must create specialized software for them.

Do you know why there are no tools? Because people with disabilities treat being a programmer as inaccessible to them. This job is a "no go" for them. And this is why we must make sure that our field is as accessible as possible.

Teaching, Creating, Delivering

What's the plan?

You can easily break a stick, but you can't break sticks in a bundle

I would like to gather more people, more creative people, and more empathic people who would be willing to contribute and spread the awareness. If you're one of them, please reach out to me on Twitter - @SergiiKirianov, I would like to grow this community and start creating meaningful products, guidelines, and learning resources. Spread the word.

I believe that this is possible!

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