Why Accessibility Matters (According to a Totally Blind Programmer) (S6E3)

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When I say that you can overcome just about any obstacle while you learn to code, I really believe it.

Judith LungAnd so does Judith Lung, who taught herself how to code as a blind person. On Black Friday 2018, Judith bought the ultimate tech career bundle that we put together. She emailed me afterward and I was truly inspired by her story.

Judith is a rehabilitation counselor and a programmer. Her interest is in using accessible web applications and her knowledge about disabilities and counseling to create more opportunities for people with disabilities. A lot of people can’t afford or access assistive technology that could make their lives a lot easier, and she wants to make it more accessible to everyone.

While she was going through her degree in rehab counseling, Judith was told by a professor how important it is for counselors to have some technical skills, so she also took courses in programming and learned about creating accessible applications. This is when she found the LTCWM podcast and came across the Black Friday bundle—and I’m so happy to welcome her now as a guest on the podcast herself.

laptop coding

In this episode, Judith talks about the challenges of learning to code while blind, like how to use a text editor with a screen reader. She answers “what is assistive technology?” and explains the three different areas of accessible technology. You’ll also learn about a number of assistive technology jobs, like web accessibility specialists and more (careers you can pursue if this is a passion you share!).

Listen below!

This episode was transcribed with the help of an AI transcription tool. Please forgive any typos.

Laurence Bradford 0:07
Hey, and thank you for tuning in to the Learn to Code With Me podcast. I'm your host, Laurence Bradford. In this episode, you'll hear an incredible story about learning to code well blind, what it's like to work as a blind web developer, and why accessibility and tech matters. That's all coming up after a quick word from our sponsors.

Laurence Bradford 0:27
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Laurence Bradford 0:52
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Laurence Bradford 1:14
In today's episode, I talk with Judith Lung. Judith is a rehabilitation counselor and web developer, and she is passionate about using technology to create more opportunities for the disability community. Judith absolutely fascinates me because she learned to code while being totally blind. It's hard enough to learn how to code when you're fully sighted. So I was blown away by her story and her determination to help others do the same. And that's exactly what we're going to be talking about today. The methods Judith used to learn to code how she landed a job as a web developer, and the assistive technology available today that helps make tech more accessible. Quick note before getting into the interview I have a special announcement to share at the very end of this episode. So make sure to stick around until the end. Enjoy.

Laurence Bradford 2:14
Hey, Judith, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Judith Lung 2:16
Thanks so much for having me, Laurence.

Laurence Bradford 2:18
I'm really excited to chat with you today. Got in touch a bit ago, and I just really want to get you on the podcast because I know your story is going to be really inspirational for others. And for the listeners real quick. Judith bought the Ultimate Tech Career Bundle that we put together for Black Friday in 2018. And she emailed me afterwards, which is you know, how we first got in touch. And she talked about how like, this was a really great collection of courses, especially being a blind programmer, which just blew me like out of my chair and I read that I was like, Wait a second. Whoa, I knew this was like a helpful collection of courses but we she's she's learning and she's telling me she's blind as well. This is crazy. We have to get her on the show. So I am so happy to have you on again, and that we can have this conversation and to get things going. Judith, could you tell us a bit about your background of what you do and like what you went to college or whether or not you went to college and what you're doing now?

Judith Lung 3:15
Definitely. So I am a rehabilitation counselor and a programmer. My interest is in using accessible web applications as well as knowledge studying about disabilities in counseling to create more opportunities for people with disabilities. When I went to college, though, I actually studied English because I was very inspired by this lady whom I read about in middle school who was blind herself. She invented the Braille type Pattern Language. And she actually went to Tibet and opened a school for the blind and traveled on horseback to different villages to invite kids to join her school. So I thought Maybe I want to, at least, you know, teach abroad and English might be a good fit. But then after one summer I worked as a camp counselor, I thought, oh, maybe I'm too introverted for this, I can not wake up. And the minute I wake up, I'm talking to people in a minute, until the minute I am going to bed. And so I also at that time, took my first programming class.

Judith Lung 4:27
And I became very interested in coding. And so I thought, Hey, I still want to work with people with disabilities. But I may have to think about what I want to do now. So my mom, at that time suggested that I study rehab counseling and so I studied that and I also kept learning to code on the side because I loved it so much. And at that time, my professor was telling us how important it is now for counselors to have some time medical skills because you don't really see you know, counseling and programming go together. But then in this day and age, where technology is growing it more and more important that a lot of programs unfortunately are not designed by counselors are used by counselors and so programming was going to really help counselors as well as people with disabilities create more opportunities. So while I was pursuing my degree I in rehab counseling my master's degree in rehab counseling, I also took about eight courses in programming and learn a lot about creating accessible applications. But all those courses didn't help me build a lot of projects and at that time, I also started listening to but learn to code with a podcast and later on stumble upon the bundle and I thought this is really great with all the projects I can really show off some of the skills I learned and build accessible applications and hopefully use that to tell more people in my work.

Laurence Bradford 6:06
Yeah, that's that's so amazing. And when you said that counseling and technology go together how, like a lot of counselors can use technology skills that actually, to be honest, kind of surprises me like I know it's funny cuz I always say, Oh, so many jobs today, coding or tech skills is important, but I never even think of counseling as being one that is one that comes to my mind instantly. If you don't mind. Could you talk a bit about how counselors can use technology in a bit more detail or ways they can? and things like that?

Judith Lung 6:42
Definitely. So when, when in one of my internship, I noticed that a lot of the counselors have resources in this huge book that nobody reads. And so counselors tend to use the same resources over and over only the ones that they're for millier with, because resources are not very accessible to them even for whether they're sighted or have a disability. And I thought that time a when I was learning, you know, database programming and I could actually create a database of these resources where everyone can access them. So everyone can have the most up to date information instead of always flipping through that book or that folder.

Judith Lung 7:28
And so in my next internship, I was able to create a database with the names of the case managers for this particular organization so that everybody can have access to them in an organized way. And so from that experience, and others, I learned that counselors are especially, you know, working for like government agencies are nonprofits. They cannot afford the technology that can make their lives so much easier, or there's not a lot of technology designed specifically for them either to help them with the case management or with even making referrals, packets organized. And so I thought that, you know, this is really a feel to be explored and to really help counselors do their work more efficiently.

Laurence Bradford 8:27
Got it and I imagine with different laws, and I'm by no means an expert on this, but I know you know, different privacy laws and like HIPAA compliance, that it probably adds a whole other layer there like with the technology that they're using to help run their practice, as you said, like the different kind of forms and case management and all the stuff that needs to be organized on a patient level. It's Yeah, definitely makes sense that probably a lot of room there for technology to be used and it to be developed upon But I wanted to, well sort of switch gears a little bit, but it sounds like you first started learning to code about actually, how long ago did what was your first programming class, like in school or wherever it was?

Judith Lung 9:14
Five years ago when I was still an undergrad at Berkeley.

Laurence Bradford 9:19
Okay, cool. So an undergraduate five years ago, and what difficulties or frustration and did you find when you first started learning?

Judith Lung 9:29
So one of the things we have to I had to learn when I first started was how to innovate because all my instructors they're excited and very few blind students have taken a programming class. And that class was actually known to be very difficult. So on top of having to learn the different concepts, I have to deal with various accessibility issues. For example, how Do you use the text editor with a screen reader? So the text editors, other beginners may start with our like Sublime Text or atom which uses more of a graphical interface, which is not accessible for screen readers that depend on reading text to the users. So I had to really teach myself how to do that with the Emacs text editor without a lot of guidance. And so I had to do that with a lot of guidance. And it actually took a bit of time.

Judith Lung 10:35
For example, at first I didn't know how to how to go quickly to ally whereas my sighted classmate who just click on it with a mouse Oh, I have to learn the various commands that other users didn't have to learn other students didn't have to learn those commands. And another challenge I face first learning to code was after that class. Learning to Develop websites, a lot of programs start with a front end. And unfortunately, you know, although we can do the JavaScript or the HTML part coding the text of the application, making the designs could be quite a challenge. Fortunately, though, now with frameworks and different open source, web design templates that are available online, it's much easier for blind users to at least get a start on creating the layout for their websites and then to have some body to borrow someone's pair of eyes as we like to play and to check to make sure that it looks okay. So I guess to first just having to constantly innovate and then also to find ways to make the program meet our needs.

Laurence Bradford 11:56
Yeah. Wow. Sounds like when you first started Yeah, as your example with like, just using the text editor for you just to even, like, get to the starting point of one of your classmates, it was like a whole bunch of steps just for you to get there, which he I can't even imagine. And then he mentioned with the front end and the designs that that totally makes sense. So, wow, I you know, and as you're saying this, I just think about my own like journey learning to code and other people I speak to and how difficult it is like, being, like having vision how hard it is, and I can't even imagine, like, what it must be like, learning when when all these other things are coming into play. Like I just really am so impressed by you. So, so Wow. So okay, so you mentioned a lot accessibility or you've been talking about accessibility. I'm really excited that you know a lot about this because I really haven't talked about it much on the show. So could you could we talk a bit about that. And I guess just first starting with like, what is accessible technology? What does that mean?

Judith Lung 13:06
So, accessibility has, I guess, three different areas. The first is the assistive technology. So these are the technology design specialists to help people with disabilities perform a common task and life better. For example, a pair of glasses is assistive technology for somebody with poor eyesight, or a power chair helps people who have mobility impairments move around. And then the next area is accessibility. So it in this term refers to helping people use the internet or other applications offline, with disabilities of as much ease as people without disability. One of the great things about internet is that everybody can read from it and take classes and create articles and follow their influencers. And why not have it be the same for people with disabilities. So accessibility guidelines are set in place, for example, but different HTML elements like the alt text to describe images, or having sections and footers and headers, and different HTML semantics to make the layout of the page clear.

Judith Lung 14:35
It's a way in which people can implement accessibility so that the internet and other software applications can be equally accessed by people with disabilities. And then the third area which I'm very excited about is universal design. So it's refers to when applications come out of the box accessible for example, and you you computer if there is a Windows or Mac computer, the Windows computer has a screen reader called a narrator that automatically comes with it, you can access it by going to ease of access and settings and the Mac has equivalent of voiceover. So this makes it that a blind user or user with disabilities who buys a computer can know that I can use a computer without having to spend let's say, another thousand dollars purchasing assistive technology like a third party screen reader to make their computer accessible.

Laurence Bradford 15:36
Got it. Thank you for your for breaking it down for us. And you mentioned yet being the most interested in the last aspect which just sound really exciting. I would love to ask so you have so you have a blog and you have a website and I've been there. Could you explain just like what your process is like, for Are you just building that website? Like? Because, you know, it's so easy to just go online and be like, Oh, how do I start a website? How do I build a blog? And you can find these articles, right, like 10 steps to building your website, and it's pretty clear. It's like, you know, you need web hosting, oh, you need to do this, oh, you need to do that, you know, if you're using WordPress, blah, blah, blah. But for you, I imagine the steps are quite different. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Judith Lung 16:21
So yes, definitely. Sometimes, you know, when we read the 10 steps, we may end up becoming 20 steps for us as we have to find alternative ways to do things. But for setting up the website, though, thankfully, the WordPress content management system which I use is quite accessible, so I could write the text and upload the images like everyone else. However, it does take some getting used to the layout of the screen and where everything is arranged. So one thing that really helped Mi, ll get an idea of what's on the webpage when I first go to that page and where to fill out my information is by using my screen reader to browse through the headings or the different form fields. Because for screen readers, I can only read one line at a time or one paragraph at a time. So it depends where I point the cursor to tell it to read. So unlike, you know everybody else with who are not screen reader users who can scan the page and see where everything is, we just have to guess.

Judith Lung 17:36
Maybe it's under the heading VSS main and then go there and see where it's where we expect it was. So either browsing through different elements or listening to the webpage from top to bottom is how we can get an idea of where everything is and then start field filling things out. So Well, I created that blog. And I was able to upload images and text, right in the text, as I've said before. But however, one of the challenges was to resize those images to make it fit. And so I often had to use preview to open up the original image and then look at the images on the demo site to see what are the size differences and try to adjust them by looking at the file. And also sometimes I had to actually look at the underlying code because part of the user interface may not be accessible and I wanted to see how they design their website was actually what are some of the layouts there are going in to my blog and so that's another way we can tackle the Accessibility challenges when the user interface is not accessible. It's just by looking at the underlying code.

Laurence Bradford 19:08
Sit tight podcast listeners, we're taking a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors.

Laurence Bradford 19:15
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Laurence Bradford 20:14
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Laurence Bradford 21:18
Got it and you mentioned when you first started answering that about using WordPress did you use WordPress and of course as many listeners know WordPress is like one of those pop that gets think it's like the most popular way websites are built online so many big and small websites use WordPress I use WordPress for my blog websites like Forbes use what WordPress also did you choose WordPress because of how accessible it was?

Judith Lung 21:45
No, I actually just saw that WordPress has the most themes and so I just jumped right in and hope for the best when I chose WordPress because I was originally designing my website by coding from scratch because I was trying to Avoid using any user interfaces, just in case it's not accessible. And it takes me a very long time to work through it. But then I really like their themes. And so I chose WordPress and actually spend a couple days learning to use it and ended up working out all right for me, so I was very happy.

Laurence Bradford 22:22
Yeah, awesome. Okay, so you mentioned that you're originally building a website from scratch. How like, you just talked about the the steps you used in your challenges using something like WordPress, which is, you know, content management system, like there's a whole admin panel built out. What challenges did you face when building a website from scratch that were different than start using WordPress.

Judith Lung 22:49
So I really liked about building a website from scratch and code in general is that is very tech space. So basically, you intern at With a terminal using commands their text and the code is text and you can run the text and the results of the tests that you run are displayed in text, which, you know, when everything is in text and screen readers, they do a great job. And so, however, because I couldn't, because the layout of the website is not accessible to me, so I can create the layout but not really know how it looks it difficult to create is different, difficult to actually create a very visually appealing layout without, you know, just going online and copying and changing code from other websites. And so, I thought, well, maybe a theme one of those WordPress themes that a lot of people use maybe easier than coding a website from scratch. Even though I may have to learn some a new system, but then it may make my website look more responsive than what I'm currently using. So that's why I chose to use WordPress and use a WordPress theme just for the greater flexibility and probably the accessibility and mobile responsiveness. Let's see what have also it looks better too.

Laurence Bradford 24:27
Oh, yeah, definitely. I know when I first started my site, no longer do I use a um, like a bit you know, WordPress theme. But initially, my first few versions of the website, I was using a WordPress theme that I now got online because it is such an easy way also, just to get started fast because building a website from scratch, whether you're doing it like building a custom theme on WordPress, or just using, you know, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, it can take a lot longer to get started and you know, up and running with that, and especially with a blog when you want to start publishing right away All right, you know, you don't want to take a long time to just build the site and then start publishing. But, yeah. So what resources Did you find most helpful and accessible when you were learning to code?

Judith Lung 25:15
So I really like using a Free Code Camp actually, at first their text editor was not accessible. But then because they have such a vibrant community and one of the campers who was blind brought it up to them, they fixed it and now we can make changes and we can write in it before I used to have to write my code in a another text editor and then copy the code and paste it on mine and pass challenges but now everything is super accessible with Free Code Camp and I enjoy building the different projects they have. I also like using the Odin project because I enjoy the reading And then building projects that really seems to work well for me. And both websites are very accessible there and completely free for anybody who wants to learn web development. And I also use the edX platform. Currently, I'm taking a class on data structures from there, and the website itself is very accessible. And if you have any issues, you can bring it up to the team, and they answered the court right away, so I'm very happy with that.

Judith Lung 26:31
However, each class though they do differ in their level accessibility. For example, in my class, they have a lot of quiz questions that involve looking at graphs and when we see the graph or we see is like the name of the file, maybe 2018 0504 dot jpg, instead of the actual graph, so I can only make a guess. Maybe it's supposed to be this answer and However, because everything's ungraded, so it hasn't really affected me too much. But still, it could be, you know, there could be some inaccessibility there. And I also really, like actually most resources with the implementation of the accessibility guidelines from the WC, the referee, see, its most resources are very accessible. And although each resource does have something that may make them inaccessible, usually I like to use a combination of various resources. For example, maybe the instructions on this site is great, but then I cannot write in the text editor. And so I made use another site to build my projects.

Judith Lung 27:48
And finally, I find that a lot of websites offer their code open source so I can download the code for example, one of the concepts they're showing they're using A graph or some figure to show it, because they have to describe it to the computer in code so the computer can understand it and implement it. Then I can actually read the code and get an idea in text of what the visual was showing. So in some ways, you know code, although it's very difficult. And there are accessibility challenges, coding itself is super accessible. And it forces programmer to describe things to computer which makes it great for blind users who understand code that we can learn a lot more than, let's say we're learning other from other courses like math, a lot of graphs and stuff are inaccessible or biology. Those can present more challenges because they rely more on drawings then coding this.

Laurence Bradford 28:53
That makes a ton of sense. I never even like, considered that but when you're talking about the example of like a quiz question, And that is having you look at an image or graph and you can only see the file name like you, it's pretty much impossible for you to answer the quiz question then. Yeah, that, but it is also interesting and makes sense how you could use different applications. So if you if the text editor on wherever your learning isn't accessible, you could use like another outside text editor and copy and paste everything in which obviously, it could be a bit of a pain, but it's still like a workaround of using the using the resource. So I would love if you could talk a bit about like, what your future plans are because you seem to you know, you're learning to code or you have to learn to code for several years you are working, you have this counseling background you also have this like in depth knowledge of accessibility and making web applications and otherwise accessible. What are your future plans with All this knowledge that you have?

Judith Lung 30:01
So eventually I will want to work in Access. I don't know whether I will end up working in a nonprofit agency and creating accessible applications to help me and others, people with disabilities do things easier. Or, for example, let's say more or less, say, manage the resources or help streamline the referral process through the application so people will forget to send us their paperwork that we need. And because that's something I hear very common with counselors is like, certain parts of the referral process is missing. And so we can go ahead and start helping the client and having an application that reminds them before they to submit everything before they send it to us. I think it will be a great help. Another possibility may be to actually work in a tech company and use my experience with access to help make applications more accessible. So, at this time, I am leaning more toward a lot working in counseling and using programming to help make my life easier and to help make the lives of other people with disabilities easier by creating applications on the side. But we'll see how everything goes when I finished the courses I'm taking. And I may also start applying to jobs in tech and see what happens.

Laurence Bradford 31:43
Yeah, I feel like there's a lot of options for you and i i off the top of my head, I feel like you would also be so good at just educating people like about accessibility, so maybe not even necessarily working full time at a tech company but like traveling to different tech companies or different things and just spreading awareness and doing like a workshops on, you know how to make things more accessible. And I know well this is kind of going sidetrack here, but I know there are groups like Girl Develop It, which I believe at least when I used to take their workshops, they would have courses on accessibility. I think. So, yeah, I feel like there's like so much you could do is building applications, educating people a mixture of both. I'm really excited to see what the future holds for you. I wanted to actually backtrack, though, if you don't mind because I just realized there's so they want to ask that I didn't ask earlier. But well, maybe two things. But first, could you talk like a little bit about the jobs and careers there are in accessibility?

Judith Lung 32:52
Yes. So the first career that comes to mind is a an assistive technology specialist. So People they assess. they assess the needs for our person with disability and then they make recommendations to the agency that they contract with. And then another job is the web accessibility specialist. So these individuals are like QA, but with an emphasis on accessibility. So they would audit websites, and they then make recommendations on what's accessible and what can be improved on and they also does training on. They also do training on accessibility for developers in their organization. So a lot of universities actually hire web accessibility specialists. And both at specialist and web as access specialists are actually mostly self taught individuals. And then another job is the web accessibility engineer. So there are software engineers with knowledge and accessibility.

Judith Lung 34:12
So they lead the teams that they work with in implementing accessibility guidelines and their systems and doing code reviews and different things like that. So these people they usually may have, they have a, you know, so these people, they're software engineers, and they don't necessarily have to have training in accessibility even though you can get a certification on accessibility. However the field is so new accessibility just become more important in the past 10 years or so. So usually know what the requirements are. But as long as you know your Or, you know about accessibility, you can get training and get jobs in these areas. And then finally, there are access teams. These teams are composed of researchers, developers and designers, they develop products, and they also improve upon existing existing ones. And they do user research and see how we use their products and make improvements on that. So when I was in undergrad, and in grad school, I used to meet with these researchers and do user testing for them. And that was really a great way to make a little bit of money when you're a student and money is squeaking tight. They pay usually about $100 to their users per hour to just test the products and make recommendations.

Laurence Bradford 35:51
Nice. And finally, why do you think tech is a good field for people to pursue with disabilities?

Judith Lung 36:00
So a few reasons. First is flexibility. So it's possible to work in texas a freelancer or part time or full time. So, depending on their disability, maybe some people may struggle with chronic pain, they cannot go to work every day and then they may choose to freelance or other people, they may need to go inward to work later because they need to meet with their attendant in the morning for their morning routine. Then tech also provides that flexibility for people who may need a different time to go to work or in an alternative schedule.

Judith Lung 36:40
And another way is because I really love how tech space programming is a lot of fields. Now, even if you are say doing marketing or writing requires some sort of, for example photo using Photoshop or other programs to manage social media or create images. And however, programming is very much tech space. So it's great for people with visual impairments. And a third reason is how accessible the learning resources are. A lot of developers are self taught or attend new self paced resources, which can be great for people with disabilities, since we often may take longer to have to find an alternate way of doing something.

Judith Lung 37:32
So a self pays resources better for us in this as Ben, let's say, following a class and feeling like we are running a marathon. So and then a fourth career is just how many jobs out there are there are and you know, how many jobs there are and also how they're very well paid actually twice as many people with disabilities are unemployed than the average worker. So about 8% of people with disabilities are unemployed, however, for the blind population is 70%. And when I was learning to code when I'm learning to code and reading about articles, I realize that tech people really evaluate your suitability for the job based on their skill. And so I feel with the availability of online programs and different programs, as well as you know, the job availabilities. really a great field for people with disabilities so go into may even really help out with lowering the unemployment rates and helping people with disabilities live more satisfying lives.

Laurence Bradford 38:53
Yeah. Wow. Thank you so much Judas for coming on the show and for sharing all this information. I think people are just going To love this interview, I found I found it super inspiring. I'm sure others well, where can people find you online?

Laurence Bradford 39:08
So people can find me on LinkedIn, Judith Lung, and you can just search for me on LinkedIn or my website is www.JudithLung.com. There is also where my blog is actually write a blog for my audience is for other blind people who may be also teaching themselves to call because I actually can't find anything like that on the internet. And there are so many resources that I encourage blind people to also take advantage of them. So that's my blog as so feel free to just connect with me there are via LinkedIn.

Laurence Bradford 39:57
Awesome. Thank you again for coming on.

Laurence Bradford 39:58
Thank you for having me.

Laurence Bradford 40:06
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Judith. She's absolutely inspirational, isn't she? As you heard in the interview, Judith and I first connected after she purchased our Learn to Code With Me special Black Friday product bundle, which was in late 2018. Here's the news I have to share that I mentioned in the beginning, we're putting together a nother bundle of premium tech encoding products that is going to be available next week only. Obviously, if you're listening to this in the future, that won't be the case. To celebrate the occasion. We're doing a special Podcast Series all next week. There's going to be five special interviews that are starting on Monday, April 29, 2019. And ending on Friday, May 3rd. We've never done anything quite like this before on the podcast. So I'm really excited. If you haven't subscribed yet to the show on whichever podcast player you listen on, now is a great time to do that. For more details on the product bundle, which is called the 2019 Ultimate Tech Career Toolbox, you can get those over at learntocodewith.me/toolbox2019. Again, the URL is learntocodewith.me/toolbox2019. And that is all one word. If you're listening to this episode in the future, make sure to sign up for the Learn to Code With Me email list so you don't miss out on special events like this. Our email list is the best way to stay connected. All right, I'll see you next week for this special series. I'm really excited.

Key Takeaways:

  • Tech is a good field to pursue if you have a disability because of the flexibility—whether someone is blind, suffers with chronic pain, or needs an alternative schedule for any reason, the flexibility of working freelance in tech is great
  • Front-end development can be challenging for someone who is blind, but fortunately now with all the frameworks and different open source web design templates that are available online, it’s much easier for blind users to at least get a start on creating the layout for their websites. Then you just need someone to check it looks OK.
  • You have to constantly innovate, and find ways to make programs meet your needs.
  • If you’re trying to build a site and the user interface isn’t very accessible, you can learn to do it by looking at the underlying code.
  • Coding itself is super accessible because it forces the programmer to describe things to the computer. This makes it ideal for blind users who understand code.
woman using computer

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