WASHINGTON (March 15, 2017) – The American Council of the Blind (ACB)
raises concern over the University of California-Berkeley’s recent response
to an August 2016 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and
the nation’s leading public university, following a determination that the
university was publicly posting inaccessible online lectures.
Starting today, Berkeley will no longer provide content via popular open-access
learning channels like ITunes-U, and will begin moving over 20,000 videos onto a
password-protected platform reserved for only individuals with university
credentials. The university, in a statement released March 1st, cited cost as
the driving factor for its inability to make the publicly available lectures
It’s deeply troubling that a university such as Berkeley, renowned for its spirit
of inclusion and advancement of disability rights, would choose to build a wall behind
its publicly available lectures, rather than find a means toward making their content
accessible for all, said Eric Bridges, ACB executive director.
accessible technology have made significant strides in finding alternative means to
make online media accessible, raising the question if the university exhausted all
possible options for accessibility before pulling the plug on its open-access content.
The complaint settled by DOJ was brought by two students at Gallaudet University.
The investigation focused on media produced by the university and made available
through its website free of charge. The settlement did not include material created
for use by students at the public institution, who are directed to contact the
office for disabled students regarding accessibility needs. Berkeley has committed
to making all future media accessible to individuals with disabilities, including
those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or for individuals who are blind and visually
ACB stands with the students at Gallaudet and all others with disabilities who
desire nothing more than full inclusion to online media content, added Bridges.
It sends a strong negative message when one of the world’s leading providers of
freely available online course content takes such a drastic measure as to remove
tens of thousands of learning opportunities for everyone.
ACB urges the university to find innovative solutions that make accessible media
publicly accessible for all, securing equal access at the same time as it promotes
the spirit of free and open knowledge.
The American Council of the Blind is the nation’s leading grassroots consumer
organization representing Americans who are blind and visually impaired. With 70
affiliates, ACB strives to increase the independence, security, equality of
opportunity, and to improve quality of life for all blind and visually impaired
people. Learn more by visiting the
These days, most kids get their first introduction to coding through simplified tools
that let them drag and drop blocks of commands, creating programs that can do things like
navigate mazes or speed through space. A team of Microsoft researchers and designers in
the company’s Cambridge, UK, lab is taking that concept one step further. The team has
created what they are calling a physical programming language. It’s a way for kids to
physically create code by connecting pods together to build programs.
The system, called Project Torino, is designed to make sure that kids who have visual
impairments or other challenges can participate in coding classes along with all their
classmates. But Cecily Morrison, one of the researchers working on the project, is hoping
the system also will be appealing and useful for all learners, regardless of whether they
have visual impairments or other challenges.
One of our key design principles was inclusion. We didn’t want to isolate these kids again,
The idea was to create something that a whole mainstream class could use, and
they could use together.
The ultimate goal is even more ambitious: To get more kids with visual impairments and other
challenges, such as dyslexia or autism, on the path to becoming software engineers and
It’s clear that there’s a huge opportunity in professional computing jobs, Morrison
This is a great career for a lot of kids who might have difficulty accessing other
A project like this can serve two goals: Technology companies say they are struggling with
a “digital skills gap” that is leaving them without enough engineers and coders to meet their
needs, and experts say it can be difficult for visually impaired people to find meaningful,
accessible career paths.
The World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people worldwide are blind or
visually impaired, and the vast majority of those people live in low-income settings. In
the United Kingdom alone, the Royal National Institute of Blind People says only one in
four working age adults who are blind or partially sighted are doing paid work.
Steve Tyler, head of solutions, strategy and planning for the Royal National Institute
of Blind People, which is working with Morrison on the project, said coding has often
been thought of as a promising career path for people with visual impairments. In recent
years, however, computer science has come to rely much more on pictorial, graphical and
conceptual coding methods, making it harder for kids with visual impairments to get exposed
to the field.
Tyler said systems like Project Torino could help provide that path.
This, for us, was
a core reason for running with a project like this and supporting it, Tyler said.
Tyler, who has a background in education, also said there is currently a woeful lack
of resources for visually impaired children who have an interest in coding or more
generally are ready for an introduction to mathematical and strategic thinking. That’s
a huge problem because a child’s first introduction to these concepts can be a make or
break moment for whether they end up being interested in pursuing a career in those
types of fields.
Traditionally, Tyler said teachers have used chess to teach those kinds of strategic
concepts to visually impaired children.
I see this project a little bit like that,
It brings to life, in a 21st century way, that kind of ability to teach
children these new concepts.
The Microsoft team has spent the last year or so testing the system with a small group
of about a dozen students. Nicolas Villar, a senior researcher in the UK lab who was
instrumental in designing Project Torino, said one of the unexpected pleasures of the
project is the opportunity to work with kids who have a very different way of
experiencing the world.
For example, he said, the team originally made the pods all white, until the kids with
limited vision told them that more colors would help them. And although in electronics
there’s often a push to make things as small as possible, with this project they found
the kids were more engaged when the pods were larger, in part because two kids working
together would often both physically hold the pod and touch hands as part of that
We really honestly designed it with them. It was a collaboration, Villar said of
working with the group of kids.
We thought we were going to be doing something for
them but we ended up designing with them.
Now, they are working with RNIB to do an expanded beta trial of about 100 students.
The researchers and the RNIB will be recruiting potential participants for the trial
in mid-March at the VIEW conference for educators in the United Kingdom who work with
visually impaired children.
For now, the beta is focused only on the UK, which has spearheaded a massive effort to
get more kids interesting in coding. Eventually, they hope to make it more broadly
available to teachers and students outside of the UK.
A lesson in computational thinking
Project Torino is geared toward kids age 7 to 11. Using the coding tools, students can
do things like make songs, even incorporating silly noises, poetry and sounds they
As they build their code, Morrison said they learn the kind of programming concepts
that will lead to careers in computer science or related fields.
It is very specifically about building up concepts that will enable them to become
computer scientists, programmers, software engineers, computational thinkers, she
It gives them that computational base to whatever direction they go, and a
shared vocabulary about what computing is.
Morrison and her colleagues also have created a curriculum for teachers who want to use
Project Torino. She said the teachers do not need to have a computer science background
to use the curriculum – in fact, they assume that most teachers will not have any
expertise in coding.
The system also is designed to grow with kids. Once they have mastered the physical
programming language, Morrison said they also have created an app that allows kids to
transfer the coding they have done with the physical system into text-based code, and
then use other assistive technologies to continue coding.
We’re mapping a pathway
from the physical to something that a professional software engineer could use, she