Visually Impaired and Learning to Program
Teens love technology, and Alex Mitov is no exception. The Bowling Green High School student, who is visually impaired, not only navigates fluently with his phone and computer, he also plans to major in Computer Science at BGSU after graduation. He’s currently working with Assistant Professor Sankardas Roy to further his programming skills.
Alex’s interest in computer science began about two years ago when a peer challenged him to a game of Minecraft. To play the game effectively, a player needs to know many commands and type them in during the game. For example, there’s a command whose syntax is “/gamemode creative” that lets the player change the game to creative mode, which allows flight, gives more resources, and prevents a mob attack. A command's syntax is sensitive to details, e.g., a forward slash should be the first character, there is a space between two consecutive words, and so on.
“For any person, it’s hard to memorize the proper commands, but for a blind person, typing them on the keyboard is the only way to play,” said Alex.
Alex uses iPhone with VoiceOver, Windows PC with Narrator, and Braille NoteTaker to assist him on the computer. In their sessions, Dr. Roy assigns the student Java programming tasks by giving him an incomplete version of the program. Alex takes a week or two to complete the code at home with occasional email conversations; then they reconvene to talk about the assignment. Dr. Roy comments on the code, pointing out places where it could be made better, and Alex asks questions to clarify any doubts.
The teen also uses his computer for networking and finding ways to play games, and he has taken a Python programming language class at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His current arrangement at BGSU came about when Alex’s family contacted the Computer Science department to inquire about a possible mentorship, and Dr. Joe Chao, department chair, connected the Mitovs with Dr. Roy.
“Alex has great potential to become successful in the field of computer science,” said Dr. Roy. “I’m often pleasantly surprised to see how quickly he learns new coding patterns which may not be easy even to a typical university student.
“Through this experience, I’ve also observed that some of the current tools for blind programmers have limitations, and I have research interest on how to improve such tools.”