SAN FRANCISCO—Development platforms such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino have given access to many makers and entrepreneurs, providing a low-cost method to tinker and prototype. Yet such platforms lack accessibility for at least one group of people who need access to specialized devices.
Members of the blind community are developing an accessible Arduino platform with the hopes that kids and blind makers can join in on the fun. Borne of LightHouse Labs, a group where visually impaired techies advise developers on accessible products, the blind Arduino project aims to overcome issues in building hardware and reading/writing code.
“Many devices that blind people would want to have—'accessibility devices'—aren’t necessarily available on the market and could be built from these components,” said Dr. Joshua Miele, research director at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, who is spearheading the Arduino project. “The main point is to give blind and visually impaired people the experience of making this work and…creating a more integrated community of makers.”
There are several challenges the blind Arduino project will tackle, the first of which involves documenting Arduino’s integrated development environment (IDE) software. The IDE is completely inaccessible to screenreaders, which many blind people use daily, and documentation for Arduino projects on Github is largely image-based.
(Source: The Smith-Kettlewell
Eye Research Institute)
“There are workarounds, which we are documenting, but we’re hoping to get an accessible IDE that people don’t have to jump through hoops in order to use it,” Miele said. “Most of the information about where pin labels are and what they do are all images. We specifically need to document how these boards work, and that goes for pretty much every shield or other component you need to use.”
The time-intensive documentation process will eventually lead to screenreader-capable wording, which could also be translated into Braille. Miele will post the accessible dev kit, as well as progress on the project, to his Blind Arduino blog. Miele is not affiliated with Arduino but said he welcomes collaboration.
“You’ve got Arduino for almost everything, but there’s no Arduino for accessibility,” Miele said. “We could be building something that will last for a long time. Not only that, but we could be building something that would let makers and blind people take control over the types of tools they have access to.”
The accessibility project also resonates with sighted people, particularly makers.
“On the face of it, [Arduino for the blind is] something that sighted people assume wouldn’t actually work. It’s a curiosity, it makes people think about assumptions that they’ve had,” he said. “Having those blind makers in the community, in the mix, will automatically lead to more relevant tools being made by those groups. I think the broader maker community has not yet engaged with accessibility and disability.”
Miele hopes that developing an accessible Arduino platform will also open doors for visually impaired kids who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but have been left out of hands-on electronics classes. Those classes are gateways for STEM careers.
“Blind kids are not offered equal opportunity to participate [robotics-focused] classes because of the accessibility issues around being able to build and program these devices,” Miele told EE Times.
Blind children and older blind Arduino developers will have an opportunity to test accessible Arduinos at a workshop on April 2. There, Miele and a team of blind and sighted volunteers will teach blind developers how to eyes-free wiring, coding, and debugging for Arduino projects. Miele will demonstrate the same techniques during Maker Faire Bay Area in May, at LightHouse For The Blind’s Enchanted Hills Camp, and at Envision's AT Camp in Wichita, Kansas.
The April 2 workshop has about 15 participants and Miele expects more to sign up. The workshops are just the beginning of the blind Arduino project, which is in its fifth month of development. Miele said he would like to develop a curriculum or write an Arduino for accessibility textbook.
“I think it’s going to be an ongoing process,” he said. “As long as people are continuing to build stuff with the platform, there will be stuff to do.”
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times