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Visual impairment offers unique perspective on technology

A woman stands looking at the camera with her Braille NoteTaker hanging on her soldier.

Though no longer legally blind, computer science senior Leah McCoy still uses assistive devices, such as the Braille NoteTaker she carries with her.

In grade school, computer science senior Leah McCoy took advantage of all the adaptations available to help blind students.

She took practical arts classes, dabbled in woodworking and aeronautics, but ultimately found her niche in electronics and took classes in preparation for the A+ computer technician certification exam. After realizing her interest in hardware and software development, McCoy now majors in computer science (CS).

CS is often considered a highly visual field. But even a visual impairment, McCoy said, is hardly a barrier to entry. In fact, she believes strongly that computer science is an excellent field for people with visual impairments.

“There are a lot of blind people who go into the computer science field. I have always been better at math and science and logic than the fine arts,” said McCoy.

Gary Wunder, a close friend of McCoy, is completely blind and has worked as a programmer for MU for more than 30 years.

“I haven’t found it that difficult, really. In high school, before I had my implant surgery, we had small parts to work with, like resistors with colored bands, and they were so small and I couldn’t see the colors.”

When she was 15, McCoy underwent intraocular implant surgery, in which doctors installed permanent, plastic contacts just behind the cornea. For somebody needing highly corrective lenses, implants replace some of that optical power directly into the eye.

No longer legally blind, McCoy has traded her heavy, half-inch, high-index lenses for implants and standard glasses that help bring her vision closer to 20/50 – still not ideal, she said, but much more manageable.

“I’m basically normally sighted, but I still think and interpret visuals differently,” said McCoy. “It turns out that everybody ‘learns’ to see. It isn’t hard-wired.”

Where most people automatically recognize discrete objects, McCoy sees in lines and colors, which she has to consciously resolve into meaningful shapes.

“That’s part of what makes it kind of a foreign language. I have to put a little more thought into piecing everything together rather than just taking it in,” she said.

Her interest in technology has made McCoy well aware of how visually oriented new electronics have become. She’s witnessed the evolution of touch screens and operating systems that base themselves around the idea that searching, pointing and clicking is the easiest way for consumers to engage with their products.

But, she said, that isn’t the case for all users. The lag time between the emergence of new technology and the availability of components that make them accessible to all users is often too slow.

“Kindle, for example, isn’t adapting to assistive technology,” said McCoy. “They think they can be competitive without it, and you know, that’s fine, but they’ve started putting them in classrooms with children, which is actually illegal if there’s no alternative.”

McCoy said household appliances are another problem. Departing from more tactile controls, glossy, seamless touch screens have made their way into refrigerators, microwaves and even some light switches.

“They’re not accessible because they’re not being made accessible,” said McCoy. “I guess you could say ‘forward progress’ actually went backward a little bit.”

McCoy has used or examined most forms of popular and assistive electronics, including screen readers, Braille platforms and audio interfaces. She travels with a Braille NoteTaker, which she uses for notes, email and even navigation. A Bluetooth receiver links her NoteTaker to a mapping application, which gives her a useful navigation tool and a way to relay that information to somebody used to navigating visually.

“I’m most comfortable with street numbers and compass directions, which not many people are,” said McCoy. “This thing lets you navigate in a way that’s useful to blind people, but lets you talk about directions in the same terms as a sighted-person, such as passing some store on the right or something like that.”

McCoy said this kind of auditory innovation has been largely untapped, limited to the bare essentials of technology we call “assistive.” She believes higher definition stereo sound will be part of what brings new electronics to the next level — not only as an aid, but to enhance the sound experience overall.

“I know how far they’ve been able to go with just a limited number of speakers, but that’s all the progress there’s really been with stereo sound,” said McCoy. “I think Dale’s [Musser] hoping for more progress too, just to help develop audio so that it can catch up with visual.”

Musser, computer science professor and director of IT, oversees The Sound Pixel Project, an innovative speaker array that generates a greater sense of spatial dimension than traditional surround sound. With her heightened auditory acuity, McCoy has been able to provide some of the most precise feedback when tuning the array.

“When you have two speakers side by side, I will probably be able to get the farthest distance away and still tell that it’s stereo sound,” she said.

McCoy describes this as the auditory version of parallax. The closer two speakers are to each other, the more they sound like a single source.

“Sighted people don’t usually need to pinpoint sound in their day-to-day lives, so it’s not a skill they necessarily need to acquire,” said McCoy. “I think I do have a pretty good sense of space and orientation. Maybe that’s why I’m an engineer.”