Bob Gunderson's Braille Technical Press was a great, mid-century example of blind people supporting other blind people in building the tools they need. It largely focused on amateur radio tools and techniques, but it was an early pioneer in the blind DIY electronics genre. Bob worked as an electronics teacher at the New York Institute for the Blind and published the Braille Technical press in the 1950s as a way of documenting the accessible tools he and his students developed so that other blind hams could build and use them.
More recently in the 1980s and 90s, Bill Gerrey at The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute (where I happen to work) published the Smith-Kettlewell Technical File -- a publication inspired by Gunderson's earlier magazine. In addition to publishing instructions for building all kinds of useful accessible test equipment and refining the technique of circuit description, the Technical File published a series of excellent tutorial articles on techniques for blind solderers.
With the advent of open-source, relatively standardized, microprocessor-based project kits like Arduino, the kinds of devices that can be built by the casual maker at home have become quite sophisticated. In fact, Arduino is an ideal platform for creating a variety of accessibility devices which blind makers and users might find useful. For example Arduino would be perfect for building tools like audio and tactile meters and gauges which could be driven by any manner of sensors and detectors. From accessible scales to timers, range finders, multimeters and beyond, Arduino could make it relatively easy to design and share accessible tools which can be endlessly modified, adapted, and improved to meet a wide range of applications and needs.
A little googling reveals that there are designs for a number of Arduino-based accessibility devices scattered across the net. However, none that we have found are intended to be built by blind people, Nor is the documentation necessarily accessible. Furthermore, the fact that they are from all over the place means that they are inconsistently documented and occasionally hard to find.
The Blind Arduino Blog is another step along the road paved by Gunderson and Gerrey. Its intent is to provide a public clearing house for blind makers who want to build accessible devices with Arduino. The project has two main objectives:
- To provide clear instructions and accessible resources for blind people who want to develop for Arduino, and
- To Assemble a library of accessible project descriptions for devices that might be of particular use for blind people.
Before we can begin assembling our library of accessible Arduino devices for blind makers, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome. We can build on Bill Gerrey and Bob Gunderson's hardware-assembly description techniques to document how to build the Arduino hardware, but the coding component needs some R&D. First we need to identify and document the accessible tools and resources for learning, writing, and uploading code to the Arduino itself.
There are many different Arduino boards and accessories, and many different software tools available for coding, uploading, and debugging. Thus, the first posts to this blog will document our investigations into which boards, tutorials, and other tools are most accessible, as well as any work-arounds or tricks for getting the most out of them as a blind user. Once we have a nice foundation of accessible tools for Arduino development on which to build, we can move on to our long-range plan of collecting and developing accessible instructions for building a wide variety of accessibility devices based on Arduino. My own personal interest is in duplicating a number of devices from the S-K Technical File recast in Arduino. As our group learns and grows, I have confidence that the depth and diversity of projects will expand well beyond what I currently imagine.
Some Comments on Platforms, Screen Readers, and BrowsersArduino software development can be done on Linux, Mac, Windows, and other platforms. This blog will focus on identifying tools that are Windows based. For folks who are comfortable in Linux, I suspect that is the easiest and most accessible path for Arduino development. However, most people are a little intimidated by Linux. While Apple has done great work with VoiceOver, the vast majority of blind users are still on Windows. For these reasons, we are committed to charting an accessible Arduino-development path through Windows. This doesn't mean that we won't include some posts on tools for other platforms, it just means that the emphasis here will be on tools for Windows.
In addition, in making our judgements about accessibility of tools and informational resources, we will assume the default screen reader/browser combination of NVDA and Firefox. Certainly there are other screen readers and browsers and preferences will vary, but web site performance will as well. Since we can't test all combinations, we will generally stick to NVDA and Firefox when we test Arduino resource sites for accessibility.