The Perkins community rises to the challenges of the coronavirus crisis every day — activating our network of friends and experts to help us deliver for our students. Most recently, some dedicated Perkins staff members were able to get braille maps into the hands of an engaged and motivated student so he could continue his work while sheltering safely with his family in Connecticut.
It all began in those pre-coronavirus days on campus, when Secondary Program student Kevin would attend his computer programming class with teacher Susan Sullivan. Kevin, who is 21 and will graduate from Perkins this spring, loves computer science — especially coding. In fact, he says, he has always loved technology and computers, and was always interested in knowing how things worked. Coding, he says, provides a window into how computers and software work, something that endlessly intrigues him.
In class, Sullivan and Kevin worked with both the Quorum Programming Language and Apple Swift Playgrounds, an app for iPad and Mac that teaches coding in a fun and interactive way. It’s a game in which a character has challenges to complete tasks. Getting the character to solve these puzzles is the coding part.
“I noticed that many students all across the country, at all grade levels, have the opportunity to learn about computer science. I have been passionate about bringing computer science, including programming, to Perkins. This year I have been teaching the AP computer science curriculum and coding,” Sullivan said. “In January, Kevin and his classmate started learning how to code through the Apple Swift Playgrounds app, which is made 100 percent accessible by using VoiceOver and tactile maps. The students really enjoy learning coding through this app.”
A screen displays code.
The onset of the coronavirus in Massachusetts, and the rather sudden closure of schools around the state, meant that Kevin returned to his family’s home in Sandy Hook, CT without a personal copy of the tactile maps.
“Knowing he is graduating from Perkins, I really wanted to support his passion for coding,” Sullivan said. “I was still teaching him the computer science curriculum through Zoom online, but without the tactile maps I had no way to support him in continuing to learn coding with the Apple Swift Playgrounds app.”
Luckily, Kevin had a Mac computer at home, and so he could download the Swift Playgrounds there. But without the tactile maps, he was stuck.
“Kim is the real hero in this story,” Sullivan says, explaining that she contacted Kim Charlson, Executive Director of Perkins Library, to see if she could create 40 embossed maps for Kevin.
After the campus closed to students and staff, Charlson set up a system in her home she called “Braille to Mail.” Perkins teachers could send her documents and worksheets for their students that they needed embossed, and she would create them and send them off directly to the students’ homes. Fortuitously, Charlson had brought home an embosser so she was able to do this for the teachers, but the machine couldn’t do maps. If she had still been working in the Perkins Library, she would have had the right equipment for the job.
“Sue reached out and asked me if I could braille them for her, but when I saw what it was I said, ‘holy cow, this is bigger than me’,” Charlson said. “But I thought, this student has been working on this project all year, I will see what I can do.”
Charlson tapped into her extensive network across the country through her affiliation with the Braille Authority of North America (BANA), and she found a colleague at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology) who ran the school’s Center for Accessible Materials Innovation.
“At this point, Georgia was not yet shut down (by the virus), so I contacted him, and he said he could do it —- and he did all 40 maps at no charge and sent them directly to Kevin.”
“I knew he was a senior, and so I knew this was really important to do,” Charlson said.
Asked how he felt when that packet of tactile maps arrived in his mailbox, Kevin said, “I felt really happy because now I had everything I needed. And since I was new to the Mac version of Apple Swift Playgrounds, I was able to start from the beginning to get used to it again. I see the character and the space and everything on the map, and that’s how I know what to put in my code. The more I go through, the better I get.
“I definitely want to say thank you.”