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App designer creates tools to teach Braille

Michael Doise quickly learned how to develop for Apple mobile products despite challenges in using the company's visual programming language

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Early this year, Michael Doise decided, like thousands of other people around the world have, that he wanted to start developing apps for Apple's iPhone. Doise began programming at the age of 12 and has experience in building computers and web design.

But he had to overcome an obstacle while learning the language Apple uses for software development.

In Apple's mobile operating system, "iOS development is really visual," Doise said over a passion tea/lemonade drink, sheltered from a recent hot Austin afternoon by a downtown Starbucks. "It's a challenge for somebody who's mostly blind to get into a language and start tinkering and figuring out how things work and where things go on the screen."

Doise has been legally blind since birth, though he does have some limited vision. At 2, he began learning to read Braille and has spent years since helping others learn. He's helped train workers at his full-time job at the Travis Association for the Blind (also known as Austin Lighthouse) and worked on the organization's website. He describes a Braille literacy crisis in the country. The rise of audio-based tools used in education and the lack of instructors qualified to teach Braille has created a void, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

Those who don't learn Braille as children can have a harder time it learning later and might need the skill if they begin with limited eyesight and later have their vision deteriorate beyond the ability to read large-format text.

"Teachers, schools, different facilities - they're not teaching Braille in the fashion they should," Doise said. "My goal and the goal of several blindness organizations is to try to change that."

Naturally, as he was learning iOS app development, he knew he wanted to create apps to teach Braille in a variety of ways. In March, he submitted his first app, "VisualBraille," meant to help instructors or anyone else trying to learn Braille. Though iPhone touch screens can't provide the tactile sensation of reading Braille by hand, the app can translate typed text to Braille and vice-versa. A companion app, "PocketBraille Reference" contains the alphabet, numbers, punctuation and detailed information for various kinds of Braille. Both apps also work on Apple's iPad in a format that takes advantage of the larger screen. They're available in free and paid versions.

As he talks about the apps, Doise's girlfriend of a year and seven months ("A year and eight months," she corrects), Christina Weymouth, arrives and sits. Weymouth, unlike Doise, is completely blind. She blogs about technology on her blog, C Space!, and also writes science fiction. She orders up a java chip frappuccino.

Weymouth and Doise met through a mutual friend when she needed some computer networking help. He helped her become a fan of Apple's products. Though she carries a Nokia N82 phone, Weymouth says her next phone will likely be an iPhone because of the built-in features it has for blind people, including an option to read whatever's on the screen (a "Screen reader"), specialized GPS and the ability to zoom the screen, which is useful to those with some sight.

For her $500 Nokia phone, some of those extras cost $200 to $400 each.

Doise grew up in the Beaumont area, then came to Austin to attend the Texas School for the Blind. It made him want to stay. "I had been around the city and really enjoyed what I saw. I heard that Austin was very big on the tech industry." He liked the bus system, which he says has declined in reliability during the past year. His family is in southeast Texas and in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so it's been important for Doise to live somewhere he could feel independent; he enjoys walking around town and likes to swim and go bowling. He's also an avid console gamer and jokes about his virtual driving ability, which he says is better than some of his online opponents.

On the coffee shop table sits his iPhone 4, which carries a pre-release version of iOS 5, the new operating system software that will roll out to the public in the fall. App developers get to try it out and play with it early and ferret out its bugs. He also carries an iPad 2 that he bought when Apple opened a pop-up retail store downtown in March.

Doise plans to work on a flash card-style game to teach Braille and has been thinking about programming for Android phones and tablets as well and to offer additional content for the iPhone/iPad apps. He balances work at Austin Lighthouse with his app development and posting on his blog, The iAccessibility Report. He wishes he could do even more; he also plans to develop an interactive book app called "The Big Book of Braille."

He said, "There's just not enough hours in the day to do all that."

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

On the Web:

• The National Federation of the Blind's Braille Initiative: Braille.org

• The iAccessibility Report: iaccessibility.net

• "PocketBraille Reference" and "VisualBraille" on iTunes: bit.ly/mdoise