Blind computer scientist makes the impossible possible
Tammy Petersen, News24
Cape Town – Rynhardt Kruger’s fingers glide swiftly across the screen as he accesses his messages on his smartphone. But instead of focusing on the handset, he listens to a voice reading the icons he hovers over.
Kruger may be blind, but he points out that the inability to see does not mean he has to be left behind by advances in information technology.
The 25-year-old student is the first blind person at Stellenbosch University to obtain both his BSc honours and master’s degrees in computer science and is currently pursuing a PhD with a special focus on assistive technology.
“This is any technology that a disabled person can use to accomplish things which a non-disabled person can do,” he explained.
“When discussing information technology, people often describe how it made their lives more convenient or how they can instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world. Not often discussed, though, is how advances in information technology make the lives of people with disabilities a bit easier.”
Kruger, who was born blind, said he initially wanted to make music his career.
“I played the piano and the violin – well, I tried – until my parents made the mistake of giving me a computer in Grade 7,” he joked. “In the beginning, I got lost in the start menu.”
Fascination with technology
But this didn’t end his fascination with technology. Kruger, who uses a screen reader that reads content from the screen out loud, was later introduced to audio games but instead of playing them, he was more interested in how they were created.
“I bugged people to get me books about programming and also managed to get one at my school library. The only problem was it had been published in 1969. Nevertheless, I borrowed it.”
In Grade 10 he started attending afternoon computer classes at a nearby mainstream school and decided that he wanted to make this his career.
People are surprised by the ease with which he uses technology, Kruger said.
“I am often asked how I use a computer and whether I have a special keyboard. To a large degree I use a computer in the same way as anyone else.
“In my case a special keyboard is unnecessary. Since the normal keyboard layout stays the same, one only has to memorise it once.”
For his Honours project, Kruger designed a computer programme that allows blind musicians to study music on a computer.
Developed programme for blind users
Last year, for his Master’s degree, he helped develop a programme for blind users that enabled independent navigation through virtual worlds.
“I used a computer extensively during my studies, for writing assignments and reading all course material. This included slides and articles, but also textbooks and even exam papers.
“This is easy when the material is textual in nature, since text is typically encoded in a standard way, and can be easily read by a screen reader,” he explained.
“However, my studies also required me to read and write mathematical content. It does not have a standard digital encoding, and therefore screen readers at the time had considerable difficulty in reading it.”
Kruger explained he was fortunate that all his lecturers were LaTeX users, a system whereby mathematical content and other scientific documents can be written using only textual conventions.
Once completing his studies, he plans to go into computer research.
“I am really interested in focusing on assistive technology. In South Africa, studies into this field are really limited. The barrier for a blind person in all spheres of life is accessibility of information.
“New technology doesn’t only make things more convenient for people with disabilities, but also makes the impossible possible.”