OGDEN — Student J.R. Westmoreland tends to stand out in his Weber State University computer science classes.
For one thing, he’s got more than 28 years of experience in the field. For another, at 55 years old Westmoreland is more than double the age of many students in his class.
Then there’s Westmoreland’s seeing-eye dog.
“Parts of the field are very visual,” said Westmoreland, blind since age 1. “I do use a screen reader to allow me to know what is going on on the computer screen, and I have an Opticon, an optical-to-tactical converter that takes a picture and gives you a vibrating image of what the camera picks up.”
Westmoreland’s asset biggest, besides his decades of accumulated knowledge, may be his visual mind, which allows him to imagine a mental 3D image of projects he is creating.
Westmoreland is well into creating an application for use on iPhones and iPads that would allow his fellow film lovers, sighted and blind, to keep track of the hard-copy films they have stored at home so they can avoid buying duplicate copies at the store. Another element of the app will let the user keep track of who films have been loaned to, making for easier retrieval.
Westmoreland wrote the iPhone app prototype from start to finish without assistance, despite being blind.
“As far as we know, this has never been done before,” said Rob Hilton, associate professor of computer science. “J.R. has proven that a blind person can create an app from scratch, even though there is a strong visual component to the process.”
Hilton worked alongside his student, making sure his student understood concepts and applications.
Westmoreland then used that knowledge to finally envision a little wire connecting the components as he dragged them from point A to point B. He counted up and over and then dropped code.
“Once he had counted and memorized the lines, then visualized them in his head, we had our Helen Keller moment,” Hilton said. “We jumped up and said, ‘Hey! This is going to work!’”
Westmoreland said the app project grew out of personal frustration.
“I tend to get the most done when something becomes an irritation to me, causing me to want to fix the problem,” he said. “I got tired of winding up with three or four copies of the same film at my house, on VHS or DVD or Blu-ray. I have shelves and shelves of movies at my house, and I go to a store and think ‘Wow, I ought to get this movie.’ And I wind up with more copies. I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to track this and make it an app that’s easy to use.”
Westmoreland proposed the app as his project for Wilson’s computer science class.
“Obviously, blindness is somewhat of a disadvantage,” Westmoreland said. “I had to work through some issues, but when we got to midterms, Rob could stand behind me and watch me put all these controls on the layout screen, and slide them into position, and write the code. He told me, ‘I know you can write code. I’ve been watching you write code for years.’”
Hilton and Westmoreland were students in the same freshman classes when they began at Weber State in 1976. Westmoreland got a good job offer from Rocky Mountain Power, and dropped out of school to accept it.
“I went off, got married and made lots of money,” Westmoreland said. “My wife and I have two girls. I took a few classes along the way, but never finished my degree. Then, after the 2008 economic crash, my wife said, ‘You’ve consulted, and the first thing companies are getting rid of are consultants and contractors.’ That’s why I’m back in school.”
Westmoreland paid living expenses from a buyout deal his employer offered, and now is funding his education by taping into his retirement funds.
Hilton helped his old friend understand problems so he could visualize designs. Westmoreland created an iPhone app prototype using all of the standard Apple tools. A different app available on iPhones and iPads can read writing, making search results available to the sightless.
“This is a break-through concept,” Westmoreland said, of his app creation. “Now that I can do this, I can create any app, just like a sighted person and hand that code off to somebody else who will do the artwork, such as color, spacing and aesthetics.”
Westmoreland, who spends his extra time as a DJ for the online radio station Legend-Oldies.com, said he will finish his associates degree soon, and will put in about 30 additional hours to get his WSU bachelors. Ultimately, Westmoreland would like to find work that will allow him to help the blind community as well as the sighted.
“Often times there are really cool applications that don’t work at all for the blind,” he said. “Programmers often don’t think about what would happen if users couldn’t see the applications. Would it still work, and deliver a good experience? I guess I’m kind of an evangelist for accessibility. Making an app accessible often requires not a lot of effort. Companies think it costs a lot of extra money, and going back to fix something and make it accessible can be expensive. But forethought can make apps accessible and doesn’t cost a huge amount. I would like to work with companies who would like to add an audience they may not have considered.”