Grad student wants to help visually impaired people ... just like himself

Jim Carlson
May 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — JooYoung Seo, a doctoral candidate at Penn State in the College of Education’s Learning, Design, and Technology program, has secured a highly competitive internship with RStudio that will allow him to help people just like himself — those with severe visual impairments.


JooYoung Seo

IMAGE: Submitted

Boston-based RStudio is a software firm that makes statistical packages used widely in academia. “While I have made some code contributions to RStudio's open-source packages on GitHub, I thought I would be able to help RStudio make their products more accessible through my programming skills and accessibility expertise for a wide range of people with (dis)abilities from a blind data scientist's perspective,” Seo said.

“That could include some projects, such as making RStudio IDE (integrated development environment) and shiny (RStudio's popular web apps for interactive data science) accessible for screen reading software and refreshable Braille display, and developing some alternative solutions for data visualization using multi-sensory data sonification/verbalization/actualization," said Seo.

Seo lost his sight at age 10 in South Korea. “The classroom where I had romped and studied turned pitch-black. I was no longer able to read a textbook, nor was I able to understand what my teacher was explaining on the blackboard,” he said. “It was as if my classmates’ world and mine had become separate, and there was no interpreter to connect us. I was faced with the choice of squeezing myself to fit into a now foreign land, or leaving altogether.”

He went to a special school for the blind in Seoul, South Korea, where he felt free with everyone using the same language — touching, hearing and smelling. That wasn’t enough for him, he said, and his journey outside of that classroom began with technology.

“Installing screen-reading software for the blind on my PC, I began peeping back into sighted culture,” Seo said. “It was by no means easy to navigate web pages and programs solely designed for the sighted. But I found hope in the bright light of digital technology, and I knew that it would bring me back what I had lost.”

Seo said that assistive technology, such as talking software, braille displays and optical character recognition, enabled him to engage in what he had thought impossible: reading books independently, playing computer games and even writing computer programs and managing a Unix server through a terminal.

“Because these technologies brought me such hope, I tried to major in computer science in college. Yet Korean infrastructure back then was not very supportive for a blind person to pursue STEM disciplines,” he said. “In fact, more than 90% of blind students were forced to choose their majors between special education and social welfare due in part to accessibility issues.”

Seo earned a double bachelor of arts degree in education and English literature in 2014 from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. While pursuing that degree, he never stopped self-teaching computer science, relying solely upon open materials on the internet.

Opportunity came later that year when he was awarded the “Future Interdisciplinary Study of Global Korea Scholarship," which fully covered the learning, design and technology master’s program he was accepted into at Penn State. “The LDT program was attractive because it was at the intersection between education and computer science, which interweaved my academic background and interests,” Seo said.

Gabriela Richard, assistant professor in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems, has been Seo’s adviser for more than three years, and she said she’s been impressed not only with Seo’s work ethic but also as an accessibility specialist and an experienced developer and budding educational designer.

“As part of his graduate assistantship, and also more generally, he has dedicated himself to developing accessible solutions for learners and others with (dis)abilities, in order to encourage more equity and access for learners who often find themselves at the margins,” Richard said about Seo.

“As someone who has dedicated myself to issues of equity and inclusivity in STEM, typically focusing on broadening the participation of women/girls and historically marginalized racial/ethnic groups, I found a lot of intersections between his interests and my research areas. We have worked on several projects that have proposed and investigated how to design for the inclusion of learners historically marginalized across gender, race, ethnicity and ability.”

Seo said he has been using R and Python for data analysis and has developed and published several data science packages in the Comprehensive R Archive Network (CRAN), but he’s not yet benefited from the features of RStudio IDE, which is the most widely used and powerful R/Python programming environment worldwide.

“I will do my utmost throughout the internship so that I can share some significant accessibility improvements for various RStudio products with others who would otherwise be marginalized from the data science ecosystem,” he said.

Richard said she has been impressed by Seo’s qualities as a learner, an up-and-coming scholar and as a newfound collaborator.

“I believe he will be successful in his internship, as he has been with most of his pursuits, because he is passionate about designing and developing more equitable and inclusive learning opportunities for all,” she said.

The key to Seo’s success, Richard said, is that he thinks about how the overall system ­— whether it be in a piece of software or in an educational institution — can be improved to meet the needs of a wide array of learners. 

“These are the kinds of designers and leaders we need to meet our current and future challenges, particularly with respect to technology. I believe he will continue to challenge himself to learn and grow, and help lead and contribute to efforts to broaden and diversify educational access for a wide variety of formal and informal learners,” Richard said.

Seo said his post-doctoral career goal is to become a professor in the learning sciences and/or human-computer interaction field where he can maximize his double identity between computer science and human learning.

“I would like to continue my research and development on accessible technology for people across (dis)abilities to foster a more inclusive learning ecology,” he said. “I have been striving to uncover informal learning cultures and shared knowledge patterns of blind individuals pursuing STEM disciplines to better identify the challenges and solutions of current STEM accessibility voiced by the world-largest blind community.”

Also the winner of a College of Education Dissertation Research Initiation Grant, Seo said he’s learned that his visual impairment can offer him insight.

“Since my life is full of solving problems in the dark, every challenge I face can become a great research topic not only for myself, but also for those who share similar experiences,” Seo said. “I have high hopes that my academic and research journey can contribute to broadening the pathway for other blind people pursuing STEM disciplines in some way.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 03, 2020