Burgstahler, S., & Ladner, R. (2006). Increasing the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields: From research to practice. Seattle: University of Washington.

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
Richard Ladner, Ph. D.
University of Washington


Although demand for workers in specific computing fields continues to be high, individuals with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in both postsecondary academic programs and careers in these areas. The authors of this article analyze access challenges for individuals with disabilities pursuing computing fields and share practices that have proven to be successful in attracting groups to high tech fields where they have been underrepresented. They share information about strategies employed by the Alliance for Access to Computing Careers (AccessComputing), whose goal is to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing careers. AccessComputing is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by the University of Washington (UW). Efforts such as those of the Alliance are expected to ultimately benefit society by making computing opportunities available to more citizens and enhancing computing fields with the perspectives of people with disabilities.

The Need to Increase Participation

Demand for qualified systems designers, computer scientists, information professionals, software developers, information systems analysts, technology teachers, computing faculty, and other computing professionals is outpacing supply. Yet, data from the Computing Research Association shows the number of newly declared computer science majors declined 41% from 2000 to 2005.42 As reported by a Microsoft executive in the May 27, 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (p. A32), "It's a major concern for us because we're a company that runs on people. Our hiring has continued to go up, but unfortunately what we're seeing right now is a decline in the potential supply." It is unlikely that the increased demand will be met by the "majority" Caucasian males who currently dominate computing fields.18 To meet the demand for computing professionals, women, racial/ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities should be encouraged to pursue computing fields.

Persons with disabilities are underrepresented in IT (information technology) fields. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs,22 10.5% of the population ages 3 to 17 is served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Part B) in 2005. This group does not include students with disabilities that are determined not to directly affect their learning as defined by IDEA, yet are covered by civil rights legislation such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. According to U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 2004, 5% of computer science, information science, and computer systems bachelor's graduates in 2003-4 are disabled.24 According to the National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates: 2000-2004, 0.8% of computer science, information science, and computer science Ph.D. graduates in the years 2000 to 2004 are disabled.26 According to National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT): 2003, 5% of employed IT in 2003 have disabilities.29 This percentage closely corresponds to the number of IT graduates. However, it should be noted that many of those in the group of individuals with disabilities employed in IT fields became disabled later in life. More generally, all the percentages noted above cannot be compared directly because different definitions of "disability" are employed and because a disability can occur any time during a person's life.

Concern for including individuals with disabilities in IT fields is not just a matter of quantity, but of quality as well. As stated eloquently by William A. Wulf - "I believe that engineering is a highly creative profession. Research tells us that creativity does not spring from nothing; it is grounded in our life experiences, and hence limited by those experiences. Lacking diversity on an engineering team, we limit the set of solutions that will be considered and we may not find the best, the elegant solution."40 An early example is the invention of the raised dot system for text invented in the 1820's by Louis Braille who was blind. The method of embossed Roman letters was assumed to be the best for the blind until Braille invented his system. The acoustic modem was invented in the 1960's by the deaf man Robert Weitbrecht so that he could use a teletypewriter with his telephone. Today, larger computer technology companies routinely hire employees with disabilities in a variety of capacities. Some of them are part of "accessibility groups" that help make sure that the companies' software is accessible.

Access Challenges For People with Disabilities

The shortage of qualified professionals in computing fields is due in part to the underrepresentation of specific subgroups of Americans, including women, racial/ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities.1,14 In particular, individuals with disabilities experience a lower level of career success than those who do not have disabilities.2, 19, 38 They are less likely to complete a postsecondary education; less likely to pursue academic studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and, for those who do, more likely to drop out.3, 20, 21,28,29 People with disabilities who are also racial/ethnic minorities and/or females face additional challenges to pursuing STEM careers.12,31,34 Although the provision of academic support in postsecondary institutions is increasing, services at institutions nationwide vary greatly and have been found to fall short in helping college graduates with disabilities transition to employment.36 However, the success stories of a few individuals with disabilities in computing and other STEM fields4,6,17,37 demonstrate that opportunities do exist for people with disabilities who meet the challenges they encounter. These individuals develop academic, technical, and self-determination skills. They find ways to overcome barriers such as inaccessible curriculum materials, labs, computer-based technology, and electronic resources; inadequate academic supports and access to role models; and low expectations and lack of encouragement from family members and educators.27,28,33,35

Besides common barriers they all face, those with specific types of disabilities are presented with unique challenges. Students who use sign language face the challenges of other students whose first language is not English in combination with those related to the inability to hear. For students who are blind, access to the printed word, graphic images, and multi-media is a challenge. Physical access and adapted equipment are of concern to those with mobility impairments.

In his keynote address at the 2005 Joint Annual Meeting of broadening participation projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Larry Scadden, retired scientist and program officer for the NSF Program for Persons with Disabilities (now called Research in Disabilities Education, RDE) identified four issues to address in order for students with disabilities to fully participate in STEM fields—access to technology, access to classrooms and labs, full participation in outside STEM activities, and attitudes of gatekeepers. Blind since childhood, Dr. Scadden charged NSF grantees to be "fully inclusive" by making sure that students with disabilities are recruited into and accommodated within all project activities.

High-tech careers are potentially open to individuals with disabilities because of advancements in assistive technology that provide access to computers. However, inaccessible design of facilities and software, web pages, and distance learning courses continues to erect barriers. For example, content embedded in graphical images must be provided in an accessible text format to be usable by individuals who are blind and using text-to-speech systems; although accessibility guidelines are readily available, many web developers, including those in computing departments, are unaware of the barriers they erect.

AccessComputing: Research to Practice

The National Science Foundation has initiated several projects designed to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in computing fields (see www.nsf.gov/dir/index.jsp?org=CISE). Funded by this NSF initiative, The Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center at the University of Washington (UW) lead the Alliance for Access to Computing Careers (AccessComputing). Current partners—Gallaudet University, Microsoft, the three NSF Regional Alliances for Persons with Disabilities in STEM (hosted by the University of Southern Maine, New Mexico State University, and the UW), and SIGACCESS of Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)-and collaborators represent education, industry, government, and professional organizations nationwide.

The goal of AccessComputing, which is directed by the co-authors of this article, is to apply proven practices, based on prior research, in order to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing careers. Research suggests that activities such as those undertaken by this Alliance will ultimately benefit society by making computing opportunities available to more citizens and enhancing computing fields with the perspectives of people with disabilities. AccessComputing builds on existing stakeholder networks and research-based, proven practices to address these issues.29 The following summaries of some of the AccessComputing activities highlight how this project applies research to practice.

Research-Based Activities For Students with Disabilities

It has been found that individuals with both high interest in computers and positive self-concepts in math and computers are most likely to aspire to IT professions.41 Successful interventions with students in order to broaden their participation in STEM fields have been identified by projects for racial/ethnic minorities, women, and people with disabilities, including many funded by the NSF. These interventions include:

  1. industry and research internships,
  2. bridge programs between academic levels that include hands-on experiences, and
  3. mentor and peer support.24

Furthermore, comprehensive programs have been found to be more successful in recruiting and retaining students with disabilities than isolated efforts.2,11,13,15,28,32,37 Since 1992, the DO-IT Center at the University of Washington has offered comprehensive research-based programs that include practices proven successful in increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Overall results have been positive.16 Previous projects undertaken by DO-IT and others have found that: (a) people with disabilities are widely dispersed; (b) they face common issues as well as unique challenges related to specific disabilities; (c); programs need to address both academic and non-academic (e.g., self-advocacy) issues; and (d) impact is greatest when motivational activities are combined with ongoing participant support and institutional change.

When DO-IT participants were surveyed to determine the long-term impact of key program components, respondents reported growth in their level of preparation for college and employment and their self-advocacy skills. One reflected that participation in DO-IT "helped me to understand more about myself and the people in the real world. I have learned how to adapt to society without thinking that I am disabled, that I am useless." Another said, "I'm less shy now that I know there are more people out there that are just like me!" Others reported that DO-IT helped them keep their expectations high.11

When parents were asked to what degree participation enhanced their children's lives, in descending order, their responses were interest in college, perception of career options, self-esteem, and self-advocacy skills.7 As summarized by one parent, "My son has benefited greatly from the DO-IT program. He was able to realize that many other students had to struggle through school. DO-IT camps allowed students to bond, and the computer networking allowed them to continue to support each other through the year. He did not dwell much on the future until he attended DO-IT Camp. He came home talking about his college plans with confidence that he could manage them. DO-IT has also helped my son get a part-time job during his first year of college...he has achieved a level of independence we never thought possible."

In terms of the computer and Internet activities within DO-IT, parents and scholars both rank their value in developing career/employment skills highest, followed by academic skills, and then social skills.7,11

The comprehensive and integrated activities of AccessComputing refine and apply DO-IT's proven practices to recruit and retain underrepresented groups into computing fields and address both academic and non-academic issues that impact success in college and careers. They are summarized below, along with results of previous research conducted on similar DO-IT activities that support their efficacy in promoting academic and career success for people with disabilities.

College Transition and Bridge Academies and Workshops

Previous research results. When parents were asked to rank which skills summer study activities conducted by DO-IT developed in their children, they ranked social skills highest, followed by career/employment skills, and academic skills.7 When participants were asked which specific skills the summer study program helped them develop, they rated social skills highest, followed by academic skills, and then career/employment skills.11 When they were asked what summer study experiences were most valuable for their personal, academic, and career development, computer and Internet use was a clear leader, followed by activities related to college preparation, development of personal relationships, and career skills.

AccessComputing activities. AccessComputing sponsors "college transition" activities—to prepare high school students and new graduates for college—and "bridge" activities—to help students transition from high school to college, community college to four-year school, non-computing to computing fields, undergraduate to graduate school, college to career, and graduate school to the professoriate in computing. It offers both "workshops", that are short and motivational in nature, and "academies", that are longer and have significant academic content. In all of these activities, students with disabilities learn about careers in computing and college opportunities; role-play on working with faculty and employers; practice self-advocacy skills; explore options for internships during college studies and jobs and graduate programs after college; meet computing professionals, including those with disabilities; interact with peers and mentors; are invited to participate in an e-mentoring community, internships, and other Alliance activities.

Research and Industry Internships

Previous research results. In previous research on DO-IT work-based learning activities, participants reported value gained from these experiences to include enhanced communication skills, greater confidence and motivation to study and work towards a career, job-related skills, and an understanding of how best to work with supervisors and coworkers.6,9

AccessComputing activities. Research and industry internships within computing fields are offered to postsecondary students with disabilities through AccessComputing. Alliance staff work with each supervisor and student to identify appropriate accommodations; this interaction will both improve the participant's opportunity for success and strengthen the institution's capacity to work successfully with individuals with disabilities. Alliance partners and collaborators also encourage participants with disabilities to apply for internships sponsored by other organizations. Staff, partners, and collaborators also recruit employers and faculty to offer job shadows, field trips, internships, research experiences, and other work-based activities.

E-Mentoring Community

Previous research results. Research studies of DO-IT practices have demonstrated that peer and mentor support, traditionally provided in person, can be delivered within a supported electronic community.10,11 Results suggest that peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships provide participants with psychosocial, academic, and career support; however, peer-peer relationships tend to be more personal in nature. In addition, a higher percentage of messages between mentors and protégés than between peers relate to academics, careers, disabilities, technical issues, program activities, and college transition. Participants in one study10 considered benefits of electronic mail over other types of communication to include the ability to communicate over great distances easily, conveniently, quickly, inexpensively, and without the need to synchronize schedules. They expressed value in the ability to meet people from all over the world and to communicate with more than one person at a time. Some participants reported that computers help them overcome disability-related barriers that are present during other forms of communication; for example, e-mail allows a person who is deaf to communicate without the need of an interpreter. Many reported the added value that people treat them more positively because they are not immediately aware of their disabilities.

AccessComputing activities. An AccessComputing e-mentoring community for high school and college students with disabilities includes computing professors, postsecondary students, and other adult mentors in computing fields; most will have disabilities themselves. In the e-mentoring community, staff and volunteer mentors:

  • facilitate conversations about opportunities in computing fields and encourage, advise, and assist students with transition between academic levels and from school to work;
  • help protégés develop: social, self-determination and self-advocacy skills; positive identity; and a sense of belonging;
  • provide students with opportunities for leadership development (e.g., by assisting with a conference exhibit or participating on a panel in a summer program);
  • help students identify fields of interest, college funding, and steps toward computing careers;
  • invite participation in Alliance academies, workshops, internships, and tutoring;
  • encourage participation in existing programs-e.g., computing events on campus and alliances to encourage participation of women, racial/ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in computing fields such as the NSF's Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority participation (LSAMP), the Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), program for the Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers (ADVANCE), and Regional Alliances for Persons with Disabilities in STEM (RADs); and
  • help students utilize campus study skills, writing, and other academic support services.

AccessComputing Network of Faculty, Administrators, and Employers

The Alliance is creating an infrastructure within which collaborators can join in its nation-wide efforts to broaden the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields.

Communities of Practice

AccessComputing staff have organized Communities of Practice (CoP)39 for three groups of Alliance collaborators: (a) computing faculty, administrators, and employers; (b) postsecondary disability service directors, and (c) administrators of broadening participation alliances and projects. Collaborators correspond via email and electronic conferences to share perspectives, expertise, proven practices, and resources, and identify promoters and inhibitors of change; they also implement campus practices and policies that promote the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields. For example, the Computing Faculty, Administrator, and Employer CoP engages computing professionals - faculty and administrators as well as representatives from industry and professional organizations - increase their knowledge about disabilities and make changes in computing departments that lead to more inclusive practices. Participants

  • gain and share knowledge and help identify issues related to the under-representation of people with disabilities in computing fields;
  • help identify, field test, and validate Computing Department Accessibility Indicators to make computing departments more accessible to students with disabilities;
  • introduce AccessComputing staff to administrators of professional computing organizations so that staff can help these organizations make their websites accessible, their conferences accessible to attendees with disabilities, and their conference programs inclusive of disability-related topics;
  • help plan, attend and/or recruit others to attend Capacity-Building Institutes;
  • identify campus computing events to which students with disabilities might be invited;
  • discuss how to include accessibility topics in postsecondary computing curriculum;
  • discuss issues and help locate Ph.D. graduates with disabilities to recruit as faculty;
  • help staff target articles to computing publications; and provide connections with computing faculty and industry for internships.

Capacity-Building Institutes

Capacity-Building Institutes will draw in other members of relevant stakeholder groups. Participants will meet 1-2 days as a preconference session of a relevant conference. The agenda will include presentations by experts followed by discussions in small groups and group reports. Content from Capacity-Building Institutes will be developed for publication in the AccessComputing Knowledge Base, in journals, as well as in meeting proceedings to inform Communities of Practice, policy makers, and NSF program officers.

AccessComputing Resources

Alliance staff have created a searchable AccessComputing Knowledge Base of frequently asked questions, research-based practices, and case studies. The Knowledge Base provides educators, employers, students, and service providers with strategies for creating more inclusive computing courses programs, where students with disabilities are encouraged to pursue computing fields. It provides a vehicle for other projects to recruit participants, share resources, and publish research results. The Knowledge Base can be found at www.uw.edu/accesscomputing/.

Computing Department Accessibility Indicators

Accessibility Indicators that can measure systemic change in postsecondary computing departments that make them more accessible to students, faculty, and staff with disabilities has been drafted by the Alliance staff and has been further validated by members of CoPs. A current list of Computing Department Accessibility Indicators are available for comment at Equal Access: Universal Design of Computing Departments at www.uw.edu/accesscomputing/equal_access_csd.html. This content does not provide legal advice. Campus disabled student services offices can also provide assistance in increasing the accessibility of a computing department. In the table below are examples of the Indicators, organized into six broad areas of application.

Universal Design of a Computing Department

Performance Indicator Categories

Examples of Universal Design Performance Indicators

Planning, Policies, and Evaluation

Consider diversity issues as you plan and evaluate your facilities and programs.

  • Are people with disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, and both men and women young and old students, and other groups included in departmental planning and review processes and advisory committees?
  • Do you have a procedure to assure a timely response to requests for disability-related accommodations?

Facility and Environment

Assure physical access, comfort, and safety.

  • Are all levels of departmental facilities connected via a wheelchair-accessible route of travel?
  • Can at least one public telephone in the department be reached from a seated position?

Support Services

Make sure support staff are prepared to work with all students, faculty, and staff.

  • Do staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations such as sign language interpreters?
  • Are staff members aware of issues related to communicating with students of different races/ethnicities and ages and students who have disabilities?

Information Resources

Assure that departmental publications and websites welcome a diverse group and that information is accessible to everyone.

  • Do pictures in departmental publications and on websites include people with diverse characteristics with respect to race, gender, age, and disability?
  • In key publications, does the department include a statement about its commitment to universal access and procedures for requesting disability-related accommodations?
  • Do departmental web pages adhere to accessibility guidelines or standards?

Computers, Software, and Assistive Technology

Make technology in computing facilities accessible to everyone.

  • Is an adjustable-height table available for each type of computer workstation?
  • Can controls on computers, printers, scanners, and other information technology be reached from a seated position.

Computing Courses and Faculty

Assure that faculty members deliver courses that are accessible to all students and that accommodations are provided in a timely manner.

  • Do video presentations used in courses have captions? Audio descriptions?
  • Do faculty members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations such as sign language interpreters?
  • Are faculty members familiar with and do they employ instructional strategies that maximize the learning of all students? (See Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction for a checklist of instructional strategies).
  • Is universal/accessible design incorporated into the curriculum of appropriate courses (e.g., requiring software designed by students be accessible to people with disabilities)?

Research in the field of universal design has provided the approach for making a department accessible to all potential students and instructors. "Universal design" is defined by the architect Ron Mace as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design" (https://design.ncsu.edu/research/center-for-universal-design/). It suggests that, rather than designing departmental offerings for the average user, they should be designed for people with a broad range of abilities, disabilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, native languages, cultures, and other characteristics. More information about applications of universal design can be found in the Universal Design publication at www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/udesign.html. In applying universal design to computing departments it is important to keep in mind that individuals involved with the department as students, parents, advisory board members, and visitors may have learning disabilities or visual, speech, hearing, and mobility impairments. All of these individuals should feel welcome and be able to:

  • get to facilities and maneuver within them,
  • gain the full benefit of information resources and courses, and
  • make use of equipment and software.

Although applying universal design minimizes the need for accommodations for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, it is also important to have a plan in place to respond to additional accommodation requests in a timely manner and to assure that faculty and staff are prepared to work with colleagues and students who have disabilities.


The goal of AccessComputing is to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing careers. Alliance collaborators apply research-based practices to:

  • increase the number of students with disabilities successfully pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees and careers in computing fields.
  • increase the capacity of postsecondary computing departments to fully include students with disabilities in computing courses and programs.
  • create a nationwide resource to help students with disabilities pursue computing fields and computing educators and employers, professional organizations, and other stakeholders develop more inclusive programs and share effective practices.

The Alliance assures nationwide, long-term impact because it:

  • supports local and regional workshops, academies, capacity-building institutes, and internships to recruit and retain students with disabilities into computing fields;
  • helps computing departments, professional organizations, and alliances that serve women and racial/ethnic minorities make their activities and resources accessible to students with disabilities;
  • creates collaborations among individuals with disabilities, computing professionals, faculty, employers, professional organizations, and disability service providers;
  • collects and publishes research and practice data to support the inclusion of people with disabilities in computing fields.

Alliance outcomes benefit society by making computing opportunities available to more citizens, increasing the participation in computing professions and leadership by individuals with disabilities, and enhancing computing fields with the perspectives of people with disabilities. Further information about the Alliance, including how to participate in Communities of Practice, can be found at www.uw.edu/accesscomputing.


This work is funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program of the Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE) (grant #CNS-0540615). Thanks to Joan Burrelli, Division of Science Resources Statistics, for help in compiling some of the data.


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