Panelists speak on their disabilities in computing education.

Panel of Computing Students with Disabilities

Panelists: Lourdes Morales, Cameron Cassidy, Vincent Martin, Jessie Zhang, and Anna Marie Golden

Moderator: Brianna Blaser, UW

What kind of accommodations have you used, and how have they changed over your education?

  • Due to my visual impairment, in class I use a camera that can zoom in on things on the board and slides. I also ask for materials in advance and electronic books so I can use access the material on my computer.
  • I use every device and computer you can imagine, and I often like to go above and beyond what is expected. So, as an individual who is blind, I often run into accessibility problems and troubleshoot as the problems come along.
  • Because of my mobility impairment, I needed accessible furniture, like a very ergonomic chair, or a specific table. I also have a thumb and wrist injury, so writing can take longer, which means I need extra time on exams. 
  • I am deaf, so I use an frequency modulation (FM) System, which is basically a microphone I give the professor that connects directly to a headphone in my ear. I also use Computer Aided Real-Time Transcription (CART), so I can read in real time what others are saying around me. I need captioned videos as well.

How do you communicate with faculty about your needs, and how do you want faculty to communicate with you?

  • I email the faculty member at the beginning of the quarter to bring up my accommodations and discuss what works best for me.
  • The disability services office often tells faculty about my accommodations, but I like to make sure I bring it up with each faculty member personally. I also like to bring up discretion about my disability—I’ve had professors call me out for being the reason we can’t do something or we don’t have more time on an exam.
  • I set a personal meeting with my faculty members and discuss what my disability really means. Then I can ask to look at the syllabus ahead of time so we can look at what documents I might need made accessible or what we may need to do to make something accessible.
  • I agree, it’s important to meet with the professor and talk about the accommodations needed. For me, I like when other students see my accommodations and learn about different ways of learning and different disabilities.

What challenges have you faced as a student with a disability?

  • The student lounge for my program was up a long staircase that I couldn’t climb very easily. This space was also used as meeting space, and my student group had to scramble to find another place to meet. By talking with my professor, he found us another space in the building next door that was still conveniently located and worked for all of us.
  • I was the first blind student at my school. This meant I have had a lot of barriers to overcome. I’ve met with a lot of people during my time, and even had to file Office of Civil Rights complaints to try and make the program more accessible for me. Many of these barriers they wouldn’t fully fix or change, and it can be a constant battle to get what I need to learn in these classes.
  • In my design class, we had video tutorials that didn’t have captions. I had to scramble to get those captioned in time to allow me to keep up with the material.

What advice would you give faculty members for working with students with disabilities?

  • If you see a student struggling or having an issue, ask that student if there is something wrong—recognize there may be other issues or someone may need an accommodation. You can refer students to a variety of resources on campus that might be useful, including tutoring or writing centers, in addition to the disability services office.
  • Be a part of the solution. Try to see how you can do something, and try looking at a variety of solutions.
  • Open up your mind to differences and how others can learn and communicate differently.
  • Be approachable; however, understand that a student with a disability may not want your help or may not need an accommodation you think would work better for them.

I have a hard time understanding one of my blind students and how he sees programming. What advice would you give to faculty in ways to get rid of their built-in biases?

  • Most of my professors are happy to try to work with me on my disability, and I also try to show professors how I’ve solved problems before or how others have taken on the barrier. The biggest problem is usually about accessible documents—I would suggest to professors to find resources on campus to make their PDFs and other documents accessible.
  • Each person with a disability is different—be open to dialogue and working through an issue.

Do you prefer professors to approach you proactively about accessibility, or would you rather approach the professor?

  • I always use my accommodation letter as a starting point to discussing disability with professors. I’d rather bring it up with a faculty member myself, because I know more about what I need. That being said, it can be nice if a professor approaches me, since that ensures me they are very willing to work together.
  • I’ve never had a professor reach out to me, and it would mean a lot if a professor did; however, I do think it is ultimately on students to approach professor to advocate for themselves.
  • Because I have a service animal, it can make it obvious that I have a disability. However, I did have one student halfway through a quarter ask me what my guide dog was for, and I had to tell them I was blind.

Incoming freshman often have a harder time with self-advocacy—how can faculty help students learn to speak up and advocate for their accommodations and disabilities?

  • When I was in high school, I joined the DO-IT Scholars program, which taught me the advocacy skills to get accommodations for myself and learn to navigate the differences in college from high school.
  • Ultimately, learning to advocate for myself was a part of growing up, gaining confidence, and learning what worked best for me.
  • I think mentors are very important. I mentor other students with disabilities and teach them the skills needed to succeed in college.
  • A cultural change around accessibility would really help students be more confident in advocating for themselves. If incoming freshmen were taught how to advocate for themselves and told that professors would be approachable. If professors show they are friendly and welcoming, this will make students feel more comfortable about reaching out when needed.
  • As a faculty member, verbally tell your class that they are welcome to come and talk to you about accommodations or any other needs.
  • At AccessComputing and DO-IT, we offer workshops where we bring in both students and faculty to role play these discussions in groups, which allows faculty to give feedback to students, allows students to learn from watching their peers frame the discussion, and allows students to talk with faculty about how to be welcoming to students with disabilities.

What are your experiences with libraries and informal learning environments, and how do your accommodations work in those settings?

  • At my college, we have a place with a computer lab and space where students can come in and get help with their classwork. A lot of this requires self-advocacy in talking about what you need and what they can do for you.
  • A makerspace can be really inaccessible, and I often had to have a partner help me in that environments.
  • Now that libraries have lots of resources online, I have fewer issues with getting accessible versions of documents and books. I have someone who works in the disability services office who will make accessible PDFs for me. I have to start my research early and make sure I have time to get accessible PDFs.

Do you think faculty should be trained on more forms of technology, and what do you want your fellow students to know about your accessible technology?

  • I think it can be less efficient for every faculty member to learn each specific piece of technology instead of one expert who is my go-between; however, it can be really nice for the professor to understand the difficulty and challenges with inaccessible materials.
  • I personally like to show people my technology and teach others what options are out there, especially when faculty and other students in my classroom are the ones who are going to design future technology.
  • It’s frustrating when educators don’t understand technology. I had one person on staff who told me to get Dragon Naturally Speaking and use it to record all of my professors. That staff member didn’t understand that Dragon Naturally Speaking worked and how it has to be trained to a specific person’s voice.
  • I often have other classmates talk to me about my technology, and I’m happy to speak to them, especially about how CART works.