Presentation Summaries (AccessComputing: Building Capacity to Promote the Success of Students, Including Veterans, With Disabilities in Computing and Information Technology Fields 2011)

Current Trends and Opportunities in Computing

Richard Ladner

Photo of a student operates his computer using an alternative keyboard

People with disabilities are participating in almost every computing field. Success stories include TV Raman, a blind computer scientist at Google; Christian Vogler, a deaf computer scientist who has worked on computer-based sign language recognition; Chieko Asakawa, a blind scientist at IBM Tokyo Research Lab who has worked to improve accessibility of web pages; and Jonathan Kuniholm, a veteran with a disability working on prosthetic limbs. Other notable computer scientists with disabilities are David Tseng, Ken Harrenstein, Karen Alkoby, Jeanine Cook, Raja Kushalnagar, and Dan Berry. Some people with disabilities are highly motivated to pursue careers in accessibility research.

In spite of the successes described above, students with disabilities tend to drop out of computing majors more than other students and very few of them go on for advanced degrees in computing. National Science Foundation (NSF) data reveals that students with disabilities are about equally interested in natural science and engineering. However, students with disabilities are less likely than students without disabilities to complete a bachelor's degree; some data reveal that only 40% of students with disabilities attained bachelor's degrees, versus 60% of all students. Graduate students with disabilities are less likely than graduate students without disabilities to major in natural science and engineering. NSF estimates that, although people with disabilities make up 16% of the population and 10% of the U.S. workforce, they account for 11% of the STEM undergraduate student population, 7% of the STEM graduate student population, 1% of all STEM doctorate recipients, 5% of the STEM workforce, and 8% of STEM postsecondary faculty.

Computing has changed the way we live, work, learn, and communicate. Computing drives advances in many fields and enables growth and development in our economy. High-tech fields are growing at a fast rate—recent data from the Department of Labor indicates that 57% of the total growth in science and engineering occupations is in computing fields. Jobs in computing also have salaries that are at the top of the chart. Computing jobs allow individuals to work in teams, using problem-solving skills, and doing technical work, but not rote work. There are opportunities in computing to build software applications such as workplace software, web applications, cell phone applications, computer games, and embedded applications. There are also research careers where participants can build the next generation of products, including those related to accessibility such as sign language recognition tools, automatic captioning, and mobile tools. People pursue computing careers for a wide variety of reasons and they enter diverse careers following a computer science or other computing-related education. They do not all migrate to traditional software development positions.

Computing fields need a diverse workforce to generate creative solutions in the future. A diverse workforce includes people with disabilities.

Approaches to Access: Accommodations and Universal Design

Sheryl Burgstahler

Universal design is a strategy that proactively addresses the diverse abilities and other characteristics of potential users of a product or environment. When applied, products and environments are usable by the broadest range of individuals without special adaptations. Universal design can be applied to technology, instruction, services, and physical spaces. Suggestions for integrating universal design follow:

  • Design buildings so that individuals both with and without disabilities use the same entrance.
  • Create descriptive signs that use inclusive language. Use large text on a high-contrast background.
  • For images on websites and brochures, include people with diverse characteristics with respect to race, gender, age, and disability.
  • Provide multiple modes of accessing content. For example, consider providing a text document to accompany audio content.
  • Provide work surfaces that are adjustable.
  • Prepare all staff to work with all participants by offering training in universal design and accommodations.

For more information about the application of universal design within postsecondary institutions, consult the Center for Universal Design in Education.

Assistive and Accessible Technology

Terrill Thompson

Students use diverse technologies to access information. In addition to a growing variety of input and output devices such as tablet computers and mobile phones, some students use assistive technologies (AT) such as screen readers, Braille output devices, screen magnification, speech input technologies, and alternative keyboards or mice. However, providing students access to assistive technology does not guarantee that they have access to information such as instructional or administrative content provided on a website.

Guidelines and standards exist for designing accessible IT. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) finalized their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 in December 2008. These guidelines include 62 success criteria for determining whether a web page is perceivable, operable, and understandable for all users, and robust enough to work across the full spectrum of web-enabled devices, browsers, and assistive technologies. In addition to the WCAG, the W3C is actively developing or upgrading other specifications, standards, and guidelines that support accessibility, including User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (for browsers and assistive technologies), Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (for software that is used in authoring web pages), and Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) 1.0, which makes it possible to make dynamic web applications accessible, especially to screen reader users.

Section 508 standards for accessible IT apply explicitly to the federal government as part of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended in 1998, though some states and higher education institutions have also adopted them. They are based on the highest priority checkpoints from WCAG 1.0 (the W3C's original Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), but they additionally include accessibility standards for other types of information technologies, including hardware, software, multimedia, telecommunications, and standalone technologies such as information kiosks. The Section 508 standards are currently being refreshed, and are expected to be closely aligned with WCAG 2.0.

Certain strategies can be employed to increase the availability of accessible technologies. For example, when choosing technology, asking "Is it accessible?" is less informative than asking specific questions such as those listed below:

  • Can users perform all functions without a mouse?
  • Has it been tested using screen readers?
  • If it contains or supports multimedia, are accessibility features such as captions supported?
  • Is accessibility documentation available (e.g., the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template available at
  • If an authoring tool, how does one create accessible content with it?

Consider the various roles people can play to ensure that technology is designed to be accessible. For example:

  • Software engineers can design platforms (e.g., iOS, Android, HTML, PDF) that support accessibility.
  • Authoring tool developers can support accessibility features of the platform.
  • Content authors must know how to create accessible content and utilize the accessibility features of their tools in order to design accessible products.
  • Those who purchase IT products, can demand accessible products from vendors; if a current product is not fully accessible they can state their expectation that accessibility will be built into the next version.
  • AT should be designed to support accessibility features of products and content.
  • Educators can teach students about universal design.

Also, AT can be designed to be intelligent. For example, if authors fail to use proper heading tags, AT could attempt to recognize heading structure by analyzing the relative size, weight, and position of blocks of text on the page; if authors fail to add alternate text to images, AT could perform automatic character recognition to extract text from the images (if present) and use that for alternate text. These sorts of challenges present great opportunities for further research development in computer science.

For more information on AT and accessible design of IT consult, DO-IT's Accessible Technology page.