Presentation Summaries (Increasing the Participation of Students with Disabilities in K-12 Computing 2016)

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Accommodations and Universal Design

Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler

Ability exists on a continuum, where all individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, or manage their health. In K-12 education in the United States, every child is ensured a free, appropriate education in as integrated of a setting as possible. However, in postsecondary education, students must meet whatever course or program requirements apply and are offered reasonable accommodations as needed.

Accommodations and universal design (UD) are two approaches to access for people with disabilities. Both approaches contribute to the success of students with disabilities in computing classes. Accommodations are a reactive process, providing access for a specific student and arise from a medical model of disability. Students might be provided with extra time on tests, books in alternate formats, or sign language interpreters.

In contrast, UD is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach to disability and is beneficial to all students. UD is designing products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. A UD approach can benefit people who face challenges related to socioeconomic status, race, culture, gender, age, language, or ability. Applying UD to information technology would include building in accessibility features and also ensuring compatibility with assistive technology. In other words, a universally designed website would have text alternatives for graphics, present context via text and visuals, include captions and transcripts for all video and audio content, ensure that all content and navigation can be reached with the keyboard alone, and spell out acronyms.

UD of instruction is an attitude that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. It can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefits to all students, promotes good teaching practice, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. UD can be applied to all aspects of instruction, including class climate, interactions, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, feedback, and assessment. Examples include the following:

  • Arranging seating so that everyone has a clear line of sight.
  • Avoiding stigmatizing a student by drawing undue attention to a difference.
  • Using large, bold fonts with high contrast on uncluttered overhead displays and speak aloud all content.
  • Providing multiple ways to gain and demonstrate knowledge.
  • Avoiding unnecessary jargon; defining terms.
  • Providing scaffolding tools (e.g., outlines).
  • Providing materials in accessible formats.
  • Providing corrective opportunities.
  • Testing in the same manner in which you teach.
  • Minimizing time constraints as appropriate.

Educators who effectively apply UD and accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities and make instruction welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. They minimize, but do not eliminate, the need for accommodations.

The Quorum Programming Language

Presenter: Andreas Stefik

Quorum is a programming language originally designed for individuals who are blind or have low vision. It uses human factors data as an evidence-foundation and was inspired by two observations: (1) much of the computer science education literature relies on visual representations and (2) text-based programming in languages with traditional syntax (e.g., C++ or Java or Python’s whitespace rules) are difficult to understand through audio.

As the project progressed, we found evidence that programming language designers rarely use scientific evidence involving humans in making decisions for human-facing decisions. Even venues with a stated interest in the human impact of programming languages (e.g., the Psychology of Programming Interest Group) rarely collect replicable scientific evidence. In designing Quorum, we conducted randomized controlled trials on competing language designs. Via these trials, we’ve found that static typing improves productivity over dynamic typing and that some languages are just as difficult to use initially for novices as languages that are randomly generated (so-called placebo languages). Quorum’s approach is different in that we use the data collected from experiments to make ongoing changes to the language, thereby making it easier to use.

Currently, nearly two-thousand students are taught Quorum each year, and nearly half of schools for the blind in the US teach programming using it. Quorum runs on the Java Virtual Machine and can be used for a wide variety of applications (e.g., the web, music, speech, screen readers). We have a variety of libraries of interest to children in K-12, including accessible robotics and a computer gaming engine. Upcoming features include mobile phone support and 3D accessible gaming support. Teaching materials for Quorum include an 18-week curriculum, online and offline tools support, a draft textbook, and real-time support via email or Facebook. Visit Quorum Language to learn more and Hour of Code for an online tutorial.

Enhancing the Accessibility of Bootstrap

Presenter: Emmanuel Schanzer

Bootstrap is a program that integrates equitable access and success in math and computer education for all students in middle and high school. Bootstrap works in schools, programs, and organizations across the United States to foster in-depth learning that is accessible and welcoming to all students. Bootstrap also offers a workshop to deliver specialized training to teachers so they have the tools and curriculum to teach programming, program design skills, and other necessary programming skills.

Bootstrap is committed to being accessible to students with a broad range of disabilities, including visual and sensorimotor impairments. The programming language and all its interactive elements (read evaluation print loop, error messages, etc.) are accessible by screen reader. Its structured editor and block programming editor both have accessibility-enabled features, which can read code based on meaning instead of syntax and provide a hands-free drag and drop. Bootstrap is committed to being accessible, and calls for future developers to take on the challenge of creating accessible products and conducting usability testing with people with a wide range of abilities.

Bringing CSP to Students with Learning and Attention Disabilities

Presenter: Sarah Wille

The computer science education field is engaging in unprecedented efforts to generate a wide-scale infrastructure for high school computer science education, and a key component of this effort is the new AP CSP course. However, as teachers and school leaders consider ways to provide access to high school computing, many are struggling to identify what they need to do to make the course materials accessible for all students—including those with learning and attention disorders. Expanding learning opportunities in computer science is an issue of educational equity that must include these students, yet this particular group of learners is rarely acknowledged in conversations about broadening participation in computer science. Students with disabilities, in general, are simply less visible in these conversations, despite the creativity and novel thinking these students bring to computing.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that children with learning disabilities comprise 5 – 20% of the total school-age population, although the learning and attention issues of school-age students often go unidentified and/or unaddressed (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014, These students face challenges around receiving, storing, processing, retrieving, and communicating information in the classroom because of psychological processing deficits (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014; Burgstahler, 2012, As K-12 computer science education expands, teachers will need guidance about how to remove or accommodate for barriers specific to learning and attention disorders to enable these students to simply access the content in a way that works for their particular brain structures and functions.  

To address this challenge, Outlier Research & Evaluation at the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education (CEMSE) at the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the Wolcott School (an independent preparatory high school in Chicago for students with learning differences), has been funded by the NSF to undertake exploratory research to identify the challenges students with learning and attention disorders face as they engage with computer science content and instruction; work with a team of special education specialists to recommended specific adjustments to lessons to address those challenges; and test adjusted lessons from two AP CSP curricula: Beauty and Joy of Computing (for NYC, and’s CS Principles ( with students with learning and attention disorders. This work will be among the very few evidence-based studies in K12 computing education about the needs of students with specific learning and attention disorders, and perhaps the only research study focused specifically on their participation in AP CSP. As such, it will generate foundational knowledge on which to begin to build the capacity of the K-12 computing education community to broaden these students’ participation in computing and help ensure this sizeable student population is explicitly included in our nation’s Computer Science For All initiative.

Visit Outlier Research and Evaluation, University of Chicago and Wolcott College Prep to learn more.

Myna: Increasing the Accessibility of Block-Based Languages

Presenter: Amber Wagner

For individuals with motor impairments, block-based languages, such as Scratch, can be difficult or impossible to use due to their dependence on the mouse and keyboard. Vocal control is one possible alternative to the mouse and keyboard. Myna, a Vocal User Interface, was created so that users can program block-based languages purely by voice. For example, if a user wishes to drag and drop the “move steps” block onto the screen, the user would simply say, “drag and drop move steps.” Myna would then programmatically control the mouse and move the “move steps” block onto the editor. Myna was evaluated by clients of United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Greater Birmingham in addition to students participating in a UCP-sponsored summer camp. Overall, the users enjoyed using Myna. One student in particular was extremely proud of the Pokémon program he created by the end of the summer camp.

Although originally developed to work with Scratch v1.4, Myna has been extended to work with additional block-based languages (e.g., Lego Mindstorms, Scratch v2.0, Snap!, Pixly,  Spherly). The process of mapping a block-based language to work with Myna is very time consuming and tedious. To reduce the amount of time required to map additional block-based languages, a tool called MynaMapper was created, which collects the information needed for Myna in a semi-automated manner. MynaMapper takes approximately 84% less time to map the required data than manual methods.  

It is hoped that tools such as Myra will lead to greater participation by people with disabilities in computing classes and careers.