Short presentations: Disability and Accessibility in STEM Fields

Working Across Disciplines to Improve Digital Accessibility

Jonathan Lazar, University of Maryland, College Park

Almost accidentally, I ended up going back to school to study law and change my career to be more focused on how the law can change accessibility policies. There are three areas of law that you should be familiar with, as laid out below.

ADA and Web Accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, before the advent of the internet. The Department of Justice (DOJ) stated publicly that the protections of the ADA apply to web sites of entities covered by Title II and Title III, under the effective communication requirement. The DOJ reaffirmed this in 2018. Courts have held since 2006 (National Federation of the Blind v. Target) that web sites of public accommodations are covered under the ADA. In 2017, the District Court dismissed Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC because “Plaintiff has failed to articulate why… compliance with a technical standard other than WCAG 2.0 [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] does not fall within the range of permissible options afforded under the ADA.” In January 2019, this decision was reversed and remanded. The Ninth Circuit decision stated that “flexibility is a feature, not a bug, and certainly not a violation of due process” and “Our Constitution does not require that Congress or DOJ spell out exactly how Domino’s should fulfill this obligation.”

Copyright and Accessible Formats

The Chafee Amendment (Sec. 121 of the Copyright Act) states: “It is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies or phonorecords….if such copies or phonorecords are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.” The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in 2014 that the fair use doctrine of copyright law allows the making of accessible digital copies of print books. The US just ratified and deposited the Marrakesh Treaty to facilitate access to published works to people with disabilities who cannot read physical text.

ADA and Testing Accommodations

ADA statute (§ 12189) states, “Any person that offers examinations or courses related to applications, licensing, certification, or credentialing for secondary or postsecondary education, professional, or trade purposes shall offer such examinations or courses in a place and manner accessible to persons with disabilities or offer alternative accessible arrangements for such individuals.” The ADA regulation (28 C.F.R. § 36.309(b)(1)(i)) helps to interpret this statute by stating, “The examination is selected and administered so as to best ensure that, when the examination is administered to an individual with a disability that impairs sensory, manual, or speaking skills, the examination results accurately reflect the individual’s aptitude or achievement level or whatever other factor the examination purports to measure, rather than reflecting the individual’s impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills (except where those skills are the factors that the examination purports to measure).”

Equity by Design

Joan Freese, Twin Cities Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

At Twin Cities PBS, we have two projects focused on STEM education: SciGirls Code and Hero Elementary.

SciGirls Code uses a national connected learning model to integrate computing in STEM learning with middle school girls. We implemented a nine-month curriculum on mobile apps, robotics, and e-textiles in 16 pilots sites with over 160 girls. We offered professional development for 32 STEM educators and role model training for female tech professionals. Our research is investigating the ways computational learning experiences impact the development of computational thinking as well as interest and attitudes toward computer science. Promising strategies used by SciGirls Code for addressing equity in learning technologies include uniting around a shared purpose; aligning home, school, and community; connecting to the interest and identities of minority children and youth; and targeting the needs of subgroups.

We partnered with the Pacer Center to work with students with disabilities and host three workshops; the Pacer Center helped us see how it was possible to work with students with disabilities and how to make sure all students felt included, especially in a group of students with disabilities instead of just one student with a disability trying to work with a group of students who don’t have disabilities.

Hero Elementary is a comprehensive media initiative that integrates television, digital media, outreach, and research. The project goal is to improve the school readiness in science and literacy of K-2 students living in poverty. We focus on low-income communities, English Language Learners, children with disabilities, and children from Latinx communities. Hero Elementary uses proven strategies to engage young learners in science, supporting early science learning with experiences that feature the following:

  • Science connected to local places
  • Culturally relevant pedagogy
  • Real-world, hands-on learning
  • Multimodal experiences, multiple representations
  • Discussion and reflection
  • Home and community partnerships

A collection of 31 “Playlists,” which include television episodes, digital or analog games, hands-on activities, the Science Power Notebook, learning analytics on a digital platform, educator assets, and children enrichment resources for parents. These playlists have adapted the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines Educator Checklist ( from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), recommendations from a needs assessment with special education teachers and partners, and recommendations from

Hero Elementary is partnering with Hope Haven, a public school for kids with disabilities in Jacksonville, FL, to work with their after-school program and see how the playlists and projects work with students. In the future, we hope to align universal design for learning with classroom strategies for informal educators.

Embedding Neurodivergent Software Design in a Computer Science Course

John Russo, Landmark College

Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled with dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia, autism spectrum, Tourette syndrome, and others. Cognitive abilities have a range. For example, people read and comprehend at different rates, recognize and understand more or less objects, can complete long tasks in a single session or need multiple sessions, become distracted more or less easily, and more. Autistic individuals may have difficulty interpreting the emotions of others, get lost easily, have challenges filtering out noise, and face confusion shifting between tasks. Individuals with attention deficits may have issues with memory limitations or choosing the correct word or sentence structure in addition to attentional bias. Software designers need to remember that one size doesn’t fit all when designing for neurodiverse users and should focus on functional impairments instead of looking at specific diagnostic profiles. As a general rule, they should design with cognitive load in mind. Abstract concepts, social and emotional cues, and symbols and icons can create problems in design.

In addition to teaching software design best practices, we can teach universal design principles into our courses, use individuals who are neurodivergent as subject matter experts, and find neurodivergent test users to evaluate the effectiveness of a design. In my future work, I hope to develop best practices for teaching neurodivergent software design as part of a computer science course. I plan to work with neurodivergent subject matter experts to test the validity of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 guidelines and develop design team and testing team composition guidelines that could be disseminated to industry.

STEM Education and Career Exposure Software for Deaf and Reading-Challenged Students

Greg Monty, North Carolina A&T State University

Our name is EMERGE in STEM (Education for Minorities to Effectively Raise Graduation and Employment in STEM): Paving a K-12 Pathway to the STEM workforce through education and career exposure. We are part of the second cohort of INCLUDES Design and Development Launch Pilots. EMERGE in STEM has a galaxy of partners engaged in our project including partners from school districts, the State Department of Education, community organizations, colleges and universities, entrepreneurs, local commerce and industry, and our evaluation and assessment team. Additional partners will join over time. EMERGE in STEM ( is the go-to STEM center for Guilford County in North Carolina, maintaining a calendar of most STEM activities in the area. We are enlisting thousands of students in grades 4-12 to complete assessments before and after participation in STEM interventions.

Our Learning Blade software ( has missions that focus on 12 different contexts for STEM including energy production, robotics design, flu outbreak, and transportation congestion that relate to a variety of career clusters, with games and lessons involved with each context. Captions in the Learning Blade software provide access for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and students with reading-related disabilities. Many students with disabilities are using this software, and we are currently collecting data to determine how the software works for them. A report from Battelle Education ( found that overall, Learning Blade doubles the number of students interesting in engineering and science and leads to a 79% increase in students recognizing that “math is helpful when solving interesting problems,” 69% increase in students recognizing “what I learn in school will be useful later in life,” and 56% increase of students interested in taking advanced math classes.

Digital INaccessibility: Why Haven’t We Figured This Out Yet?

Nora Ryan, Iowa State University

The ADA, Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, WCAG, Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act, 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, and 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) all work to ensure access for people with disabilities in different contexts. Despite all this legislation, many digital resources are still inaccessible. There is a lack of clear federal regulations, little uniformity in assistive technology, insufficient promotion of inclusion and diversity, and an absence of education and awareness about accessibility.

We need more unambiguous, enforceable federal regulations, university policies that directly address digital accessibility, widespread education and awareness about accessibility, and certifications for both front-end designers and back-end developers.  It’s 2019 and we’re still not even close to where we need to be when it comes to digital accessibility and equal access. Why haven’t we figured this out yet?

STEM Accessibility Alliance: Strengthening the National STEM Workforce through Accessible and Inclusive Strategic Alignment

Chris Atchison, University of Cincinnati

We’re not seeing disability included in broadening participation efforts as much as we should. The issue is not diversity but a lack of social justice (opportunity, access, inclusion, equity). As said by Robin Bell, President of the American Geophysical Union, “The success and advancement of Earth and space sciences depends on a diverse pool of researchers… We do better science when diverse voices are at the table.” People with disabilities are not entering postsecondary education and the STEM workforce at rates consistent with the total US population. One out of five Americans has a disability according to the US Census. More than one in three of American households surveyed had at least one member who identified as having a disability according to Nielsen data. More than one billion people have a disability worldwide (United Nations Enable).

Research and practice in access and inclusion has produced great outcomes, but not all efforts are aligned towards a common goal. Most activities are in reaction to needs that are years, and sometimes decades, overdue. We are still struggling to be proactive. Our projects spring up as a reaction to a problem independently from each other. PreK-12 educators (including the support staff and parents) are not fully aware of the accessible and inclusive opportunities in higher education and STEM careers their students with disabilities can successfully pursue. We are unaware of the needs of industry and the accessible careers that already do, or will exist, in the next ten years.

I am hoping to propose an INCLUDES Alliance that will

  1. utilize key findings from research that supports students with disabilities in workforce development to broaden the national talent in all STEM disciplines,
  2. support PreK-12 teachers and parents to encourage students to pursue STEM disciplines, and
  3. enlist corporate partners as mentors and visionaries for training the future of their workforce.

I envision the Alliance working broadly across sectors, STEM fields, and disability types, with the following objectives in mind:

  • Have everyone at the table at the same time, including the very students, parents, and teachers we are trying to support.
  • Work directly with corporate, government, non-profit partners to design pathways supporting PreK-12 students, parents, and teachers.
  • Enable students with disabilities to graduate from secondary and post-secondary institutions with marketable skills that will make them strong candidates for STEM careers.

These are our collective impact goals:

  • Establishing a cross-sector STEM access alliance in the tri-state area centered in Cincinnati.
  • Enabling all project partners to identify sector-specific goals for increasing access and inclusion that align to the Alliance priorities.
  • Creating a broader national STEM network building capacity of students with disabilities entering post-secondary education.

Research from Accenture found that companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting people with disabilities in their workforce outperform their peers. Throughout this year, I will be working to identify partners, hold a conference, and develop a proposal for submission in the fall.