Strategies and Resources for Including K12 Students with Disabilities in CS

AccessCSforAll: Individualized Support for Teachers Working to Meet the Needs of Their Students with Disabilities

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Teacher to Teacher Webinars

In 2021, AccessCSforAll offered a series of four webinars called “Accessible Computer Science: Teacher to Teacher,” funded by the Infosys Foundation USA. In these webinars, computer science (CS) teachers who specialize in teaching blind and visually impaired students, deaf and hard of hearing students, and learning disabled and neurodiverse students shared strategies that other K-12 educators can use to include students with disabilities in their classroom. Here we share key takeaways:

Teaching Any Students with Disabilities

  • Students may have more than one disability.
  • A particular accommodation, teaching strategy, or technology may benefit students with a variety of different disabilities. For example, a variety of students benefit from speech recognition software or scaffolding.

Teaching CS to Blind and Low Vision Students

Teaching CS to Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) Students

  • To be “Deaf” means to be part of the Deaf community and culture; to be “deaf” is to have a medical diagnosis. Know your student’s identity and use the correct capitalization.
  • About 1 in 1,000 K-12 students were deaf or hard of hearing in 2020-2021 (NCES). Deafness may be congenital or acquired. 90% of DHH students have hearing parents.
  • Students may be pulled out of regular classrooms for support services, causing them to miss aspects of in-class learning. 
  • They may have deficits in English because their native language is sign language.
  • Deaf students often miss out on incidental learning and can feel disconnected from others.
  • Teachers may need to spend time helping interpreters prepare for class, changing the classroom set up to meet the needs of their student, and/or learning how to use FM systems.
  • Students may use ASL or other forms of sign language. They may use hearing aids, cochlear implants, and/or FM systems.
  • In classrooms, students may use interpreters, captioners, hearing aids, FM systems, and/or notetakers.
  • There aren’t yet standardized signs for a lot of CS terms and concepts. This may create confusion if there isn’t time for educators, interpreters, and students to have a conversation beforehand.
  • Reading can be difficult for DHH students whose native language is ASL.
  • Videos need to be captioned. Videos in ASL are great, when available.
  • Just because students are consumers of technology does not mean that they are knowledgeable about technology.
  • Read and understand your student’s IEP. Use automatic captions on PowerPoint, Google Slides, Zoom, and other tools as applicable.
  • Face your students when you talk.
  • Deaf students need visual representations, sight lines, captions, and time.

Teaching CS to Students with Language-Based Learning Disabilities

  • In 2020-2021, 4.8% of K-12 students had a specific learning disability (NCES). There’s a lot of variability among these students, that may include difficulties in the following areas: 
    • Oral and/or written expression
    • Reading (decoding, fluency, and/or comprehension)
    • Auditory processing
    • Working memory
    • Dysgraphia/Dyscalculia
    • Executive functioning (Organization of time, materials, and/or information)
  • Students with learning disabilities often have had tough academic careers. Focus on a growth mindset, the idea that they can get better at CS, and that no one is an expert from the beginning.
  • Accommodations vary depending on the student’s particular abilities, sometimes including these options:
    • Providing audio versions of reading materials
    • Previewing vocabulary
    • Providing cues during oral tasks
    • Speech to text software
    • Using an Integrated Development Environment (IDE)  that provides structural elements
    • Breaking down tasks
    • Discussing study skills
    • Scaffolding complicated tasks or providing only one or two steps at a time.
    • Specific, written instructions
    • Rubrics with clear expectations.
  • Teach students how to ask for help and accommodations.

Teaching CS to Neurodiverse & Autistic Students

  • 1.7% of students were autistic in 2020-2021 (NCES).  This number has increased over time.  In 2010-2011, only .8% of students were autistic. 44% of autistic students have average or above average IQ scores.  Autism is underdiagnosed in girls.
  • Build a culture in the classroom to take a whole child approach.
  • Develop norms that value problem solving, persistence, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
  • Consider simplifying assessments by minimizing the number of concepts being assessed at one time.
  • Products and artifacts can be differentiated by simplifying how many concepts are being assessed.
  • Neurodiverse students should have differentiated ways for assessing their learning, especially with regards to vocabulary.
  • Neurodiverse students should have frequent (more than typical students) assessments breaking down concepts into more manageable parts.
  • Provide assessments and classwork that maintains skills and concepts previously learned.
  • Reflect on tasks by sharing successes and failures.

Programming Tools

  • Quorum, a programming language created in part by funding from AccessCSforAll, is an evidenced-based programming language that is accessible to screen reader users. It can be used online or downloaded to a PC or Macintosh and has curricula for Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles based on the curriculum, robotics, and games.
  • Swift Playgrounds, a learning-engaged programming language using real code to build and interact through a 3D world. It is accessible to all users and doesn’t require coding knowledge. It can be used on a Macintosh or iPad and has curricula for adopting higher programming principles, enhancing problem-solving skills, and building applications.
  • Blocks4All, a block-based programming language that is accessible to visually-impaired users utilizing VoiceOver and Voice Control to interact with the Dash robot. It can be used on an iPad and has curricula for learning basic programming concepts, robotics, and games.
  • CodeJumper, developed for students who are blind or visually impaired computer coding, allows all students to learn together in an inclusive setting by putting the block code tactually in your hands. Originally designed by Microsoft® and developed by APH, this educational toy bridges the skills gap and opens up the world of coding to every student.
  • debug’d coding curriculum, coding curriculum developed through a universal design for learning framework, pairs off the shelf programming tools with a printed curriculum guide and adapted materials. 

Other Resources

  • Creative Technology Research Lab at the University of Florida aims to investigate how to meaningfully engage all learners in technology-mediated learning with a focus on K-12 computer science and computational thinking. Their resource UDL4CS aims to provide teachers with the tools necessary to meaningfully include students with disabilities in computer science education.
  • Inclusive CS Teaching includes strategies and resources related to accessibility in K-12 computer science education.
  • AccessComputing is an NSF-funded Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance that works to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing education and careers.
  • CMD-IT (the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT) aims “to contribute to the national need for an effective workforce in computing and IT through synergistic activities related to minorities and people with disabilities.” They are the host of the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing.
  • WebD2 is a project-based introduction to the design, creation, and maintenance of web pages and websites for use with high school students. The curriculum emphasizes standards-based and accessible design, is cross-platform and vendor-neutral, and is freely available for teachers to use in their own classrooms.

Programs for Students

  • Deaf Kids Code promotes computer science, technology, and design thinking skills to children who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Tech Kids Unlimited works to empower neurodiverse students' lives through computer science and technology skills. 
  • Code the Spectrum provides computer technology training to individuals with autism and other neurodivergent identities.
  • Changing Expectations aims to bring quality computer science education to young people who might otherwise not have access as a means to close the opportunity gaps they face.