UW News

March 30, 2006

UW leads national effort to bring people with disabilities into computing

The UW is launching a new national program that will consolidate its position as a leader in helping people with disabilities enter the world of computing.

The AccessComputing Alliance, supported with a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, teams up two UW entities already active in the field — the nationally ranked Department of Computer Science & Engineering and the award-winning Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology, or DO-IT, program within Computing & Communications.

The intent is to build a nationwide network by partnering with other universities and industry to identify students who could benefit from specialized instruction and make the tools available to help them succeed in computing programs and careers.

“This is an untapped resource,” said Sheryl Burgstahler, co-director of the alliance and director of DO-IT, which in 1997 received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. “There are still a lot of computing fields out there looking for people with specialized expertise.”

Just a few years ago, she said, such pathways were blocked for many students with disabilities. But that has changed.

“We are working in new territory,” she said. “Now it’s very reasonable for these students to pursue a computing degree. We want to find them and encourage them to enter computing careers.”

Richard Ladner, co-director with Burgstahler and Boeing Professor in Computer Science & Engineering who received a presidential mentoring award last year for his work with disabled students, staff and faculty, said people with disabilities can help fill the country’s need for talented, creative individuals in computing careers.

“The shortage of qualified professionals in computing fields is due in part to the under-representation of specific groups of Americans, including women, racial and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities,” he said.

The obstacles faced by people with disabilities who want to enter the field are daunting, Burgstahler said. Facilities are often inaccessible, curriculum materials are difficult to use, and computers, scientific equipment and electronic resources are seldom designed for those with disabilities. Add to that inadequate academic support, lack of encouragement, a dearth of role models and low expectations, and the barriers can seem insurmountable.

To combat that, the alliance is using a three-pronged approach to:

  • Increase numbers of students with disabilities in college computing programs. This includes setting up and supporting transition programs that give participants the skills they need to make the transition to college, intensive summer academies, internships with industry and Internet mentoring efforts.
  • Embark on an effort to better educate college departments around the nation on what they need to do to make teaching effective for students with disabilities. This will include creating a yardstick by which departments can measure their level of accessibility.
  • Create a comprehensive, searchable database, the AccessComputing Knowledge Base. The database will include case studies, effective practices, training and scholarly articles, all available on the Web, to help universities, instructors and students who are working to make computing programs more accessible. The DO-IT program already maintains a similar database that focuses more generally on assistive technology and access to college and careers, Burgstahler said.

“The infrastructure is already there — we’ll use it to connect successful practices from around the country,” she said. “We are building the elements of the alliance on models that have already proven successful in DO-IT and in Richard’s work. I think we’re the perfect combination to pull this off.”

Several events are already scheduled at alliance partner schools, she added.

Gallaudet University will conduct a four-week college transition summer workshop for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. New Mexico State is planning a two-day college transition academy for high school students on supercomputing. And the University of Southern Maine will host a weekend workshop in computing for students with disabilities.

This summer, the alliance will help support a Vertical Mentoring Workshop for the Blind, conducted by Ladner at the UW. The alliance is also planning a nine-week Summer Bridge Academy in Computing for 2007 at the UW, targeting deaf and hearing-impaired students.

According to Ladner, the overall thrust of the alliance involves connecting people — both those with disabilities and those who interact with them — with critical resources that they might otherwise never know about.

“This is very much a people-oriented project,” Ladner said. “We are looking at breaking up the misunderstandings that happen because people simply don’t have experience.”

Alliance partners include Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.; Microsoft; the NSF Regional Alliances for Persons with Disabilities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (hosted by the University of Southern Maine, New Mexico State University and the UW); and American Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing.

For more information on Ladner’s work with blind students, visit:

http://tactilegraphics.cs.washington.edu/ or


More information about the DO-IT program can be found at:


Burgstahler wins catalyst award for work on technology, disabilities

Sheryl Burgstahler was presented with the prestigious Harry Murphy Catalyst Award on March 21 at a Los Angeles conference on “Technology and Persons with Disabilities.” The award was created to help identify, acknowledge and honor those who bring people together and facilitate the efforts of others in the field of technology and disability. It recognizes “a class of people who inspire action and foster the achievements of others while taking none of the credit for themselves.”

The biennial award is sponsored by the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As described by Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center, “Catalysts are elements or chemicals that can cause or accelerate reactions but do not, themselves, get used up. They are, in this case, people who make things happen by their presence and by what they do. They don’t necessarily do everything themselves but they bring out the best in the rest of us. They connect the rest of us, and facilitate our interactions so that we all can do great things.”

Burgstahler was cited for her tireless efforts to fund collaborative activities, including securing a total of more than $30,000,000 from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Labor, the State of Washington, corporations, foundations and private donors. DO-IT projects have received many awards, including the National Information Infrastructure Award in Education, The President’s Award for Mentoring, and the AHEAD (Association of Higher Education and Disability) Program Recognition award.