A Push to Make ‘Computer Science for All’ Accessible to Students With Disabilities

By Benjamin Herold — September 04, 2018 2 min read
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A leading group supporting the “computer science for all” push in U.S. schools wants everyone from vendors to investors to school districts to publicly commit to supporting improved accessibility for students with disabilities.

“In their urgency to serve a lot of kids, a lot of people have been moving so fast that they might have forgotten about this piece,” said Ruthe Farmer, the chief evangelist at the nonprofit CSforALL Consortium.

“But it’s early enough that if we address this now, we can build a fully inclusive” movement for expanded computer science education, she said.

For vendors and developers, Farmer said, that means taking steps such as putting captions on videos, ensuring compatibility with screen readers for visually impaired students and making sure all online materials are compliant with accessibility standards. The pledge calls for organizations that develop curricula, content, tools, and devices for computer science education to assess their existing tools, create an improvement plan, develop guidance on accessibility for educators, and make the issue a priority moving forward.

“We want to make sure that anything built in the future is born accessible,” Farmer said.

The Accessibility Pledge also asks school districts and state education groups to focus on acquiring computer-science content that is accessible, and to provide teachers with professional development on supporting computer-science students with disabilities, among other steps.

And the pledge calls on corporations and foundations supporting computer science education to ask themselves a series of questions, including, “Is the program or content delivered accessible to students with a broad range of disabilities?”

Such steps are especially important for K-12 schools now rushing to embrace technology, said Meredith Boyce, a 21-year old student at Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina, who has been blind since she was 14.

“I wish [schools] would keep this in mind when they’re going 1-to-1,” said Boyce, who serves on the Accessibility Pledge’s advisory board and was recognized in 2015 as a White House ‘Champion for Change,’ for her work to improve technology accessibility.

“If you give out technology, you need to keep up with what disabled students need,” she said.

So far, a mix of more than 40 vendors, school districts, and state departments of education have joined the pledge, according to Farmer. A complete list will be unveiled next month at the CSforAll annual summit in Detroit.

The pledge won’t be legally binding, Farmer said, but is meant as a challenge to the computer-science education community to come together and tackle a significant problem. There will be ongoing technical support, and CSforAll is currently trying to raise funds that will be used to provide “mini-grants” to smaller organizations that want their products and programs to be more accessible.

Ultimately, it’s about raising awareness, said Emma Koslow, a 17-year old high school senior from New Jersey, who is also on the Accessibility Pledge advisory board.

“When most people think about minorities in computer science education, they’re thinking about women,” said Koslow, who runs her own nonprofit organization dedicated to providing computer science tutoring to students with disabilities.

“We should also be aware that people with disabilities exist and need help learning to code,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.