How to Design Computer Science for Students With Disabilities

By Benjamin Herold — October 10, 2018 4 min read
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What does it look like to make computer science education accessible for students with disabilities?

The guiding principle should be “everyone takes it, and everyone takes it together,” said Emmanuel Schanzer, the founder and co-director of Bootstrap, a research project based out of Brown University that develops computer-science curricular modules to be used within existing K-12 classes in math, physics, and other subjects.

Unfortunately, Schanzer said, most of the programming tools currently on the market make that challenging.

“The state of computer science for differently-abled kids is pretty bad,” he said.

Along with representatives from PBS KIDS and the nonprofit group Tech Kids Unlimited, Schanzer took part in a Tuesday panel at the CSforALL Summit, being held here this week. More then 100 companies, universities, and nonprofit and advocacy organizations have signed the group’s accessibility pledge, which calls for commitments on such steps as putting captions on videos, and ensuring that curricula and digital resources are compatible with screen readers, and more.

But in many ways, such steps are only the beginning, Schanzer said in a pre-conference interview.

Take, for example, screen readers, which help blind users by making audible the content that appears on their computers.

When you’re programming, it can make a big difference whether you’re using the numeral ‘3' or the word “three,” Schanzer said. It can also make a big difference whether a word such as “true” is to be treated just as text, or as a Boolean value (assigning a piece of data a value of “true,” instead of “false.”)

Then there’s the reality that computer programs often contain thousands of lines of code or more. Listening to a screen reader spit out line after line of syntax, absent any context or hierarchy or deeper meaning, is “a mess,” Schanzer said.

Three Levels of Accessibility

To address such problems, Bootstrap is in the midst of a multi-year effort to re-engineer its entire software stack. The goal is to make their curriculum products more accessible at three levels.

The first step, Schanzer said, was making its user interface friendlier, including for students who are not able to use a mouse.

The second was a screen reader capable of reading the output of a program a user creates.

And the third, and most difficult, level, Schanzer said, is a toolkit that can be integrated with multiple programming languages, read code, and describe its structure and purpose—in multiple languages, at age-appropriate levels.

“I think it’s absolutely massive,” Schanzer said. “The users we’ve worked with on this, some of whom are professional programmers, have said, ‘God, I wish I had this growing up. I wish I had this now.’”

The work is being funded by the National Science Foundation, the ESA Foundation, and Vinton Cerf, a Google vice president who is often described as “the father of the internet.”

Bootstrap is currently taking feedback on the new toolkit, which it aims to make freely available, including for all 25,000 of its current U.S. student users, by this time next year.

Other Approaches to Accessibility

Of course, there are other forms of accessibility, and other steps to getting there.

At the CSforALL Summit, for example, PBS KIDS highlighted its new digital game Cyberchase Railway Hero. Director of digital learning Jennifer Rodriguez described it as a “benchmark experience” in the organization’s effort to make its products more enjoyable for the widest possible range of students.

A big reason why: PBS KIDS actively sought to include students with disabilities in its extensive user testing for the game. The result is that the new game will feature a console panel that allows individual players to set their own color contrast levels and font size, customize their closed captioning, and manipulate different audio channels (to reduce background noise in the case of sensory overload, for example.)

“We’ve tried to seek out more play-testing partners who can give us access to kids with diagnosed disabilities,” Rodriguez said in an interview after the panel discussion.

“As we’ve exposed ourselves more and more, we’re seeing how important it is to let kids have more control,” she said.

And of course, accessibility is not just about improving technology. There are many other barriers to getting kids from all backgrounds into computer science, including the reality that many students with disabilities are steered away from the classes that are currently offered in schools.

That’s creating a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Schanzer said. Some developers and vendors feel they can’t justify the investment it will take to make their products more accessible, because there aren’t enough students with disabilities taking the classes in which their products are being used.

The hope, Schanzer said, is that the field comes to understand what he believes is a deeper truth: Designing for accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do for students with disabilities. It can also have big benefits for all students, even those who already have access to computer science.

“Being able to hear a plain-language reader is just as much a game changer for sighted kids as it is for blind kids,” Schanzer said. “This comes up over and over: Whenever you end up solving an accessibility challenge, you end up solving other problems you didn’t even know you had.”

Photo: Getty

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