Our pre-conference workshop on Teaching Accessibility.

Teaching accessibility in higher education computing courses

Back in March 2019 at the ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE for short), Richard Ladner, Brianna Blaser, and I organized a half day workshop on teaching about accessibility in higher education computer science.

I’ve been working with a few doctoral students on research on this topic over the past year (including a U.S. national survey of what and who is teaching about accessibility, and a design exploration of how to prepare faculty to teach it). This workshop was a chance to meet some of the most active and engaged higher education faculty who are teaching accessibility, as well as many other faculty passionate about learning how.

One of the first things we had to overcome in the work—and this has come up a lot in the research too—is the confusion between teaching accessibility and accessible teaching:

  • Teaching accessibility. Helping computing students understand what disability and accessibility is and how it relates to the design and engineering of computing systems.
  • Accessible teaching. Ensuring that the pedagogy and materials a teacher uses can be accessed regardless of a students’ abilities.

For some reason, everyone confuses those two. Over time, I come to suspect that it’s because most CS faculty don’t realize that accessible computing is an entire research area, has it’s own entire research conference, and has it’s own profound ideas about how computing systems can and should be designed.

Despite this confusion, the workshop was still full of fascinating talks about faculty who are highly experienced at teaching about accessibility. This included:

  • Paula Gabbert (Furman University) talking about accessible technology in an introductory CS class.
  • Amber Wagner (Birmingham Southern) talking about teaching non-majors about assistive technology.
  • Tina Ostrander (Green River University) talking about doing accessibility peer review in a web design course.
  • Becky Grasser (Lakeland Community College) talking about teaching HTML and CSS validation in her web design course.
  • Lauren Bricker (University of Washington) talking about teaching screen readers in a web development course as a form of software testing
  • Anat Capsi (University of Washington) talking about teaching a capstone focused on accessibility technology.
  • Raja Kushalnagar (Gallaudet University) talking about his the highly integrated curriculum across multiple classes which culminate in an accessible technology capstone.
  • Kendra Walther (USC) talking about how to motivate learning about accessibility.
  • Michael Ball (GradeScope) talking about how to teach software testing through the lens of accessibility.

You can see everyone’s slides on this public Google Slides deck.

The speakers were great and the content was fascinating. It was quite clear based on these teachers’ experiences that not only is accessibility easily integrated into many parts of CS courses, but that it actually enriches learning about core CS topics.

After the talks, we had ample time for attendees to gather into groups focused on specific courses (intro, web development, capstone, and software engineering) and had them brainstorm about the various challenges in integrating accessibility into these subjects. Here are some of the insights I found most interesting from their notes:

  • Many faculty were interested in bringing discussions of disability and the law into introductory settings as a way to engage students.
  • There was a strong belief that accessibility topics should be integrated throughout the curriculum.
  • There was concern about accessible design is a constraint to building more flashy things like visualizations, animations, and other visual elements, because those flashy things are often not accessible.
  • There was a lot of fear of not having enough expertise with accessibility and disability; faculty didn’t want to appear to not have the answers.
  • Many noted how teaching of accessibility early in a course greatly increased motivation throughout their course.
  • Many faculty noted that in software engineering and HCI courses, it can be very difficult to find people with disabilities to help students see the importance of testing.

This challenges and opportunities show that even though there is a lot of work to do before CS faculty are teaching accessibility at scale, we’ve already made a lot of progress. I look forward to helping catalyze this progress through my work with AccessComputing!