Georgia Tech’s Capacity Building Institute with ACCESSComputing
On Thursday, September 8, Dr. Richard Ladner of U. Washington-Seattle and PI of AccessComputing (http://www.washington.edu/accesscomputing/) visited us at Georgia Tech to host a Capacity-Building Institute. The goal of the CBI was to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields, and in particular, to help Georgia Tech to improve how we facilitate success of students with disabilities. I learned a lot from the day.
We started with an executive session for Deans, Chairs, and other leaders from the University System and around Georgia Tech that are concerned with students with disabilities. Richard told us that NSF is changing how they process the “Broader Impacts” part of proposals — that’s the part that explains how the research (“Intellectual merit”) could result in social good. In particular, a PIs plan for broader impacts will soon be evaluated in the context of “institutional engagement” and how well qualified the “institution” is to carry out activities. Institutions can set up infrastructure to help PIs achieve broader impacts (e.g., mechanisms for providing outreach, for putting new technologies into use, etc.), and without that institution support, proposals may not be as evaluated as positively.
Richard Ladner’s talk got me thinking about possibilities I hadn’t considered previously. He talked about several of the disabled researchers that he works with, like the blind-deaf guy who travels the world with his iPhone tethered to a Braille device. He hands the iPhone to people with whom he wishes to communicate. They type, and he reads and writes on the Braille device. Richard talked about one of his students who worked on helping the blind take photographs. Turns out that a large percentage of blind people take photographs with their cellphones, to show their seeing friends, so Richard’s students created software to help blind photographers frame faces correctly. They also created software so that blind people could take pictures of their surroundings when lost, upload them to a crowdsourced site, to get help from the cloud.
The most fascinating part of the day was a panel of disabled students from Georgia Tech, organized by Robert Todd of CATEA. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work around my local setting for disabled students. Every one of the students said that the note-taking services provided by student services was not useful. I also learned that PDF’s are often inaccessible via screen readers, which I didn’t realize. None of the students was from Computing (disappointing), but one student with low-vision talked about the challenge of taking computer science classes. When he went for help, he used a screen magnifier to see his MATLAB work, but the TA he worked with needed to see the whole screen. I was thinking that it would be useful to somehow link their displays, so that he could see a magnified version of the same whole screen that the TA could see. (In some sense, this is an assist for the less-abled TA — the student could remember the context when zoomed into a display section, but the TA needed to see it all.) I also learned that whiteboards are much better than blackboards for students with low vision, but projectors are best of all.
We then heard about research projects at Georgia Tech. A cool project uses Second Life to support communication and mentoring (and yes, sometimes the disabled students put their avatars in wheelchairs or with guide dogs, and thus “present” their disability). I had no idea that my colleague Bruce Walker had so many cool sonification projects to help blind users through the innovative use of auditory displays.
At the end, we had a brainstorming session with Richard about what we could do at Georgia Tech. Only three Georgia Tech tenure-track faculty were there, and two of them were Ayanna Howard and I who co-organized the event with Robert Todd. We had both explicitly invited faculty who work with first and second year students, where we lose many disabled students. None of those faculty came. Richard agreed, based on what he heard during the day, that we have a real problem at Georgia Tech at getting faculty aware of the needs of disabled students. He recommended that we start with data — write a white paper about our current number of disabled students in what programs, what we’re doing to provide them access, and what other schools are doing (as a comparison, to see what we might be doing).
Overall, the day was really worthwhile for me. I became aware of a lot of issues that I’d never even thought about before, from PDF’s to blackboards. I mostly became aware of how much we need to do.