Sheryl Burgstahler

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, founder and director of the DO-IT Center, talks about the challenges students with disabilities face in STEM classrooms.

In the early 1980s, Sheryl Burgstahler met a 6-year-old boy named Randy who had a congenital condition called Arthrogryposis, which caused the paralysis of both his arms and legs. He wanted to move from a special education first grade class to a general education class but wasn’t allowed to because he was unable to write.

Burgstahler began to work with him on learning to write with an Apple II computer. He put a stick in his mouth and used it to hit keys. She worked with an engineering student to create a device that would aid his typing. Needless to say, the educational system and the technology available to aid his learning was failing Randy. Despite these challenges, he still works with computers to this day.

Had Randy been going through the school system today, he would have been helped greatly by the recent work of Burgstahler, Richard Ladner, and Andreas Stefik. The National Science Foundation (NSF) project AccessCSForAll was awarded about one million dollars in August 2017 to make computing education more accessible to K-12 students with disabilities.

There are about 7.4 million K-12 students with disabilities in the United States. This is 15 percent of K-12 students nationwide. Students who are blind, deaf, or have other disabilities related to reading, such as dyslexia, have long been an afterthought for computer science courses. For example, content embedded in images without a text alternative create barriers for students who are deaf and require captions.

As an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Stefik hopes to change this. One tool he’s working on is a more accessible programming language called Quorum that will help lower the learning curve for entry level coders with disabilities.

“That’s one reason why we have the grant, is to make sure people don’t forget,” Stefik said.

Burgstahler, who is now the director of the UW affiliated Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center, added that students with disabilities are often left behind because instructors are unsure if they’re capable of performing in computer science classes.

“Teachers in K-12 with faculty and post-secondary in computing, many of them don’t think computing is a field that they are capable of being successful in,” she said.

As computer science has grown in popularity, the importance of equal access has become all the more essential. Fifty-eight percent of new jobs in STEM fields relate to computing, while only 8 percent of STEM students graduate with a computer science degree, according to

AccessCSForAll began under the name “AccessCS10K” in September 2014 with a grant from the NSF, but was renamed following the announcement of “CS for All” by the White House in January 2016.

This new grant will be used in two primary ways nationwide. First it will create a research practitioner partnership with schools that not only serve students with disabilities, but also mainstream schools to see how effective an accessible version of the class Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles is for students with disabilities.

Ladner, professor emeritus in computer science & engineering at the UW, said that this course “is supposed to be inviting to everybody.”

Second, experts will develop educational resources for computer science instructors to learn how to include students with disabilities. This will be a combination of collective work with teachers and individualized support for teachers in need.

Additionally, the group will partner with College Board to make sure that they can properly help students with disabilities.

“Luckily, we’re on the ground floor so we can kind of make it accessible to start with, but we’re a little behind,” Ladner said. “It’s always catch up with accessibility.”

This is not the only group that is lacking an ideal level of access to computer science education. While this grant will not affect computing schooling for women and underrepresented minorities, the NSF is “absolutely cognizant” of these populations, according to Stefik.

The DO-IT Center is also working with engineering faculty to make strides toward further accessibility for their classes and products.

“Rather than just looking at the person, think ‘Oh they use a wheelchair, you know, we’ve got to do this,’ think, ‘Could we make our facility more accessible to a person who uses a wheelchair?’” Burgstahler said.


Reach reporter Jake Goldstein-Street at science@dailyuw.comTwitter @GoldsteinStreet

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