Computing Applications Broadening participation

Broadening Participation by Teaching Accessibility

Strategies for incorporating accessibility into computing education.
  1. Introduction
  2. Why Accessibility Is Important
  3. Who Teaches Accessibility?
  4. How to Learn about Accessibility
  5. Call to Action
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Authors
disability and system icons, illustration

In November 2012, Communications published a column by Vint Cerf titled "Why is Accessibility So Hard?"2 In the column, Cerf describes the difficulty in building adaptable computer interfaces that can meet the needs of people with a variety of physical disabilities, blindness, deafness, and motor-related disabilities. With the multitude of computing platforms and applications that people interact with every day, reliably handling accessibility seems like a complex problem. Interestingly, a comment by one of the readers of the column, Bryan Garaventa, who is a blind developer, succinctly countered: "Accessibility isn't hard. It takes discipline, knowledge, and comprehensive testing to get right, which are all part of the educational process." Put it another way, accessibility is complex, but once it is learned, it is not that difficult to make accessible applications. In reality, not every accessibility problem has been solved and accessibility is an active research area. Nonetheless, much is known and practiced about incorporating accessibility into computing platforms and applications.

In this column, we will approach accessibility from a complementary perspective. Computing educators should be teaching accessibility—the theory and practice of designing and building accessible computing platforms and applications—in order to broaden participation in our field. This means bringing in more women, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) people, disabled people, and members of other minoritized groups into our field. It has already been well argued by many that broadening participation in the computing field yields tremendous benefits across the discipline.8 With that given, what is needed are explicit strategies to make this happen. One such strategy is teaching accessibility that has a twofold effect—direct and indirect. Directly, it is well known that topics in computing that relate to social good, like accessibility, attract women and BIPOC people to the field.1,5 Indirectly, if more computing platforms and applications were accessible (especially those that support our profession such as IDEs), then more disabled people would be able to join our field, thereby helping make it more diverse.

Back to Top

Why Accessibility Is Important

According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately one billion people in the world who have a disability. Of this group, 285 million have a visual impairment not correctable by glasses or contact lenses and, of these, 39 million are blind. There are 466 million people with disabling hearing loss. According to the Christopher and Dana Reeve foundation, approximately 1 in 50 Americans have some sort of paralysis or motor-related disability such as spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, stroke, or cerebral palsy. These numbers extrapolate to about 150 million people worldwide. From an industry perspective, this represents a large number of customers who may have limited access to their platforms and applications if their accessibility is ignored. Interestingly, accessibility has direct benefits for people without disabilities because everyone has limitations in certain situations, such as when driving a car or in a noisy airport. Alternative ways for input and output provided by accessible applications are valuable in those situations. Ensuring computing platforms and applications are accessible is the answer.

From a human-rights perspective, people with disabilities should have access to computing platforms and applications that can benefit their lives. Indeed, some of these people should be an integral part of the workforce that creates those computing platforms and applications. The UN Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed by more than 160 countries around the world, makes this case.7 Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. and the European Accessibility Act in the E.U. provide a legal basis for companies and governments to make products and services accessible.

For the reasons described here, many tech companies are eager to hire employees who have some expertise in accessibility as program managers and developers because they want their products to be accessible out of the box. No doubt, companies would like computing programs in universities and colleges to teach more about accessibility. The Teach Access organization has as its mission increasing the number of colleges and universities that teach accessibility topics.

Back to Top

Who Teaches Accessibility?

Accessibility topics appear naturally in a number of course settings including Web design/development courses, software engineering, and human-computer interaction courses. Indeed, any course that addresses human-facing hardware and software can have accessibility topics embedded in them. Approaches to designing human-facing software, including user-centered and participatory design, should address users whose abilities are limited. The concepts of universal design and ability-based design should also be covered in such courses. Columnist Richard Ladner taught a course on data compression that introduced students to Grade II Braille—a compressed form of Braille—as part of the historical background of data compression. Grade II Braille uses fewer characters per word than uncompressed Braille allowing users to read more quickly with their fingers and use less paper. Disability and accessibility topics can be weaved into almost any course, even introductory courses. Paula Gabbert, a professor at Furman University, teaches an introduction to computing with accessibility as a theme throughout the course.4

Accessibility needs to be taught throughout the computing curriculum.

Several years ago, Shinohara et al. surveyed computing faculty at U.S. institutions to ask whether or not they taught accessibility topics, and if not, why not.8 The survey was sent to 14,176 faculty members from 352 institutions, of which 1,857 from 318 institutions responded. Of those that responded, only 375 (20%) indicated they taught accessibility topics. We can probably conclude the vast majority of those who did not respond to the survey probably do not teach accessibility topics. This results in a very small number, perhaps 2.5% who teach any accessibility topics at all. The two most cited reasons that respondents did not teach accessibility were that it was not part of the core curriculum and they did not know enough about the topic to teach it. Almost half (46.6%) of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that accessibility should be taught. The computing workforce needs graduates who know about accessibility, but even within Teach Access member schools, less than 3% of engineering and computing technology course descriptions reference accessibility.

Back to Top

How to Learn about Accessibility

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) works with member organizations across the globe to provide standards, guidelines, and resources to ensure the Web is accessible to everyone. In 2020, the W3C, in partnership with UNESCO IITE, launched "Introduction to Web Accessibility" (see http://edx.org) as a free MOOC on edX to teach professionals across the globe the fundamentals of Web accessibility and the benefits (for people with and without disabilities) when all Web applications are accessible. The W3C course is a great place to start learning the fundamentals about accessibility and why the solution is not to make specialized applications for users, but rather to apply principles such as universal design and ability-based design in order to make applications accessible to all.

In order to teach accessibility at scale, we need a multipronged approach to address both learning and teaching accessibility. As addressed in Kawas et al.,6 faculty and computing professionals need time and incentives to first learn accessibility themselves and then become comfortable with integrating it into their work (courses or applications) through techniques like what they call micro professional development. Individuals can continue to learn more about accessibility by partnering with organizations like Teach Access, AccessComputing, or W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

  • Teach Access is a collaboration between educational institutions, technology companies, and advocates for people with disabilities with the mission "to address the critical need to enhance students' understanding of digital accessibility as they learn to design, develop, and build new technologies with the needs of people with disabilities in mind."
  • AccessComputing has the mission to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields and provides a vast repository of resources for learning more.
  • W3C WAI provides an international forum for people interested in Web accessibility.

Through learning more about accessibility, individuals can understand that both form and function play a part in developing meaning; if navigation and structure are set up only as visual elements, the meaning behind content disappears when the visual differences no longer appear. The popular operating systems from Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Linux that we develop on have designed their infrastructures to enable developers to take advantage of accessibility features such as screen readers, switch control, and speech control. These features enable the use of devices like speech output, refreshable braille displays, and physical switches. However, if the applications designed on top of those platforms are not coded properly, then accessibility is lost and we have form without functionality.

To get started, Teach Access has developed a free online tutorial (see https://bit.ly/3xB6olg) about accessibility, published resources for incorporating accessibility into curricula, and sponsored a grant program to incentivize faculty to incorporate accessibility into existing courses and share those modules with the community at large.

Back to Top

Call to Action

Accessibility must be taught throughout the computing curriculum and the call needs to come from each one of us. A bottoms-down strategy or top-up approach is not enough to affect the necessary change; we need stakeholders at all levels to make accessibility a priority.

  1. Computing departments: (including CS departments, information schools, community colleges, boot camps, and high schools). Make accessibility a priority in the curriculum. Join Teach Access. Provide leadership and institution level support.
  2. Teachers: Be a lifelong learner and make accessibility your next topic. Develop new modules about accessibility in your courses.
  3. Students: Ask your department or program to include accessibility in the curriculum. Discuss accessibility in student ACM chapters, or form an accessibility student group. Find opportunities to learn about and promote accessibility. Organize an accessibility hackathon.
  4. Industry professionals: Embrace accessibility and make it a part of the corporate culture across your organization. Join Teach Access, build accessible products and services, include accessibility knowledge as a job requirement, be aggressive.
  5. Users and advocates (allies): Help advocate for universal design and accessibility for all. Recognize that there is a broad spectrum of user needs, and one day, you or somebody you know will be the one who needs those accessibility "features."

Back to Top


As Maya Angelou said: "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." As computing professionals, we can take this quote to heart with regards to accessibility. As computer scientists, educators, students, practitioners, and designers, we may not have always known about accessibility or how to be inclusive of all, but now that we know better, we can do better.

    1. Carrigan, C.M. Yearning to give back: Searching for social purpose in computer science and engineering. Frontiers in Psychology 8, 1178. (Jul. 2017); https://bit.ly/3yI891d

    2. Cerf, V.G. Why is accessibility so hard? Commun. ACM 55, 11 (Nov. 2012), 7; https://bit.ly/3lU1y07

    3. Gabbert, P. Teaching accessibility in a CS0 class. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges 35, 7 (Apr. 2020), 11–20.

    4. Guzdial, M. et al. A statewide survey on computing education pathways and influences: factors in broadening participation in computing. In Proceedings of the Ninth Annual International Conference on International Computing Education Research (ICER '12). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA (2012), 143–150; https://bit.ly/3ABtWIi

    5. Kawas, S., Vonessen, L., and Ko, A.J. Teaching Accessibility: A Design Exploration of Faculty Professional Development at Scale. In Proceedings of the 50th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE '19). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, (2019), 983–989; https://bit.ly/3fTMEDi

    6. Ladner, R. The impact of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Commun. ACM 57, 3 (Mar. 2014), 30–32; https://bit.ly/3yHHcdW

    7. Shinohara, K. et al. Who teaches accessibility? A survey of U.S. computing faculty. In Proceedings of the 49th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE'18). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 2018, 197–202; https://bit.ly/3lUH9I8

    8. Wulf, W. Diversity in engineering. Leadership and Management in Engineering 1.4 (2001): 31–35; https://bit.ly/2VA51q1

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More