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Communications of the ACM

Broadening participation

Increasing the Participation of Individuals with Disabilities in Computing

student using touchscreen

A student engages with a computer through a touchscreen.

Credit: Access Computing

"Lacking diversity on an engineering team, we limit the set of solutions that will be considered and we may not find the best, the elegant solution."8 This insight, as expressed by computer scientist William A. Wulf, has motivated efforts to encourage women and racial/ethnic minorities to pursue computing careers. However, the underrepresentation of individuals with disabilities in these disciplines has been largely ignored. Not so at the University of Washington. Our AccessComputing initiative has worked tirelessly in this domain at a national level and, over a decade, has achieved promising outcomes in increasing the number of people with disabilities completing degrees and pursuing careers in computing fields. AccessComputing efforts have increased the capacity of key players—postsecondary institutions, professional organizations, and industry—to fully include individuals with disabilities and helped individuals with disabilities move toward computing degrees and careers.1 In this column, we share examples of project activities and lessons learned to encourage other educators and employers to join our efforts in increasing diversity in computing disciplines by engaging more individuals with disabilities in these professions.

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The Need

Increasing the participation of individuals with disabilities in computing fields is not just a matter of quantity. Engaging this population can help us meet the mandate the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support "the best ideas from the most capable researchers and educators."6 This applies to the design of information technology (IT) to be accessible to a broad audience and preparation of professionals with accessibility skills to help employers meet legal mandates under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and address the needs of an aging population. Individuals with disabilities are uniquely suited to contribute to this effort. However, people with disabilities face challenges in pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), completing degrees and succeeding in careers. Student veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, "signature injuries" of recent conflicts, can face additional challenges related to social adjustment, finances, and adjustment to their disabilities.3


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