Reflecting on Disability and Information Technology

Brianna Blaser and Richard E. Ladner

Through our work with AccessComputing, a National Science Foundation Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance, we work to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing. Over the years, we have mentored more than a thousand students with disabilities studying computing fields and partnered with hundreds of organizations looking to be more accessible and inclusive. Increasingly, disability is included in conversations about equity, but there is still more work to be done.

The disability community is particularly heterogeneous when you consider the abilities and needs of people with disability.

Keep in mind that the disability community includes not only individuals with apparent disabilities — individuals who are blind or deaf, wheelchair users, amputees, and others with mobility impairments — but also people with non-apparent disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health conditions, autism, attention deficits, and health-related disabilities. Moreover, people with disabilities are a diverse population.

Disability cuts across all other demographics: gender, sexuality, race, age, religion.

In work we did that looked at women with disabilities in computing fields, women with disabilities noted facing barriers similar to those faced by other groups, including lack of mentors and isolation. Women with disabilities, however, also noted barriers specific to disability, including those related to accessibility, disclosure, and accommodations.

A note about language

In the disability community, there are ongoing conversations about preferred language. Whereas some people prefer person-first language, such as “person with a disability,” to emphasize a person over their disability, others prefer disability-first language, such as “disabled person,” to signify that their disability is a central part of their identity. We use both person-first and disability-first language to reflect these varied opinions.

It’s also important to note that many deaf, blind, and autistic individuals do not identify as having a disability but rather see being deaf, blind, or autistic as being part of the natural variation among people. It is always good practice to ask a person what language they prefer to identify with.

Disability participation in education and the workforce

In conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), disability is often left off the table. President Biden’s Executive Order 14035, issued on June 25, 2021, has begun to shift conversation at the national level. The order is titled “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce.” The word “accessibility” is added to DEI to indicate the importance of making sure the federal workforce supports the hiring and advancement of people with disabilities. Thus, DEI is becoming DEIA.

Many efforts that work to diversify computing fields don’t collect data on disability.

The few data sources that exist use different criteria to determine who has a disability, making it difficult to make comparisons from one to the other. The National Center for Education Statistics survey reports that in 2015-16, 19.4% of undergraduate students reported having a disability. On the other hand, the 2019 American Community Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 12.7% of the U.S. civilian non- institutionalized population have a disability. These surveys use a different set of questions to ask about disability status, and this inconsistency makes it hard to understand the level of participation of people with disabilities in higher education and the workforce.

In 2022, the annual Taulbee Survey conducted by the Computing Research Association reported on disability data for the first time. In this case, 51 computing departments at U.S. institutions reported that 4.1% of undergraduate computing majors received disability- related accommodations from their universities. This low percentage may indicate that some students with disabilities do not need or want accommodations, or perhaps cannot afford to obtain a professional diagnosis, which many universities require in order to receive accommodations. It could mean that some qualified students may request an accommodation that is denied because it is not deemed “reasonable.” It could also mean that computing departments are not as welcoming and accessible to students with disabilities as they could be.

Leaders in increasing disability inclusion

Established in 1994 as the U.S. Business Leadership Network, Disability:IN has worked for almost 30 years to increase disability inclusion in business. Today, it has more than 400 corporate partners and runs a number of programs to help companies diversify with respect to disability. In recent years, more tech companies have developed inclusive hiring programs to recruit talent with disabilities to their companies. In 2016, Microsoft named deaf woman Jenny Lay-Flurrie as its Chief Accessibility Officer. In the years since, the company has become a leader for its Inclusive Hiring Program. Since 2017, the Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable has worked together to increase the success of neurodiverse individuals in their companies.

It has resources related to starting neurodiverse hiring initiatives and a job board for neurodiverse job seekers. In recent years, we’ve also seen efforts such as Inclusively emerge. Inclusively works to match disabled job seekers with employers looking to them to improve and diversify their workforce. In our experience, rather than competing, companies are working together to make their companies more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities.

We’ve also seen more engagement in computing education related to increasing the participation of people with disabilities. The Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology (CMD-IT) makes disability and accessibility a central part of its platform. The disability community at CMD-IT’s Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing has grown significantly over the past five years. The Computing Research Association’s Widening Participation (CRA-WP) program has also increased efforts to include disability in its diversity workshops, including in the IDEALS workshop (Grad Cohort Workshop for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Leadership Skills). It has also become increasingly clear that we need to think about people with disabilities as faculty members and leaders within the computing community.

Post-pandemic life

As we write this in 2022, schools and employers are continuing to emerge from the pandemic into a “new normal.” Many people with disabilities have found that the opportunity to participate in classes, conferences, or other opportunities online opened doors that were previously closed. Because of this, it’s important to reflect on practices that have become more commonplace since 2020 that make our schools and workplaces more accessible. What activities can become hybrid (without online participation being a second-class experience) to allow individuals to participate remotely? Who can benefit from the use of tools such as automatic captioning or text-based chat during in-person events? How can these changes improve the experience of not only people with disabilities, but also parents of young children, non- native speakers of English, or other diverse groups?

Accessibility of technology

Beyond studying and working in computing fields, many people with disabilities have an intimate relationship with technology in their day-to-day lives. For example, blind people often use screen readers to access computers. A screen reader allows them to navigate the computer screen and read out loud or produce in refreshable Braille any text that is in focus. Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS, and Google Android smart devices and computers all have built-in screen readers. There are several other computer access technologies that support people who cannot use the keyboard, mouse, or touch screen. Apple computers have both switch control and voice control to allow these users to access them.

In spite of these wonderful access tools, computer applications and websites are not accessible unless they are specifically designed to be so. Designing accessible applications and websites requires the application of some technical knowledge that is not often taught in computer science curricula. A starting point for learning about accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The non-profit organization Teach Access, a collaboration among industry, academia, and advocacy organizations, is dedicated to helping computing departments improve their curricula by including accessibility topics.

The accessibility of applications and websites is not just an option; it may be a legal requirement by the federal government through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, or by individual states. The accessibility of computing tools used in K-12 computer science education is particularly problematic in spite of the requirement for equal access for students with disabilities. One notable exception is the Quorum programming language developed by Andreas Stefik at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Quorum and its accompanying integrated development environment (IDE) Quorum Studio are screen-reader accessible and used in schools for the blind throughout the country. We often say of products like Quorum that it was “born accessible” — that is, accessibility was a primary consideration from the outset, not something added on later. Indeed, it can be much more expensive to add accessibility after a product is developed, as it may require a complete redesign and implementation. It is best to put accessibility into product requirements at the very beginning.


Disability and technology are inexorably intertwined. Speech recognition technology was in early development to support access to computers by people who cannot use a keyboard or mouse. Deaf people were using Sorenson video phones to converse in sign language well before personal video applications such as Skype and FaceTime became popular. Moreover, disabled scientists and engineers have played an important role in the development of technology regardless of whether it was designed to improve accessibility. Generally speaking, many people with disabilities are problem solvers because they are constantly solving their own accessibility challenges. Forefronting conversations about disability and accessibility can help ensure that technology is innovative and accessible, and that people with disabilities are part of the technology workforce.

Brianna Blaser is part of the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington, working to increase the participation of people with disabilities in science and engineering careers. She is the associate director for AccessComputing and AccessADVANCE. Her work includes direct interventions for individuals with disabilities and working with faculty, employers, and other stakeholders to create institutional change.

Richard E. Ladner is a Professor Emeritus in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, where he began his faculty career in 1971. He conducts research in accessible computing that studies the intersection of computing technology and disability. He is the principal investigator for the NSF-funded AccessComputing, which helps computing students with disabilities at all levels complete their degrees and enter the workforce. AccessComputing also helps academic computing departments and organizations be more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities.

Download this Issue

Magazine cover design for Volume 3: "The disability and accessibility issue" of re:think magazine, published by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and bearing the logo for The cover art features seven photo sections in a variety of bright colors showcasing the eyes of a diverse group of people, with the person in the middle wearing sunglasses.
In the third edition of re:think magazine, we turn to issues of disability and accessibility and how they relate to inclusion and the creation of inclusive cultures. Discussions of inclusion often focus on navigating “visible” differences between people, yet we must always be mindful of all the invisible identities people inhabit, and the importance of creating inclusive cultures across these identities.

Most Recent Issues

Scroll to Top