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A Computer Science Case Study from the Disability Services Perspective

Eric Trekell, of the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology Center, at the University of Washington shares some of the structural barriers that some students can experience in some types of CS courses.
A (real life) Case Study on Accessibility for a Blind student in Computer Science

The situation:

I am reaching out to you because I have a blind student who is taking courses in Information Technology. I've been working with the professor, but still, we have run into a lot of barriers in trying to make coursework (Linux and SQL) accessible for them. They use NVDA and have little to no experience in using any other platforms.

What the accessible technology experts say:

A faculty member who works specifically on accessible coding:

  • Linux is broadly a nightmare for accessibility. They have stuff and I'm not an expert in Linux screen readers, but I know all of 0 people that use it successfully.
  • SQL is a funny one. There's nothing inherently not accessible about it, as it's just text. Studies show it's pretty tough to use for younger folks in general (we published on that actually) and there are ways to simplify it a bunch. But it depends, because if their class requires they use it, then it is what it is

Accessible & Adaptable Tech Specialists:

Some initial thoughts regarding the two technologies specifically named:

  • Linux is an operating system.  NVDA only works in Windows, not Linux. So the person will need to learn to use a Linux screen reader, such as Orca.
  • SQL is a language, not an application.  It can be learned and typed using a wide variety of software applications, including from a command prompt.  If they're using a particular software application to teach SQL, that application might have accessibility problems, but a solution would be to separate they key constructs that are being taught from the software that's being used to teach it, i.e., provide some flexibility in the curriculum so students can choose the software they use for learning SQL.

What AccessComputing/DO-IT Folks Say:

  • One thought is to invite the student to join AccessComputing - we have often had blind students help other blind students troubleshoot those sorts of issues.
  • There is also Program-L a Q&A site for blind programmers.

Eric's Observations as a Former DS Director:

To be fair to everyone, the start of a new academic term and a new course is always full of the unknown; it's impossible for everyone to anticipate all the potential barriers in a course, for every different kind of disability. But when they arise, everyone involved has some responsibility in this type of situation:

  • The student has to take some responsibility and have some flexibility here; the fact that they use the NVDA screen reader exclusively doesn't warrant "the" accommodation; they have a responsibility to learn how to use other software. Learning to use ORCA may help with Linux but what about coding in SQL? One of our tech experts has opined on that; would that proposed option be a fundamental alteration? Would it be possible in future? As an accommodation, given the immediacy of this circumstance?
  • Having to learn how to use other software takes time and some tutoring. Learning to use a different screen reader application takes time; learning to use it in the immediacy of a new course is going to put the student behind.  Plus, who's going to help the student learn the new software? 
  • Under the law, DS offices are charged with determining reasonable accommodations; they're rarely charged with, funded for, and staffed sufficiently to tutor students on the use of different software or adaptable devices.
  • DS offices have also been charged with the responsibility of working with faculty and other resources to find a reasonable accommodation for any given situation, or to do the fact-finding necessary to conclude that there is no accommodation that does not result in a fundamental alteration of the course in question.
  • The faculty member has a responsibility work with the DS office to try to reduce or remove the barrier, so long as doing so doesn't result in a fundamental alteration of the class.
  • It's not been widely discussed in the past, but Faculty also have a responsibility to develop an awareness of potential barriers their courses might present to a range of disabilities that students can be accommodated for; indeed, the starting point of Universal Design in Learning (UDL) is to always be thinking about potential barriers and then design to avoid them as much as possible. It's easier when you're designing a new course than when you're thinking about a course you've been using for a few years. But it's also true that every student is impacted differently by their disability, and no one can guarantee elimination of all potential barriers. For that reason, even wide-spread use of UDL will never completely eliminate the need for DS offices and the accommodations process under 504 and the ADA.