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Cracking the code: Students with disabilities in the computer sciences

Author: Nicholas Hoekstra; info@ciddl.org

At CIDDL, we like to stay up-to-date on trends in educational technologies and their use, especially when discussing

Just to name a few.

Although it is interesting to consider how these technologies benefit students with disabilities, it is even more interesting to consider if students with disabilities are being prepared to work in these very same fields. After all, who better understands the needs of students with disabilities than the adults they grow up to be? Indeed, organizations such as Google and Microsoft have recognized the unique expertise of persons with disabilities and have created inclusive hiring programs. At the same time, a growing number of states are making computer science courses a required part of school offerings. According to a 2022 article in Tech and Learning, five states now require computer science courses for high school graduation, while an additional 27 states require that high schools offer a computer science course.

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Before Google or Microsoft can hire computer programmers with disabilities, persons with disabilities must be trained in the computer sciences. This begs the question:

Are students with disabilities participating in computer science courses?

According to Ladner (2020), The answer is not clear, thanks to inconsistencies in the ways “disability” and “computer science” are defined. Nevertheless, in a sample of 11 states where computer science data were tracked, only 7.6% of students enrolled in computer science courses were registered as having a disability. This is far below the 12.9% of students with disabilities who were estimated to be attending K-12 education in the same period.

In a more nuanced analysis of data out of the New York City public school system, researchers examined the rates of students with disabilities who completed computer science coursework in elementary, middle, and high school. This study found that, while elementary and middle school students with disabilities studied computer science as similar rates to their peer without disabilities, the percentage of students with disabilities studying computer science dropped significantly in high school.

The Blue Screen of Death

So what is it that prevents students with disabilities from studying computer science?

Obviously, challenges differ depending on the student and their unique needs. Yet there are several broad barriers that have been identified. In a 2019 article, by Stefik et al., researchers highlighted the challenges that exist for students who are blind or visually impaired. These include

  • Challenges with technology – such as the need for websites to be compatible with screen readers and magnifiers – and
  • Barriers in the presentation of curriculum that requires students to watch a demonstration or click on a visual prompt.

Plaut et al. (2023) also point out

  • The lack of ASL, subtitles, or captions for students who are deaf or hard of hearing,
  • A lack of flexibility in the physical environment for students with mobility impairments, and
  • A lack of specific support for students with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and other learning disabilities.

Finally, in her own personal story of learning to code, a woman with cerebral palsy highlights her difficulties with slow information processing as one of the biggest challenges she is forced to overcome. She doesn’t mention the fact that she is forced to type with just one hand, a fact many individuals would find barrier enough.

Restart Required

This blog is a call to arms for more research into computer science for students with disabilities. While some research has been done, the field of computer sciences is expanding exponentially. More research is required to ensure that individuals with disabilities will have a place in the classroom – and, later, the job market – to help ensure nothing is coded about them, without them.

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