The Impact of COVID-19 Remote Learning on Students with Disabilities

Han Zhang, Margaret E. Morris, Paula S. Nurius, Kelly Mack, Jennifer Brown, Kevin S. Kuehn, Yasaman S. Sefidgar, Xuhai Xu, Eve A. Riskin, Anind K. Dey and Jennifer Mankoff. Impact of Online Learning in the Context of COVID-19 on Undergraduates with Disabilities and Mental Health Concerns. Transactions on Accessible Computing. Accepted, April 12th, 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended college education and the experiences of students due to the rapid and uneven shift to online
learning. This study examined the experiences of students with disabilities with online learning, with a consideration of surrounding
stressors such as financial pressures. In a mixed method approach, we compared 28 undergraduate students with disabilities(including
mental health concerns) to their peers during 2020, to assess differences and similarities in their educational concerns, stress levels and
COVID-19 related adversities. We found that students with disabilities entered the Spring quarter of 2020 with significantly higher
concerns about classes going online, and reported more recent negative life events than other students. These differences between the
two groups diminished three months later with the exception of recent negative life events. For a fuller understanding of students’
experiences, we conducted qualitative analysis of open ended interviews. We examined both positive and negative experiences with
online learning among students with disabilities and mental health concerns. Online learning enabled greater access–
e.g., reducing the need for travel to campus–alongside ways in which online learning impeded academic engagement–e.g., reducing
interpersonal interaction. Learning systems need to continue to meet the diverse and dynamic needs of students with disabilities.

Anticipate and Adjust

Kelly MackEmma McDonnellVenkatesh PotluriMaggie XuJailyn ZabalaJeffrey Bigham, Jennifer Mankoff, Cynthia L. Bennett:
Anticipate and Adjust: Cultivating Access in Human-Centered Methods. CHI 2022: 603:1-603:18 [pdf] [Plain Language Summary]

“Human-centered research” must make sure that research practices are accessible for both participants and researchers with disabilities. Yet, people rarely discuss how to make common methods accessible. We interviewed 17 accessibility experts who were researchers or community organizers about their practices. Our findings emphasize the importance of considering accessibility at all stages of the research process and across different dimensions of studies like communication, materials, time, and space. We explore how technology or processes could reflect a norm of accessibility and offer a practical structure for planning accessible research.

Maptimizer

Megan HofmannKelly MackJessica BirchfieldJerry CaoAutumn G. HughesShriya KurpadKathryn J. LumEmily WarnockAnat CaspiScott E. Hudson, Jennifer Mankoff:
Maptimizer: Using Optimization to Tailor Tactile Maps to Users Needs. CHI 2022: 592:1-592:15 [pdf]

Tactile maps can help people who are blind or have low vision navigate and familiarize themselves with unfamiliar locations. Ideally, tactile maps are created by considering an individual’s unique needs and abilities because of their limited space for representation. However, significant customization is not supported by existing tools for generating tactile maps. We present the Maptimizer system which generates tactile maps that are customized to a user’s preferences and requirements, while making simplified and easy to read tactile maps. Maptimizer uses a two stage optimization process to pair representations with geographic information and tune those representations to present that information more clearly. In a user study with six blind/low-vision participants, Maptimizer helped participants more successfully and efficiently identify locations of interest in unknown areas. These results demonstrate the utility of optimization techniques and generative design in complex accessibility domains that require significant customization by the end user.

A system diagram showing the maptimizer data flow setup. The inputs are geography sets, representations options, and user preferences. Geography types and representation options are paired and tuned using an optimizer. The output is a tactile map.

What Do We Mean by “Accessibility Research”?

Accessibility research has grown substantially in the past few decades, yet there has been no literature review of the field. To understand current and historical trends, we created and analyzed a dataset of accessibility papers appearing at CHI and ASSETS since ASSETS’ founding in 1994. Our findings highlight areas that have received disproportionate attention and those that are underserved— for example, over 43% of papers in the past 10 years are on accessibility for blind and low vision people. We also capture common study characteristics, such as the roles of disabled and nondisabled participants as well as sample sizes (e.g., a median of 13 for participant groups with disabilities and older adults). We close by critically reflecting on gaps in the literature and offering guidance for future work in the field.

What Do We Mean by “Accessibility Research”? A Literature Survey of Accessibility Papers in CHI and ASSETS from 1994 to 2019. Kelly Mack, Emma McDonnell, Dhruv Jain, Lucy Lu Wang, Jon E. Froehlich, and Leah Findlater In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 371, 1–18.

Designing Tools for High-Quality Alt Text Authoring

Alternative (alt) text is a description of a digital images so that someone who is blind or low vision or otherwise uses a screen reader to understand image content. Little work examines what it is like to write alt text for an image. We created interface designs to support writing and providing feedback about alt text and tested them with people who write alt text and people who use alt text. Our results suggest that authoring interfaces that support authors in choosing what to include in their descriptions result in higher quality alt text. The feedback interfaces highlighted considerable diferences in the perceptions of authors and SRUs regarding “high-quality” alt text. We discuss the implications of these results on applications that support alt text.

Designing Tools for High-Quality Alt Text Authoring. Kelly Mack, Edward Cutrell, Bongshin Lee, and Meredith Ringel Morris. In The 23rd International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS ’21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 23, 1–14.

Mixed Abilities and Varied Experiences in a Virtual Summer Internship


The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to convert their daily work lives to a “virtual” format where everyone connected remotely from their home, which affected the accessibility of work environments. We the authors, full time and intern members of an accessibility-focused team at Microsoft Research, reflect on our virtual work experiences as a team consisting of members with a variety of abilities, positions, and seniority during the summer intern season. We reflect on our summer experiences, noting the successful strategies we used to promote access and the areas in which we could have further improved access.

Mixed Abilities and Varied Experiences: a group autoethnography of a virtual summer internship. Kelly Mack, Maitraye Das, Dhruv Jain, Danielle Bragg, John Tang, Andrew Begel, Erin Beneteau, Josh Urban Davis, Abraham Glasser, Joon Sung Park, and Venkatesh Potluri. In The 23rd International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, pp. 1-13. 2021.

Anticipate and Adjust: Cultivating Access in Human-Centered Methods

In order for “human-centered research” to include all humans, we need to make sure that research practices are accessible for both participants and researchers with disabilities. Yet, people rarely discuss how to make common methods accessible. We interviewed 17 accessibility experts who were researchers or community organizers about their practices. Our findings emphasize the importance of considering accessibility at all stages of the research process and across different dimensions of studies like communication, materials, time, and space. We explore how technology or processes could reflect a norm of accessibility and offer a practical structure for planning accessible research.

Anticipate and Adjust: Cultivating Access in Human-Centered Methods. Kelly Mac, Emma J. McDonnell, Venkatesh Potluri, Maggie Xu, Jailyn Zabala, Jeffrey P. Bigham, Jennifer Mankoff, and Cynthia L. Bennett. CHI 2022

BLV Understanding of Visual Semantics


Venkatesh Potluri
Tadashi E. GrindelandJon E. Froehlich, Jennifer Mankoff: Examining Visual Semantic Understanding in Blind and Low-Vision Technology Users. CHI 2021: 35:1-35:14

Visual semantics provide spatial information like size, shape, and position, which are necessary to understand and efficiently use interfaces and documents. Yet little is known about whether blind and low-vision (BLV) technology users want to interact with visual affordances, and, if so, for which task scenarios. In this work, through semi-structured and task-based interviews, we explore preferences, interest levels, and use of visual semantics among BLV technology users across two device platforms (smartphones and laptops), and information seeking and interactions common in apps and web browsing. Findings show that participants could benefit from access to visual semantics for collaboration, navigation, and design. To learn this information, our participants used trial and error, sighted assistance, and features in existing screen reading technology like touch exploration. Finally, we found that missing information and inconsistent screen reader representations of user interfaces hinder learning. We discuss potential applications and future work to equip BLV users with necessary information to engage with visual semantics.

Understanding Disabled Knitters


Taylor Gotfrid
Kelly MackKathryn J. LumEvelyn YangJessica K. HodginsScott E. Hudson, Jennifer Mankoff: Stitching Together the Experiences of Disabled Knitters. CHI 2021: 488:1-488:14

Knitting is a popular craft that can be used to create customized fabric objects such as household items, clothing and toys. Additionally, many knitters find knitting to be a relaxing and calming exercise. Little is known about how disabled knitters use and benefit from knitting, and what accessibility solutions and challenges they create and encounter. We conducted interviews with 16 experienced, disabled knitters and analyzed 20 threads from six forums that discussed accessible knitting to identify how and why disabled knitters knit, and what accessibility concerns remain. We additionally conducted an iterative design case study developing knitting tools for a knitter who found existing solutions insufficient. Our innovations improved the range of stitches she could produce. We conclude by arguing for the importance of improving tools for both pattern generation and modification as well as adaptations or modifications to existing tools such as looms to make it easier to track progress

Living Disability Theory

A picture of a carved wooden cane in greens and blues

It was my honor this year to participate in an auto-ethnographic effort to explore accessibility research from a combination of personal and theoretical perspectives. In the process, and thanks to my amazing co-authors, I learned so much about myself, disability studies, ableism and accessibility.

Best Paper Award Hoffman, M., Kasnitz, D., Mankoff, J. and Bennett, C. l. (2020) Living Disability Theory: Reflections on Access, Research, and Design. In Proceedings of ASSETS 2020, 4:1-4:13

Abstract: Accessibility research and disability studies are intertwined fields focused on, respectively, building a world more inclusive of people with disability and understanding and elevating the lived experiences of disabled people. Accessibility research tends to focus on creating technology related to impairment, while disability studies focuses on understanding disability and advocating against ableist systems. Our paper presents a reflexive analysis of the experiences of three accessibility researchers and one disability studies scholar. We focus on moments when our disability was misunderstood and causes such as expecting clearly defined impairments. We derive three themes: ableism in research, oversimplification of disability, and human relationships around disability. From these themes, we suggest paths toward more strongly integrating disability studies perspectives and disabled people into accessibility research.