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Supporting Diversity in SIGCHI

Being an ally means being uncomfortable.

—R.A.C.E. team, addressing institutional racism within initiatives for SIGCHI’s diversity and inclusion, from their blog post in Interactions Magazine blog

The R.A.C.E. team’s powerful blog post addressed material impacts of institutional racism. In support of them, I believe it is critical to tell stories even if they make both the teller and the reader uncomfortable. For this reason, I wrote an Interactions blog post detailing some of my own more negative interactions with the SIGCHI EC.

Why did it make me uncomfortable to tell this story? First, I personally know many members of the SIGCHI EC, and I know how much they care about accessibility, and how much hard work, and change, has already happened thanks to AccessSIGCHI‘s efforts. I worry that my blog post will make them think that these efforts have gone unseen.

Second, I was very much hurt and angered by my experience, and it also made me feel unsafe. Perhaps this worry is misplaced, but by bringing it all up again, and making it more public, it seems possible that folks will think I behaved unethically or even go further in prosecuting this accusation.

However, I believe that taking risks is how we make progress, and I deeply hope that my love for SIGCHI, and for the individual volunteers within and outside of the EC, will help carry the day and allow this challenging moment to create a positive coming together rather than a rift between SIGCHI and its constituent communities.

The Accessibility work undertaken by the EC is very very important. However it must be complemented by equally important work that addresses structural inequity. As I said in my blog post

When work is done by marginalized groups, such as the R.A.C.E. team and AccessSIGCHI, it is especially important to nurture and cultivate their perspectives. The cost of the commitment of individual time to these efforts should not be underestimated, especially given the likelihood that many such individuals are continually being asked to put extra time into representing their community as well as advocating for themselves. Even small blows to these efforts have the potential to eliminate a gift that could otherwise help our community to better itself.

A Challenging Response, Jen Mankoff, from my blog post in Interactions Magazine blog.

Launching UW CREATE!

Create logo (person with prosthetic arm holding a lightbulb) Today is the launch of the UW Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences (CREATE). I’m so excited to be part of this effort, which has representation from across campus. Microsoft has honored us as a founding partner and has been a huge driving force in making CREATE a reality.

There is no doubt in my mind that the time is now for launching an effort of this magnitude. Since CREATE’s  mission to increase representation and have real world impact on accessibility is especially important in a time when so much is in flux.

I also want to highlight that CREATE is not just a technology-centric center. It has a strong thread of critical disability studies running through it, and the importance of giving people with disabilities a voice, and the power to advocate for themselves, as well as ensuring that the work we do has a real world impact on the disability experience, should not be understated.

Here’s to CREATE-ing a better future by creating a more inclusive future.

How Action, Activism, and Advocacy Contribute to Communities

I have recently been reminded in multiple ways of the many ways that all of us contribute to making our communities better.

Communities are created in part through leadership’s actions and choices. Many of us have never received any formal leadership training, but I have been lucky to often encounter examples of leadership worth emulating. I want to say thank you to leaders who take a hard stand against something that is wrong, and pointing it out. However, it requires refusing to point fingers, or even taking joint responsibility for problems is an equally hard job that leaders have to do. I also want to appreciate the leaders whose actions show that they believe that people deserve the benefit of the doubt. That mistakes are an opportunity for growth and improvement rather than punishment. That if someone’s daily actions demonstrate their commitment to a community, this is a seed to be nurtured. Leadership is also expressed through values such as listening. Recently, I was reminded by a friend that the best way to overcome differences is to listen, and that common goals can unite us if we can put misunderstandings aside.

Of course properties are not unique to good leaders. They help to make a community better when all of us exercise them. But the test of a community isn’t just in its culture and approach to individuals. It is also about how it grapples with change. Change requires effort, not just from leaders, but also from a critical mass of people in a community, to be successful. And change can often lead to friction. Because of this it can be one of the biggest challenges that a community faces over time. And it is something that, I believe, benefits from a multi-faceted approach.

A commitment to change is often expressed by leadership. For example, consider the significant and ongoing leadership, effort and time that the SIGCHI Executive Committee has put towards many knotty accessibility problems, from publications to policy to professional events.

However, a commitment to change also depends on the actions and advocacy/education work of individuals within the community. For example, the AccessSIGCHI volunteer community puts hours into the on-the-ground work of generating reports, identifying gaps in policy and suggesting how to address them, and developing methods and documentation for addressing accessibility.

Lastly, a commitment to change may require the courage and outspoken action of activists. Activists may put their professional careers at risk when they raise their voices. Whether they work through protest, organizing, unionization, or other means, their courage helps to start conversations and create momentum for change.

Personally, I am most comfort in the space of concrete action, and to some extent advocacy. But what I have come to realize in recent times is that change rarely happens when only one of these three approaches is in play. Action, advocacy, and activism play off of each other and each helps the other do more. While activism can create momentum, advocacy can turn it into commitment and policy. While policy creates opportunities for change, action is required to implement those changes. While action moves change along, activism helps to tear down barriers that change inevitably bumps up against. For these reasons, I have done my best to support and encourage all of these types of action when I see them.

Not everyone is comfortable with activism, not everyone has time for action, and not everyone has the power or proclivity for advocacy. But it is so important that we each remember to value all of them even when they make us uncomfortable. And that we express gratitude and support to all of the people doing all three types of work. 

Contributing to SIGCHI Accessibility

The AccessSIGCHI community (a group of volunteers that are working together with SIGACCESS to identify and address accessibility concerns across SIGCHI) has put out it’s 2019 report. I’m not going to copy the whole thing over here, especially since it’s already up on Medium but I do want to call out some important things about it.

First, although the report is about AccessSIGCHI’s work, it’s also in a way about accessibility across SIGCHI, since that is the goal we are working toward. And as such, it is incredibly gratifying to see the number of people all across CHI also working to make SIGCHI accessible. There are too many to name here (but we tried to name at least those who took on official accessibility chair roles in the report).

Second, we are making progress– more and more conferences are appointing accessibility chairs, for example. And ACM is moving toward a more accessible publications format (HTML) and thinking about accessibility in the process.

At the same time, accessibility is challenging us all to rise to new levels. Lack of accessibility is analogous to an inequitable tax that some face and others do not. It can cause issues with physical safety, trigger health effects that are non-trivial to cope with, or simply bar someone from participating in their own research community, and all of these have happened to people I know in the last year.

Change often seems incremental, and can be conditioned on not only the knowledge and caring of an accessibility chair, but choices made as far back as selection of and negotiation with a venue and as far out of the control of leadership as a rude push, by a person in power, in line for food.

For these reasons, it is critical that we not only set up goals and guidelines, not only hire expertise, but also work every day to raise awareness, to give a voice to those in our community with disabilities, and to empower them.

Accessibility is a hot topic in CHI research right now. It was one of the top keywords among submissions to CHI 2018 for example. If you are doing accessibility research, which benefits your career, but not accessibility service work, which benefits the careers of people with disabilities, ask yourself if you should change this. If you already volunteer, thank you!We need more volunteers, and we also need more representation and inclusion of people with disabilities in SIGCHI!

While we should not expect people with disabilities to do the service work necessary to improve accessibility, we should empower them to do so. This means giving people with disabilities a chance to be represented among the leadership where they can help to make decisions, address structural inequities, and have power to go with their strong voices. We must cultivate leadership and provide opportunities for people with disabilities. And we should focus those opportunities where they will have the most impact.

Last, while volunteer efforts go a long way, accessibility work sometimes costs money. It makes a big difference when it is possible to hire an expert to review a website, assess legal requirements for site accessibility, or hire a firm to provide captioning services. Budgeting for accessibility from the get-go, or having voices in the room where budgeting decisions are being made, will help to shift the balance from accessibility constantly being a burden to it being a standard.

Accessibility is a wicked problem, as I’ve said before. Even with the best of intentions and a lot of hard work, it is easy to miss something or get it wrong. But if we continue to dialogue about it and work together, I do believe we can make SIGCHI even more accessible. Mistakes will happen, but with dialogue we can learn from them. By working together, we can record them so others can learn too. And in the process we will show all of SIGCHI that they are welcome and respected in our community.

The Importance of Speaking Up

— UPDATE —

The blog post mentioned below is now also featured in a Seattle Times article about women who code.

— UPDATE —

I hesitated, a few weeks ago, to participate in a radio conversation with with Stuart Reges and a host. Reges is the author of the now notorious post titled ‘Why Women Don’t Code‘.  Since then, I’ve found myself asking what happens if I leave the podium, who’s left to speak out?

I declined, I admit, because I was afraid — afraid that I would say the wrong thing in a situation where I’d have to think on my feet, perhaps overclaim or make a statement that the literature (which is not directly in my field) does not support. I silenced myself rather than take a chance to make a difference because I lacked the self confidence to participate. But finding my voice
means speaking out even when it makes me uncomfortable.

That’s why I spent the last week working on a medium post titled “Why Don’t Women Want to Code? Ask Them!” In it, I argue using a series of anecdotes that one of the ways in which we fail women is by assuming that we know what is influencing their decisions. As my friend Sandy Kaplan said, after providing feedback on my medium post, “Assumptions shroud in mystery that which must be exposed to light to heal.”

This post was not easy to write — it required hours of work, and was improved by the generous feedback of many people. I note this because the labor of telling this story needs to be acknowledged. Many thanks go to my sister in law, spouse, friends, and fellow faculty.

Fostering Science Education and Positive Technology Use at Home

I have been asked in a couple of different forums about how I have gone about parenting my children with respect ot technology. What came out of that thinking lacks any formal reference to literature, but it does represent my experience. I’ve always felt that despite many potential negatives (and despite being mostly a homesteading luddite sort at home), technology has an important positive role to play as well in my children’s development.

Technology today is a human creation; underlying that creation is a set of crafting skills. The ability to imagine an artificial action in the world, create an image or a movie, print a mechanical object, or send a message all depend on these skills. Yet many of our children never progress beyond simply consuming the artifacts and messages that others create. This article explores, through a series of anecdotes, my personal parenting experiences with technology and tries to shed light on some of the challenges and opportunities my family faced.

My daughter is 2 or 3 or 4. She sees phones around her, and is fascinated by them. Relatives give toy phones that light up and ring to my dismay. Parents are begged for phones. Swiping an iphone or ipad is so intuitive she can do it with ease. We work hard to put computers and phones away in front of the kids, and to do housework, play, singing, and other acts of togetherness when parenting them…. A few months (or a year) pass. I am sick with chronic Lyme disease for many months and years, and find myself learning to parent slowly rather than trying to do everything. We build a cloche, two screws at a time, cuddle, and nap together. One day I am too exhausted to get off the couch. In a fit of desperation I give in to repeated requests… to teach the children to knit, something I know is usually not introduced until first grade at their school. Am I a bad parent? One session and suddenly they’re off and running with this skill they have seen in almost every moment of quiet sitting.

We work hard as parents not to use technology in front of the children, and generally include them in our life rather than structure ours around theirs. All the same, as a parent, the questions I find myself asking about technology readiness and craft readiness are not that different whether it is digital technology, music, knitting, or anything else that the children so desperately want to participate in sometimes before they are of the traditional ‘age readiness’. I wonder why and whether one thing is worse than another. We settle on the rubric that physicality and creativity are important, but balance is equally important. Are they getting social time, exercise, play? Are they learning to handle frustration and self entertain? What is any activity substituting for that would be prefered? We try to minimize the ones we don’t like the answers for.

We are on a train. The train ride is 9 hours long, my children are 4 and 6 if I remember correctly. We have brought a movie, books, felt, yarn, conductive thread, LEDs, batteries, buttons, a multimodal cornucopia of ways to engage. We read, make yarn sculptures, walk the train. Sometime during the train ride I have the goal of learning how to make felt bracelets that can light up. The kids are fascinated. We lay the bracelet flat, but have to think about its top and its bottom and the circle that it creates when the snap is closed. Where does the thread need to go to create this effect? Can we make anything other than bracelets? What about a bookmark, that can tell you which page you were on? You could have two snaps, and fold it over to connect to one or the other depending on which page! The excitement is palpable, and the craft is more than do-able by both children. We make mistakes, plan badly, correct, eventually succeed. I wonder if I am breaking some rule by trying out a 6th grade exercise involving electricity on my 4 and 6 year olds, but I see nothing but pleasure and creativity in their response.

As a computer scientist, what has always fascinated me about technology is the power of arcane acts to create whatever I can imagine, and the importance of imagining good, useful things to create. Around this time I was also beginning to think about how to bring technology into my childrens’ middle-school curriculum, and this project was a first attempt. I am delighted by the invention of the bookmark and by the immediacy of the experience as well as the way it builds on the crafting skills my children already have.

We are leaving on sabbatical for a year. The children are 5 and 7. EBooks are big, it is 2011. Taking a library along would be impossible, but there is a plethora of free and excellent children’s literature (60 years old or older) available on amazon for the Kindle. We buy one and take it on sabbatical along with a drop spindle and a big pile of wool. We also buy the Rosetta Stone software. By the end of the year of travel, we have read innumerable books aloud. The children are used to kindles and have discovered at least one game which we ask them to stop playing. We have invented as many stories as we’ve read, and spun enough wool to knit a pair of socks by the end of Fall, which are completed just in time for Winter.

The kindle feels like a technology win. I like the fact that it is easy on the eyes, and that it lets us dig into so much great literature. Rosetta stone is like a game, but it also feels like a win. It is amazing how easily the kids can pick it up, and it helps lay the groundwork for them to learn two languages during the year we travel. I love the fact that it is so synergistic with other things we are doing (practicing as a family, working with a tutor, immersion in school). It turns out that the human tutor we see most often in the Rosetta stone software actually lives in Zurich, where we are as well. The connections between what we do in our technology, and what we do in our lives are rich and deep and our choices feel positive and right.

The children are older, maybe 3rd and 5th or 4th and 6th grade now. They have learned a little about Scratch programming, another technology that almost any crafty parent could pick up though of course I bring an ease and expertise to this because of my background. We try Raspberry Pis as well, a tiny computer that costs around $30, which they can experiment with and even destroy. We assemble 3D printer kits together because of my research.

I also want to set good examples of creative media use. I try to help with the computational things. All are unsatisfying. Scratch is so artificial. The Pis are slow, and hard to understand for the kids. Joint work is much harder in this realm. Meanwhile, technology’s negative side starts to rear its head. Among my own children and other children we know in the same age group, shockingly considering the age, some are caught reading pornographic fan fiction on a kindle, looking at pornographic videos, having their identity ‘stolen’ to text a hurtful message in their name, watching a spoof of a popular song dance video that turns out to be extremely raunchy.

I start to wonder what I have brought into my children’s lives and how I will proceed.  We have many conversations about pornography, about privacy, about how every online act is essentially public.  This feels similar to sexual education. Talking more, and earlier, but of course in age appropriate ways, is the foundation on which positive parenting can happen. Parenting this requires vigilance, openness, learning, and attention. This wondering is not confined to technology, however.  A child’s awakening to the larger world is a fragile process and I conclude that I need to be as involved and aware as possible, but I have no answers.

These early years set the tone for our work as parents in a technological world. Hard limits in the domain of ‘media consumption,’ with the understanding the forbidden is sometimes more attractive than that which is experienced, discussed, and controlled. Concrete examples of positive uses of media such as learning language, reading emails together from far-away relatives and reinforcing what they are learning in school about searching for information online and evaluating what is trustworthy. Strong support for creative uses of technology, in collaboration with local organizations that support these activities in camps and after school sessions help foster this as well. We ultimately choose to allow unlimited use of the most challenging and creative of applications of technical skills, to support passion, and to teach balance with physical and social activity, as well as other hobbies.

To foster this in a positive fashion, we create a rich home environment that included homesteading activities, craft activities, music, cooking, and we gave them both the opportunity and responsibility to participate in that. We teach them to love the act of creation in many domains. We moved into a neighborhood where both children have friends nearby. All of these things helped to fill their time and create a healthy competition with technology. We’ve reached an equilibrium where the computer is just one of many hobbies, to be used for those things it is good at. Mixed in with all of this, we allow ourselves to enjoy and be amazed by their successes, whether online or offline. And the journey continues…