Three Myths and Three Actions: “Accommodating” Disabled Students

February 29, 2024

Excerpted from the Winter 2024 Allen School DEIA newsletter article contributed by CREATE Ph.D. students Kelly Avery Mack and Ather Sharif, with Lucille Njoo.

Completing graduate school is difficult for any student, but it’s especially difficult when you’re trying to learn at an institution that isn’t built for you. Students with disabilities at UW face extra challenges every day because our university doesn’t support equitable participation in educational activities like research and mentorship – those of us who don’t fit the mold face an uphill struggle to make ourselves heard in an academic culture that values maximum efficiency over unique perspectives. In this article, we share three common myths about students with disabilities, reveal the reality of our inequitable experience as grad students at UW, and propose a few potential solutions to begin ameliorating this reality, both at our university and beyond.

Myth 1: DRS (Disabilities Resources for Students) handles all accessibility accommodations.

This is an incorrect expectation of the role DRS serves in a campus ecosystem. The term “accommodations,” in the first place, frames us as outcasts, implying that someone needs to “review” and “approve” of our “requests” to simply exist equitably; but given that this is the term folks are most familiar with, we’ll continue referring to them as “accommodations” for ease of communication. While DRS can provide some assistance, they are outrageously under-staffed, and UW research has demonstrated that they are only part of the ecosystem. Instructors need to consider accessibility when building their courses and when teaching their classes. Accessibility, like computer security, works best when it is considered from the beginning, but it’s not too late to start repairing inaccessible PDFs or lecture slides for a future quarter. UW DO-IT has a great resource for accessible teaching.

Myth 2: Making my materials accessible is all I have to do
for disabled students, right?

Disability is highly individual, and no matter how much an instructor prepares, a student might need further accommodations than what was prepared ahead of time. Listen to and believe disabled students when they discuss the accessibility barriers they face. Questioning their disability or using language that makes them doubt their self-worth is a hard no. Then, work with the student to decide on a solution moving forward, and remember that students are the number-one experts on their own accessibility needs.

Myth 3: Advising a student with a disability is the same as advising a student without a disability.

Disabled students have very different experiences of grad school, and they need advisors who are informed, aware, and proactive about those differences. If you are taking on a disabled student, the best ways to prepare yourself are:

Educate yourself about disability.

Disabled students are tired of explaining the same basic accessibility practices over and over again. Be willing to listen if your student wants to educate you more about their experience with disability, and recognize action items from the conversation that you can incorporate to improve your methods.

Expect that timelines might look different.

Disabled students deal with all kinds of barriers, from inaccessible technology to multiple-week hospital stays, so they may do things faster or slower than other students (as is true for any student). This does not mean they are not as productive or deserving of research positions. Disabled students produce high-quality research and award-winning papers, and their unique perspectives have the potential to strengthen every field, not just those related to disability studies. And they are able to do their best work when they have an advisor who recognizes their intellectual merit and right to be a part of the program.

Be prepared to be your student’s number-one ally.

Since DRS cannot fulfill all accessibility needs, you might need to figure out how to solve them yourselves. Can you find $200 in a grant to purchase an OCR tool to help make PDFs accessible for a blind student? (Yes, you can.) Can you advocate for them if their instructor isn’t meeting accessibility requests? (Yes, you can.) Not only will this help them do their best work, but it also sets an example for the other students in your lab and establishes an academic culture that values students of all abilities.

Alice Wong and Patty Berne: Two UW lectures moderated by CREATE researchers

January 29, 2024

Winter 2024 quarter kicked off with two outstanding conversations with women of color who are leaders in disability justice.

Alice Wong: Raising the visibility of disabled people

First, Alice Wong discussed topics important to her work in raising the visibility of disabled people. Wong’s book Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life was the topic of the Autumn 2023 CREATE Accessibility Seminar.

CREATE Director Jennifer Mankoff started the conversation asking Wong about her experience as a disabled person in academia and what needs to change. Wong said her work in disability justice was inspired in part by the “incredible amount of emotion and physical labor to ask for equal access” in academic settings. She had to spend precious time, money and energy to gain the accommodations and access she needed to succeed. But she realized that as soon as she transitioned out, her efforts would be lost and the next student would have to start over to prove their need and request a new set of accommodations. Wong was doubtful that large academic institutions can support the goal of collective liberation. It’s the “dog-eat-dog world [of] academia where the competition is stiff and everyone is pushed to their limits to produce and be valuable.” She encouraged instructors to incorporate books about disability justice in their syllabi (see the reading list below). 

Wong, who spoke with a text-to-voice tool and added emphasis with her facial expressions on the screen, also addressed the value and the limitations of assistive technology. She noted that the text-to-speech app she uses does not convey her personality. She also discussed how ableism appears in activist discourse.

One of her examples was a debate over gig economy delivery services, which are enormously important for many people with disabilities and that also under-compensate delivery work. She noted that blaming disabled people for undermining efforts for better wages was not the solution; collective efforts to make corporations compensate workers is the solution. She also explained that hashtag activism, which has been disparaged in popular discourse, is a crucial method for disabled people to participate in social justice activism. And she discussed her outrage when, as she prepared to give a talk to a public health school, her own access needs were used to censor her. Throughout her talk, Wong returned again and again to the principles of disability justice, and encouraged attendees to engage in collective forms of change.

Wong’s responses embodied a key component of disability justice principles: citational practices that name fellow contributors to collective disability justice wisdom. Her long list of recommended reading for the audience inspired us to build our new RDT reading list. Wong referenced Patty Berne several times, calling Berne her introduction to disability justice.

Patty Berne on disability justice: Centering intersectionality and liberation

A week later, two CREATE Ph.D. students, Aashaka Desai and Aaleyah Lewis, moderated a conversation with Patty Berne. Berne, who identifies as a Japanese-Haitian queer disabled woman, co-founded Sins Invalid, a disability justice-based arts project focusing on disabled artists of color and queer and gender non-conforming artists with disabilities. Berne defined disability justice as advocating for each other, understanding access needs, and normalizing those needs. On the topic of climate justice, she noted that state-sponsored disaster planning often overlooks the needs of people with motor impairments or life-sustaining medical equipment. This is where intersectional communities do, and should, take care of each other when disaster strikes.

Berne addressed language justice within the disability community, noting that “we don’t ‘language’ like able-bodied people.” For example, the use of ventilators and augmented speech technology change the cadence of speech. Berne wants to normalize access needs for a more inclusive experience of everyday life. Watch the full conversation on YouTube.

Research at the Intersection of Race, Disability and Accessibility

October 13, 2023

What are the opportunities for research to engage the intersection of race and disability?

What is the value of considering how constructs of race and disability work alongside each other within accessibility research studies?

Two CREATE Ph.D. students have explored these questions and found little focus on this intersection within accessibility research. In their paper, Working at the Intersection of Race, Disability and Accessibility (PDF), they observe that we’re missing out on the full nuance of marginalized and “otherized” groups. 

The Allen School Ph.D. students, Aashaka Desai and Aaleyah Lewis, and collaborators will present their findings at the ASSETS 2023 conference on Tuesday, October 24.

Spurred by the conversation at the Race, Disability & Technology research seminar earlier in the year, members of the team realized they lacked a framework for thinking about work at this intersection. In response, they assembled a larger team to conduct an analysis of existing work and research with accessibility research.

The resulting paper presents a review of considerations for engaging with race and disability in the research and education process. It offers analyses of exemplary papers, highlights opportunities for intersectional engagement, and presents a framework to explore race and disability research. Case studies exemplify engagement at this intersection throughout the course of research, in designs of socio-technical systems, and in education. 


   Case studies

  • Representation in image descriptions: How to describe appearance, factoring preferences for self-descriptions of identity, concerns around misrepresentation by others, interest in knowing others’ appearance, and guidance for AI-generated image descriptions.
  • Experiences of immigrants with disabilities: Cultural barriers that include cultural disconnects and levels of stigma about disability between refugees and host countries compound language barriers.
  • Designing for intersectional, interdependent accessibility: How access practices as well as cultural and racial practices influence every stage of research design, method, and dissemination, in the context of work with communities of translators.

Composite image of the six authors of a variety of backgrounds: Christina Harringon, Aashaka Desai, Aaleyah Lewis, Sanika Moharana, Anned Spencer Ross, and Jennifer Mankoff
Authors, left to right: Christina Harringon, Aashaka Desai, Aaleyah Lewis, Sanika Moharana, Anne Spencer Ross, and Jennifer Mankoff

Authors

CREATE’s Response to Proposed Update to Section 504 for Medical, Health

Updated November 30, 2023

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights published a proposed update to the HHS regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits disability discrimination by recipients of federal funding.

This is the first comprehensive update to the regulations since they were first put in place more than 40 years ago. The proposed rule includes new requirements prohibiting discrimination in the areas of:

  • Medical treatment
  • The use of value assessments
  • Web, mobile, and kiosk accessibility
  • Requirements for accessible medical equipment, so that persons with disabilities have an opportunity to participate in or benefit from health care programs and activities that is equal to the opportunity afforded others.

For 60 days starting on September 14, HHS will be seeking public comment on the proposed rule. Input from the disability and aging communities is essential!


Note that CREATE also provided a review guide and CREATE’s response in an accessible and tagged PDF document (53 pages) for a previous public comment invitation, specifically for the U.S. Department of Justice in the areas of digital accessibility.

CREATE’s Response to Proposed Digital Accessibility Guidelines

October 4, 2023

CREATE has submitted a response, in collaboration with colleagues within the UW and at peer institutions, to the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) proposal for new digital accessibility guidelines for entities that receive federal funds (schools, universities, agencies, etc.). The DoJ proposal invited review of the proposed guidelines.

The response commends the Department of Justice for addressing the issue of inaccessible websites and mobile apps for Title II entities through the approach proposed through the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). The future popularity of websites and apps was not anticipated when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990. Since then, websites, non-web documents, mobile apps, and other software have become popular ways for Title II entities to reach out and inform the public, to offer benefits and activities, and to use as a part of their offerings to members of the public. In recent years, many entities have asked for clearer legal guidance, so we appreciate the Department’s efforts to address these issues in proposed rulemaking. 

Read more:

People with Disabilities are a Population with Health Disparities

September 29, 2023

In September 2023, the Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities announced the designation of people with disabilities as a population with health disparities. The designation is one of several steps National Institutes of Health (NIH) is taking to address health disparities faced by people with disabilities and ensure their representation in NIH research.

Dr. Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, in consultation with Dr. Robert Otto Valdez, the Director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality cited careful consideration of the National Advisory Council on Minority Health and Health Disparities final report, input from the disability community, and a review of the science and evidence.

As part of the effort to support research in this area, NIMHD also announced a funding opportunity to advance the science of disabilities research.

Read more

Your Review & Comments Wanted: Proposed Federal Accessibility Standards

August 11, 2023

A proposal for new digital accessibility guidelines for entities receiving federal funds was released for review by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on August 4, 2023.  Anyone affected by these guidelines has 60 days — through Tuesday, October 3, 2023 — to comment.

The DOJ is still trying to decide exactly what the rule should say, how quickly public entities should improve digital accessibility, and what exceptions to allow. For example, the current rule states that course content posted on a password-protected website (such as a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas) does not have to be made accessible until a student with a disability needs access to that content. If a student registers for the course, or transfers into it, then the course content has to be made fully accessible to all disabilities by the start of the term or within 5 days (if the term has already started). In addition, the course needs to stay accessible over time.

CREATE Director Jennifer Mankoff summarizes some of the most important aspects of the proposed rule in a Guide to Reviewing and Commenting that includes many of the the questions posed by the DOJ, with additional questions to consider from Mankoff. This guide is not meant to direct your comments, rather to facilitate and encourage your review. Whatever your viewpoint on the questions raised, the DOJ should hear from you

We strongly urge you to review the guidelines and submit your comments. If you have any questions, reach out to CREATE at create-contact@uw.edu.

Proposed Federal Accessibility Standards: CREATE’s Guide to Reviewing and Commenting

A proposal for new digital accessibility guidelines for entities receiving federal funds was released for review by the U.S. Department of Justice on August 4, 2023. Anyone affected by these guidelines had until October 3, 2023 to comment.

  • CREATE’s official response, in collaboration with colleagues within the UW and at peer institutions, is posted on the DOJ site temporarily.
  • The response is available as an accessible and tagged PDF document (53 pages).
  • If you have any questions, reach out to CREATE at create-contact@uw.edu.

August 2023 announcement

Note that the comment period has ended.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) is proposing new requirements for digital accessibility for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Their goal is to provide public entities with clear and concrete standards for how to fulfill their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act Title II Regulations. The goal of these new standards is to ensure public entities provide equal access to all services, programs, and activities that are provided via the web and mobile apps. 

These standards impact mobile apps, websites, and course materials created by and for government bodies, including public schools (K-12 and universities), and public services of all kinds.

Below, we have tried to summarize some of the most important aspects of the proposed rule and to explain them. However, in summarizing we have naturally emphasized things we think are important. Some of the topics the rule touches on that we summarize below include the proposed timeline for making digital content accessible; the proposed rules impacting K-12 and college/university course content; what standards should be met for digital content to be accessible for websites, apps, and live audio captioning; and how compliance should be assessed

Note that submitted comments are publicly available online at: DOJ-CRT-2023-0007 on www.regulations.gov.

roposed rule, but the DOJ has asked a number of very specific questions that you might want to comment on.

Notable questions, highlighted

We highlight several of the DOJ questions below, labeled with the Question # that the DOJ uses for them. You will see that we present these questions out of order – we present them in the order that made sense to us when we summarized this proposed rule. You can read the whole proposed rule and all the questions, in order, on the posting of Docket (DOJ-CRT-2023-0007) on www.regulations.gov. Sometimes we write Question to Consider before a question; these are questions we think you might want to comment on even though the DOJ did not ask about them.

Why submit comments?

The DOJ is still trying to decide exactly what the rule should say, how quickly public entities should improve digital accessibility, and what exceptions to allow. For example, the current rule states that course content posted on a password-protected website (such as a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas) does not have to be made accessible until a student with a disability needs access to that content. If a student registers for the course, or transfers into it, then the course content has to be made fully accessible to all disabilities by the start of the term or within 5 days (if the term has already started). In addition, the course needs to stay accessible over time.

If you agree with this, you might want to say so in your comments, because someone else might think this is unreasonable, and the DOJ should hear from both sides. But you might disagree, in which case you should also comment.  

What are the new standards about?

These standards affect web content and mobile apps. These are very broadly defined and include almost any digital content that is important to interacting with public entities. 

Web content is defined as “information or sensory experience that is communicated to the user by a web browser or other software. This includes text, images, sounds, videos, controls, animations, navigation menus, and documents.” It also includes things like web content posted on social media apps, to the extent possible (for example, if the app supports it, the public entity should add image descriptions to images it posts).


Question 1: The DOJ’s definition of “conventional electronic documents” consists of an exhaustive list of specific file types. Should the DOJ instead craft a more flexible definition that generally describes the types of documents that are covered or otherwise change the proposed definition, such as by including other file types (e.g., images or movies), or removing some of the listed file types?


Mobile applications, or “apps,” are defined as “software applications that are designed to be downloaded and run on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.” A public entity may use a mobile app that someone else designed and built (an “external mobile app”); in this case it still needs to be accessible. 


Question 25: What types of external mobile apps, if any, do public entities use to offer their services, programs, and activities to members of the public, and how accessible are these apps? … should [these apps be exempt]? If so, should this exception expire after a certain time, and how would this exception impact persons with disabilities.


Timeline for making web content and mobile apps accessible

Almost any content or app that is important to interacting with a public entity has to be made accessible within 2 years of the date when the rule becomes official, regardless of whether a disabled person asks for it or is known to be using that content or app. For public entities that serve a small number of people (<50,000), the proposed deadline is 3 years. For example, a small county police department in a county with <50,000 people would have 3 years. However only truly independent entities qualify for this exception. For example, the same policy department in a county with >50,000 people would only have two years; similarly a small public school in a large county would only have two years.

If a public entity feels this would be too costly, under the proposed rule they must prove this and they still have to do as much as possible, “to the maximum extent possible” to support their disabled constituents.


Question 4: What compliance costs and challenges might small public entities face in conforming with this rule? … [do they have internal staff for addressing accessibility? If they have recently addressed accessibility, how much did that cost?]

Question 5: Should the DOJ adopt a different WCAG version or conformance level for small entities or a subset of small entities?


Exemptions

The new rule does include some exceptions, meaning it allows some content to be inaccessible. However, when a disabled person needs the inaccessible content, existing regulations implementing title II of the ADA may come into effect, typically requiring the content to be made accessible.

Exemptions

The new rule does include some exceptions, meaning it allows some content to be inaccessible. However, when a disabled person needs the inaccessible content, existing regulations implementing title II of the ADA may come into effect, typically requiring the content to be made accessible.

Archived and pre-existing non-web documents

The following exemptions are intended to reduce the burden of the new rule for large collections of rarely used documents:

  • Archived content not in active use
  • Pre-existing non-web documents

The DOJ has several questions about these exemptions (see Questions 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20) which relate to how such content is currently used, where it is posted, and how these exemptions would impact people with disabilities.


Course content

Generally speaking, course content (such as a public syllabus or handout) has to be made accessible. However, course content inside a password protected website such as a learning management system (for both K-12 schools and colleges/universities) is exempted if the content is only available specifically to admitted students enrolled in the relevant course (and disabled parents, in the case of K-12 materials). 

Once an institution knows, or should have known that a student (or, for K-12 courses, parent) with a disability is enrolled in the course, “all existing course content must be made fully accessible by the [start of the academic term] for that course… New content added throughout the term for the course must also comply… at the time it is added to the website.”

Under today’s interpretation of the ADA, transferring to a course during the add/drop period or from a waitlist often means that the course is less accessible. The DOJ guidelines address this, requiring in these cases that course material is made accessible within five business days of the student’s enrollment. The DOJ also requires “auxiliary aids and services… that enable the student with a disability to participate” while a course is being made accessible. Notably, the relevant material would need to be fully accessible to all disabilities, “not merely the criteria related to that student or parent’s disability.

Importantly, the obligation to make the course content accessible is “ongoing for the duration of the course” and “as long as that content is available to students on the password-protected course website.” It is not clear whether this applies to future offerings of the same course, as typically use of an LMS involves creating a “new” password-protected site for each offering.

The DOJ has a lengthy analysis of tangible and intangible benefits of this ruling, as well as expected costs. They estimate that “By the end of year four (two years after postsecondary schools begin to remediate course content), 96 percent of courses offered by public four-year and postgraduate institutions and 90 percent of courses offered by community colleges will have been remediated. They further estimate that postsecondary institutions will finish remediation on their own to preempt requests in the following year.” They have similar estimates about K-12 education.


Question to consider: Should the “the duration of a course” apply to a single offering of a course for a single term, or all offerings of that course in all terms (even if a separate LMS site, with a separate password, was created for each offering)? How might this impact the likelihood that most courses are fully accessible within four years?

Question to Consider: Do  you agree that the proposed rule will increase course accessibility to include 96% of courses? How might the variable representation of people with disabilities across fields impact this? For example, people with disabilities are particularly under-represented in STEM fields, where diagrams and math equations are often particularly inaccessible. What could be changed about the proposed rule to make this prediction more likely to come true?


The DOJ also has several questions; we highlight some of them below. We have combined the questions for K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions by referring to [public educational institutions] since the primary difference is that parents with disabilities trigger the need to make documents in the case of K-12 education only. 


Question 27 & 36: How difficult would it be for [public educational institutions] to comply with this rule in the absence of this exception?

Question 28 & 37: What would the impact of this exception be on people with disabilities?

Question 33 & 42: How long would it take to make course content available on a public entity’s password-protected or otherwise secured website for a particular course accessible, and does this vary based on the type of course? Do students need access to course content before the first day of class? How much delay in accessing online course content can a student reasonably overcome in order to have an equal opportunity to succeed in a course, and does the answer change depending on the point in the academic term that the delay occurs?

Question 35 & 44: Should the DOJ consider an alternative approach, such as requiring that all newly posted course content be made accessible on an expedited time frame, while adopting a later compliance date for remediating existing content?


This includes third party content. For example, a website for practicing math problems provided, if required to complete coursework, would need to be accessible. The rules do not specifically mention textbooks. However the DOJ asks:


Question 26: Are there particular issues relating to the accessibility of digital books and textbooks that the DOJ should consider in finalizing this rule? Are there particular issues that the DOJ should consider regarding the impact of this rule on libraries?

Question to Consider: Has textbook accessibility been a barrier to accessing courses? What are some examples of problems you’ve encountered? How common are these problems? What could help?


Other exemptions

The DOJ also exempts linked 3rd party information (if it is not providing a direct service) and individualized, password-protected documents (such as personal utility bills). However it specifies that if these documents have deadlines associated with them, and are not accessible, they need to adjust their deadlines “to ensure that a person with a disability has equal access to its services, programs, or activities.” The DOJ asks about whether proper processes are in place:


Question to Consider: How might a delay in receiving an accessible document affect you? For example, could it affect whether you receive care services, money for food, or healthcare services that could cause harm if delayed? If you think this is a concern, what would be a reasonable deadline for receiving these documents?

Question 46: Do public entities have adequate systems for receiving notification that an individual with a disability requires access to an individualized, password-protected conventional electronic document? What kinds of burdens do these notification systems place on individuals with disabilities and how easy are these systems to access? Should the DOJ consider requiring a particular system for notification or a particular process or timeline that entities must follow when they are on notice that an individual with a disability requires access to such a document?


How is “accessible” defined?

The ADA has always included digital accessibility. However, a lack of specific standards in the past has left public entities to define for themselves what compliance looks like. The result has been a lack of consistent attention to accessibility. According to the DOJ, “voluntary compliance … has been insufficient in providing access.”

Now, the DOJ is requiring public entities to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)version 2.1, at the AA level. This is a carefully tested web standard which has recently been expanded to touch on mobile accessibility needs as well. 


Question 3: Are there technical standards or performance standards other than WCAG 2.1 that the Department should consider? … If so, what is a reasonable time frame for State and local compliance with WCAG 2.2 and why? Is there any other standard that the Department should consider, especially in light of the rapid pace at which technology changes?


The DOJ notes that “the Access Board’s section 508 standards include additional requirements applicable to mobile apps that are not in WCAG 2.1 [including]: interoperability requirements to ensure that a mobile app does not disrupt a device’s assistive technology for persons with disabilities (e.g., screen readers for persons who are blind or have low vision); requirements for mobile apps to follow preferences on a user’s phone such as settings for color, contrast, and font size; and requirements for caption controls and audio description controls that enable users to adjust caption and audio description functions.


Question 8: Is WCAG 2.1 Level AA the appropriate accessibility standard for mobile apps? Should the Department instead adopt another accessibility standard or alternative for mobile apps, such as the requirements from section 508 discussed above?


The DOJ also notes that this includes captioning of “live audio,” such as in real-time presentations. They note that many meetings have moved online since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, making live audio captioning “even more critical for individuals with certain types of disabilities to participate fully in civic life.” Proper live audio captioning includes speaker identification as well as accurate transcription of spoken text, sound effects, and other significant audio. Live audio captioning of this sort cannot be automated, and the DOJ is concerned about costs. They ask:


Question 13: Should the Department consider a different compliance date for the captioning of live-audio content in synchronized media or exclude some public entities from the requirement?

Question 14: What types of live-audio content do public entities and small public entities post? What has been the cost for providing live-audio captioning?


Finally, the DOJ notes that “WCAG 2.1 can be interpreted to permit the development of two separate websites—one for individuals with relevant disabilities and another for individuals without relevant disabilities—even when doing so is unnecessary and when users with disabilities would have a better experience using the main web page.” They rightly point out that this raises “concerns about user experience, segregation of users with disabilities, unequal access to information, and maintenance”. Thus the proposed rule explicitly states that parallel development of a separate website, document or app is “permissible only where it is not possible to make websites and web content directly accessible due to technical limitations (e.g., technology is not yet capable of being made accessible) or legal limitations (e.g., web content is protected by copyright).”  They go on to ask:


Question 49: Would allowing [a separate alternate version of a website, document, or app] due to technical or legal limitations result in individuals with disabilities receiving unequal access to a public entity’s services, programs, and activities?


How will compliance be measured?

The DOJ has many questions about the best way to measure compliance. The DOJ acknowledges that a public entity might reasonably not be in full compliance with all of WCAG 2.1’s AA standards at all times. This is because web content changes frequently, assessments may not always agree, and may include thousands of pages of content, making compliance more difficult than ensuring access to, say, “a town hall that is renovated once a decade…. The Department also believes that slight deviations from WCAG 2.1 Level AA may be more likely to occur without having a detrimental impact on access than is the case with the ADA Standards. Additionally, it may be easier for an aggrieved individual to find evidence of noncompliance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA than noncompliance with the ADA Standards, given the availability of many free testing tools and the fact that public entities’ websites can be accessed from almost anywhere.” 

They discuss several alternatives that could allow for the necessity of slight deviations and short periods of noncompliance while still promoting high compliance overall, including a percentage-based standard (which may be difficult to implement, and may need to weight different aspects of WCAG 2.1 differently to achieve equity); a standard based on policies for feedback, testing and remediation (which may be inconsistently applied); or “organizational maturity” meaning the organization can show it has a robust accessibility program in place (which may not translate to full accessibility or compliance). They solicit commentary on compliance: 


The DOJ asks what evidence an allegation of noncompliance requires (Question 50); Whether organizational feedback practices, testing policies, remediation practices, or organizational maturity should matter in assessing compliance (Questions 51, 55, 58). The DOJ also asks about what specific feedback practices, testing policies, remediation policies, and level of organizational maturity are needed (Questions 52, 53, 54, 59). They also ask:

Question 62: Should the Department address the different level of impact that different instances of nonconformance with a technical standard might have on the ability of people with disabilities to access the services, programs, and activities that a public entity offers via the web or a mobile app? If so, how?


To conclude, the DOJ’s proposed rule covers a number of topics that are of great importance to people with disabilities. We strongly urge you to comment on the rule.

If you have any questions, reach out to CREATE at create-contact@uw.edu.

Honoring Judy Heumann’s outsized impact

Judy Heumann — disability activist and leader, presidential advisor to two administrations, polio survivor and quadriplegic — passed away on Saturday, March 4. Heumann’s family invited the community to honor her life at a memorial service and burial that is now available on video with ASL, captioning, and English interpretation of Yiddish included.

Who was Judy Heumann?

Judy Heumann fought for disabled rights and against segregation. She led the “longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in American history,” according to the New York Times. When communications were cut off by the government, she passed messages to supporters using sign language and received support from the Black Panthers and the Mayor of San Francisco. The protest led to successful action on section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Heumann did not stop there. According to President Biden, “Her courage and fierce advocacy resulted in the Rehabilitation ActIndividuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act – landmark achievements that increased access to education, the workplace, housing, and more for people with disabilities.” Heumann talked in a 2020 article in Ability Magazine about the importance of “helping people to identify and understand the scope of disability that the ADA and other laws cover.” She believed in an expansive view of disability, and wanted to see more people included in the disability rights movement, stating “… I think it’s a combination of shame and fear that we may not be talking about if we have diabetes or epilepsy or cancer or anxiety or depression or bipolar or whatever. …I think expanding our circle is one of the big issues that we need to be dealing with over the next five to ten years.” Heumann went on to talk about the power of knowing that you have rights under the law, recognizing and fighting discrimination, and the importance of diversifying the disability movement by race, religion and sexual orientation: “We need to have an understanding, for example, of the fact that [disparities] may exist in various communities based on race and socio-economic status, how there are people within the U.S. who are not benefiting from laws because they don’t have the resources to hire an attorney or an advocate. The government, in my view, is not always enforcing laws as they should be.”

Heumann’s auto-biography, Being Heumann came out in 2020 (co-authored with Kristen Joiner). Crip Camp documents the 1970s birth of Heumann’s and other activists’ advocacy for people with disabilities. Ability Magazine inter-view touching on the ADA, the increasing diversity of the disability community, and the pandemic.

CREATE Co-director Jennifer Mankoff noted that, “Personally speaking, her influence on my career has been indirect but important. In my first years as a faculty member, at UC Berkeley, the Center for Independent Living (which Heumann founded and called “the first organization in the world to be run for and by the disabled” according to the NY Times) reached out to educate me about disability activism, through another leader, Scott Leubking. At the same time, I began to learn about disability studies work with the help of Berkeley’s nascent disability studies program and specifically academic and activist Devva Kasnitz. These early encounters directly influenced the direction of my research and advocacy and are visible today in CREATE’s emphasis on disability studies and disability justice and entwining them in its accessibility work.”

Learn more about Judy Heumann

Heumann’s auto-biography, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, published in 2020 and co-authored with Kristen Joiner. 
Crip Camp documents the 1970s birth of Heumann’s and other activists’ advocacy for people with disabilities.
Ability Magazine interview touching on the ADA, the increasing diversity of the disability community, and the pandemic.

CREATE Contributes to RFP on Healthcare Accessibility

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) requested public comment about comprehensive, longitudinal, person-centered care planning for people with Multiple Chronic Conditions (MCC). CREATE contributed to a disability justice-focused response that highlights nine recommendations:

  1. Account for medical trauma.
  2. Meet basic standards for accessibility.
  3. Value individual and community knowledge about MCC.
  4. Treat accessibility as a first-class component of patient care.
  5. Prioritize community.
  6. Look beyond “care.”
  7. Remove financial barriers.
  8. Include people with MCC in planning.
  9. Enable people with MCC to enter clinical roles

Read the full response (PDF).

Increasing Data Equity Through Accessibility

Data equity can level the playing field for people with disabilities both in opening new employment opportunities and through access to information, while data inequity may amplify disability by disenfranchising people with disabilities.

In response to the U.S. Science and Technology Policy Office’s request for information (RFI) better supporting intra- and extra-governmental collaboration around the production and use of equitable data, CREATE Co-director, Jennifer Mankoff co-authored a position statement with Frank Elavsky, Carnegie Mellon University and Arvind Satyanarayan, MIT Visualization Group. The authors address the three questions most pertinent to the needs of disabled people.

They highlight the opportunity to expand upon the government’s use of accessible tools to produce accessible visualizations through broad-based worker training. “From the CDC to the Census Bureau, critical data that is highly important to all historically underrepresented peoples and should be available to underrepresented scholars and research institutions to access and use, must be accessible to fully include everyone.”

Reiterating “Nothing about us without us,” the statement notes that when authoring policies that involve data, access, and equitable technology, people with disabilities must be consulted. “Calls for information, involvement, and action should explicitly invite and encourage participation of those most affected.” In addition to process notes, the response addresses roles, education, laws, and tools.

Just having access to data is not enough, or just, when power, understanding and action are in the hands of government agents, computer scientists, business people and the many other stakeholders implementing data systems who do not themselves have disabilities.

The statement identifies access to the tools for producing accessible data, such as data visualizations, as low-hanging fruit and concludes with a call for funding of forward-thinking research that investigates structural and strategic limitations to equitable data access. More research is needed to investigate the ways that various cultural and socio-economic factors intersect with disability and access to technology.

Read the details in the full response on arxiv.org (PDF).

Richard Ladner named AAAS Fellow

Congratulations to CREATE Director for Education Richard Ladner on being named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)! He is among 564 new fellows from around the world elected in 2021 for distinguished achievements in science and engineering.

Ladner was recognized for his advocacy and inclusion efforts for people with disabilities in computer science and related fields. His work has included development of numerous tools to perform specific tasks, including translating textbook figures into formats accessible to persons with disabilities, and enabling people to communicate via cell phones using American Sign Language.

In addition to the AAAS fellowship, Ladner has been honored as a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, an Association for Computing Machinery Fellow and an IEEE Fellow.

Excerpted from the UW News article. See the AAAS announcement.

CREATE Submits RFI on Disability Bias in Biometrics

CREATE, in collaboration with representatives of the Trace Center people with backgrounds in computer science policy and disability studies, submitted a response to the Science and Technology Policy Office‘s request for “Information on Public and Private Sector Uses of Biometric Technologies“. See our full response on Arxiv. We summarize the request for information, and our response, below.

What are biometric technologies?

Biometric technologies are computer programs that try to guess something about you. Sensors today can capture your heart rate, fingerprint, face. They can watch you walk, and even find identifying information in your typing style and speed. Initially, biometrics were designed to identify people. This has expanded to include emotion, intent, disability status, and much more.

What does the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) want to know?

The OSTP wants to hear from many different types of people who may have very different wishes for, and worries about, biometric technology. For example, their Request for Information mentions industry, advocacy groups, tribal governments, academic researchers, and the general public.

They are interested in how biometrics may be used and what their benefits are. But they also want to know how to use them well. For example, they ask how biometrics can be more likely to correctly identify a person, or their emotion, intent and so on. They also ask about security concerns — could one person using a biometric system pretend to be someone they are not, for example. They ask about other possible harms such as whether biometrics work equally well for all people, or whether they might be used for surveillance, harassment, or other worrisome activities.

They finally ask about appropriate governance. Governance refers to rules that might increase the value and safety of biometrics. An example is who should be included in ethical decisions about biometric use. Rules about how it is ok to use biometrics, or ways of preventing problematic use are also on this list. Transparency and whether biometrics can be used in court are also mentioned.

What did CREATE have to say about this?

CREATE led a discussion of disability bias and risk in the use of biometric technology.

Ableist assumptions

The benefits of such technologies are similar for people with and without impairments, however access to such technologies is important for equitable use. Ableist assumptions built into an application can make it inaccessible even if it meets legal standards. For example, an automatic door may close too fast for some users, or a voice menu may time out. These inaccessibilities are avoidable if systems are designed with disabled users in mind.

Biased data

Biometric systems require data (many examples of whatever information they are using, to guess things about people). If that data is biased (for example, lacks examples from people with disabilities), biometrics are likely to be far less accurate in their guesses for those populations. A person might have unusual or missing  limbs and not have a fingerprint, or walk differently, or speak differently than the system expects, and thus be unable to access services tied to recognition of fingerprints, gait, or voice. This can also make biometrics inaccessible. The CREATE response discusses several examples of how these biases can creep into data sets.

Lack of personal agency and privacy

Next, the risks of biometric failures can be higher for people with disabilities. For example, if a disability is rare, this can make data security more difficult, or make it more likely that different people with similar impairments are confused for each other. In addition, it is possible that biometrics might be used to label someone as disabled without their permission, an abuse of personal agency and privacy. Also, a biometric system may implicitly enforce what it means to be “human” when they fail to recognize a disabled body and then deny access to services as a result.

What solutions did CREATE recommend?

These problems are difficult, but not impossible, to solve.

Include people with disabilities in the design

CREATE’s first recommendation is to ensure that people with disabilities are given the chance to help in the design and assessment of biometric systems. Participatory design, which includes people with disabilities as important stakeholders in the design process, is a good first step. However true equity will require that people with disabilities can enter the technology workforce so that they can directly build and innovate such systems. This requires access to higher education programs; access to conferences and events where research and products are discussed, presented and shared; and accessible tools for programming biometrics. In addition, the disability community needs to get involved in policy and decision making around biometrics.

Set standards for algorithm accessibility

Next, we need new standards for algorithm accessibility, just as we have standards for web page accessibility. These should include expectations about testing with disabled populations, and collecting unbiased data.

Ensure transparency, responsiveness and permission

Additionally, there should be rules about transparency, the ability to override or replace biometric systems when they fail to correctly understand a disabled person’s actions or input, and rules about not abusing biometrics by, for example, detecting disability without permission.

UW Disability Studies, D Center win UW Medicine CLIME Grant

UW faculty and staff affiliated with CREATEUW Disability Studies and the UW D Center have received a grant from the Center for Leadership and Innovation in Medical Education (CLIME) to explore what it means to be an ally to people with disabilities. “This is an integral issue informing professional education in the medical fields as well as in design and engineering, says PI Heather Feldner. “I am most excited that this project has the potential to further the conversation about how an inclusive mindset can shape contemporary health professions education and practice. Accessibility and technology will be a big part of these conversations and the subsequent training material development. To be able to approach this project with the multidisciplinary perspectives of the CREATE team as a resource is a huge asset.”