People of ACM - Vicki Hanson

March 20, 2014

Vicki Hanson is ACM's Secretary/Treasurer and one of the founding members of ACM-W Europe. Her professional career spans industry and academia in both the US, where she is a Distinguished Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, and the UK, where she is Professor and Chair of Inclusive Technologies at the University of Dundee. Prior to this, she founded and managed IBM's Accessibility Research group at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York, where she continues to collaborate as a Research Staff Member Emeritus. Her current research focuses on human-computer interaction and the accessibility of information technology for people with diverse needs.

A Fellow of ACM and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Hanson received a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award, the Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Award for Social Impact, the Profiles in Achievement Award from the University of Oregon, and the ACM SIGCHI Social Impact Award. In 2013, she was named one of the 25 Most Powerful Women Engineers in Tech by Business Insider.

Hanson has served ACM in a number of capacities, largely in support of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs). Beginning with SIGPLAN and its OOPSLA conference, she has continued to serve on conference and program committees for SIGCHI, SIGACCESS, and SIGWEB. She chaired SIGACCESS and the SIG Governing Board. She was a founder and Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing and is an Associate Editor of ACM Transactions on the Web. Currently she is a member of the Fellows Committees for both ACM and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

A graduate of the University of Colorado with a B.A. degree in Psychology, Hanson received her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Oregon.

How do you balance your position at RIT with your leadership of a research team at the University of Dundee?

It does keep me busy. But with the UK being five hours ahead of New York, I can work with my Dundee team early in the day and wrap up with my colleagues at RIT. Despite the long days, I feel lucky to still be working on several multi-university projects in England and Scotland. My research for the last few years there has focused on bringing the power of computing to people with diverse sensory and cognitive abilities. This is critical work, as the ability to access digital information and services is increasingly required to live a modern life. Everything from healthcare to transport, from education to finding and keeping a job, requires access to this information. But people with disabilities are still facing formidable barriers to access, barriers that we have the ability to eliminate if we set our minds to it.

Working with a large group of investigators, post-doctoral researchers and PhD students, I've been able to identify and lessen some of these barriers. We're looking to help both those who experience disability as a result of a specific medical condition and also those who are simply getting older and finding new technology mysterious. We're also reaching out across multiple disciplines to tackle all aspects of the problem. My most recent UK Research Councils funding, for example, supports a team spanning computing, architecture, design, and medicine with the aim of creating more stimulating and supportive care homes.

So that's the UK side of things. In the US at RIT, an institution with a long history of supporting accessibility initiatives, I am particularly excited to be returning to work in support of the Deaf community. RIT is home to the National Technical Institute of the Deaf, and I look forward to collaborating with their researchers and faculty while we grow our broader HCI and accessibility programs in computing.

In truth, these efforts in the UK and US strengthen and reinforce each other. We intend to have research teams collaborating "across the pond," bringing their somewhat unique cultural perspectives to bear on our common accessibility challenges.

How did you first get involved in accessibility?

People often guess that I started working on accessibility issues due to a family member's disability. This is a pretty good guess since many in the field are first drawn to it through a personal connection. But my interest started in a graduate school course on Applied Cognitive Psychology. That had a big effect on me and challenged me to think about how I could apply my skills as a cognitive psychologist to solve real-world problems. Readings in this course also brought me into contact with emerging research on American Sign Language (ASL). I became intrigued with ASL and the language issues of people who had ASL as a first language. I wrote a proposal to the National Institutes of Health for funding as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. There, Ursula Bellugi was leading a team successfully demonstrating that ASL was a fully formed human language, not an inferior form of pantomime, and one with a rich syntax that was very different from English.

My research at Salk, which continued at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut, explored how some ASL signers, even those who don't use any sort of spoken English for communication, could nonetheless become skilled English readers. We knew that acquisition of skilled reading was difficult for deaf signers, but the root problem was not immediately evident, since written English is arguably visual. So why was reading so difficult? The problem lies in the fact that written English is based on a spoken language with direct connections between visual elements and an underlying phonological stream. But profoundly and prelingually deaf readers don't have access to this stream. For them, becoming a skilled reader involves reading a second language that is comprised of building blocks they have never directly experienced. My research explored how to make useful connections between ASL and English, and led to me developing the first computer-based reading tutor incorporating bilingual instruction in both English and ASL.

That work was completed during my first years at IBM. Then I began to consider how technology could help people overcome other barriers. This resulted in me forming IBM's Accessibility Research Group. Our biggest project focused on adapting Web content on the fly to make it accessible to people with a broad range of visual, motor, and cognitive disabilities. By the time we finished, we had deployed it in over 22 countries.

Why were you drawn to involvement with the ACM SIGs?

I have really enjoyed working with the SIGs. I started out with SIGPLAN as a member of six OOPSLA organizing committees and went on to be involved in SIGCHI, SIGWEB, and SIGCAPH, the Special Interest Group for Computers and the Physically Handicapped, which no longer exists. When I got involved in 2001, SIGCAPH membership was small and had seen no growth. By 2002 the SIG was declared in transition due to inactivity. To remedy this, I developed a plan with ACM to renew the SIG, changing its name, scope, newsletter, and bylaws to reflect the interests of its members and broaden its appeal. As a result, SIGACCESS, the Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing, emerged and has continued to grow. I chaired this SIG for quite a while and was elected chair of the SIG Governing Board, the body that ensures the SIGS are functioning well and providing value for their members.

So much of the vitality of ACM comes from the grass roots, and the SIGs are the grass roots. They organize our workshops and conferences. They drive much of the content that fills the Digital Library. They create a sense of community among those who share particular interests. They also nurture the volunteers who keep both the SIGs and the whole of ACM functioning. It's hard to imagine ACM without them.

What is it like to be woman in computing?

I have to say that I have been lucky. During my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, and in all my work and research environments since then, I have been surrounded by people who believed in and supported me. Many were women. Ursula Bellugi, my postdoctoral advisor at the Salk Institute, took me under her wing and showed me how to succeed in a male-dominated environment. Until she started mentoring me, I hadn't thought much about the issue, which says something about how fortunate I had been up to that point. She showed me how much was possible if you really believed in what you were doing and forged ahead with as little fear as possible.

As I moved into industry, I was also lucky to have known many wonderful women who became role models and mentors. At IBM, Fran Allen was particularly influential in encouraging young women to pursue careers in computing. Fran, as the first woman to win ACM's Turing Award, continues to inspire me and so many others.

That said, it is still true, even in university settings in the UK and the US, that I am often the only woman in a room full of technologists. This can be intimidating of course. But even worse, it can skew the dialogue in ways not conducive to success. As a result, I've become much more involved in activities aimed at getting more women interested in learning about and pursuing computing careers. Most recently, I helped launch ACM-W Europe and I serve on its Executive Committee. We just held the first womENcourageconference in Manchester, England. We had over 200 people in attendance, mostly women, but a number of men who recognized how important this is to the field. We share the belief that we will be much more effective as computing professionals when we find ways to combine the differing perspectives of women and men.

If I can end on a more personal note, I'd like to highlight my daughter's path into computing. Growing up, she had played on boys' sports teams and was the drummer in a band that was otherwise male. She excelled in science and math but when she decided to take the beginning programming course, she was told it was really just for boys. The boys in her band concurred—programming was not for girls. Fortunately, a math teacher counteracted this by starting a programming club for girls. My daughter, after some judicious parental bribing, went to the first meeting. She was the one of the few who showed up and continued for the entire semester (and never asked for the offered bribe). A few months ago she completed her PhD in computing from Lancaster University in England and is already publishing in multiple ACM venues! Despite her initial perceptions about women in computing, she is now doing something she really loves. I know we can make it easier for people like her to enter our field and grow successful careers doing what they love, too.