People of ACM - Stephanie Ludi

October 3, 2023

How did your own struggles with visual impairment lead to your work in human-computer interaction, specifically with computer science education?

The challenge with being a student or professional with a visual impairment can often be traced to issues with access to materials and opportunities, as well as lowered expectations by society generally. As a person with a visual impairment since birth, even with some functional vision, there is a lot of self-advocacy and fortitude needed since many people are not aware that persons with visual impairments can lead productive careers in computing and other areas. Most people do not know someone with a visual impairment, and for many who do, the person often had vision loss due to aging. There are many people around the world who have severe vision loss or blindness, across all demographics. However due to the lack of resources, support, and opportunities, too many people with visual impairments have challenges in education, employment, and access to other fundamental services and information.

My own journey into computing started with my interest in developing a car that could drive for me. While a student at the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, I found my interest was more in computer science. The program was very hands-on and set me up to think about research as impacting the world around us to solve real world problems. I kept that mindset during my graduate work. With technological advances, challenges remain for persons with disabilities. As a student, I faced access issues in Math and Computer Science. There are still challenges in these areas for many people, and STEM broadly, for persons with visual impairments. While issues persist, programs continue because of the efforts of accessibility researchers around the world, myself included. I remember the struggles I experienced when I tried to follow a lecture or use an integrated development environment (IDE). I want to make that experience easier for those that come after me so that they can be excited by the possibilities that computer science holds and to show them that they can be a part of that innovation.

What is block-based programming? And how are you modifying it to allow visually impaired students to learn computer programming?  

Block-based programing is most often identified with programming languages for children. Examples include Scratch and Snap. Rather than relating to text-based programming languages with traditional programming keywords and syntax, block-based programming enables programmers to construct programs using blocks or similar visual constructs that encapsulate different programming structures and commands. Due to the way in which block-based tools are designed, users can view the text or pictograms on the blocks and then use a mouse to move them on the screen as they construct programs. The ability to access information and interact with the blocks are the main reason these tools are so useable. Additional features to improve engagement and learning can help sighted persons as well as those with visual impairments.

My team and I have been working to expand the accessibility of these tools in two ways: 1) developing features that will support students with visual impairments; and 2) re-engineering these systems to support adding screen readers, keyboard navigation, and color contrast adjustments that will enable basic access to persons with visual impairments and blindness. This work is an intersection of software engineering, CS education and human-computer interaction. I have also been involved in curricular work both unplugged and with technology to facilitate and empower learning for pre-college students with visual impairments. Our goal is to provide curricular support and tools to broaden opportunities for students on their computing journey.

Engaging with computing technology, including the World Wide Web, is still very much a visual experience. What technological improvements on the horizon make you hopeful that computing will become more accessible for the visually impaired?  

The academic community and industry continue to innovate, introducing new or enhanced ways of engaging with the world around us. The conduit that is the most common to many people remains the World Wide Web, often via mobile phones or similar devices. Some of the innovations introduce new challenges, however there are those that bring the potential for improved access and opportunities to improve accessibility for the visually impaired. For example, as the cameras in mobile phones continue to improve, apps that include AI and natural language processing (NLP)-based features can support navigation apps or those that can read menus, signs and other visual sources of information that are needed just in time (e.g., when shopping or at the airport).

Efforts to teach future and current professionals how to develop and test software and systems for accessibility have been especially impactful. Research by ACM members, as well as efforts by TeachAccess and the upcoming CS2023 curriculum, provide excellent resources in this space. The best approach is to integrate accessibility into software and services at the onset with the goal of helping all people across groups.

The World Wide Web is an example of the need to prepare developers to provide accessibility. Companies that develop mobile phone operating systems, such as Google (Android) and Apple (iOS), continue to provide the means to support accessible native and web apps. More app developers need to utilize those accessibility API’s and evaluation techniques to support a wider group of people. On the flip side, those who develop development tools need to continue their efforts to give persons with disabilities access to those tools. No technical solutions can take the place of accessibility best practices in design and testing.

What should be some key goals for ACM with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

The overarching mission of the ACM DEI Council is to support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion across the ACM community broadly. The scope of efforts includes aspects of ACM that members will immediately recognize such as awards, publications, conferences, and the Digital Library. More recent efforts, such as directly connecting with the ACM membership and the broader community through initiatives such as the new demographic questionnaire, should also be expanded.

Goals in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in ACM will take several forms. As goals, we want more diverse representation that encapsulates broader ACM membership, including geographic representation. Examples of this include increasing diversity and inclusion within leadership at all levels, as well as increasing the pool of nominations across the various ACM awards and advanced membership grades. In addition, we should continue to engage younger members with the goal of impacting computing education, scholarship, and industry.

Stephanie Ludi is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of North Texas. Her research interests include accessibility in computing and tool support for the visually impaired, block-based programming, and the use of machine learning in support of software development activities.

Ludi serves as Co-Chair of ACM’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council (DEI). The ACM Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council is focused on enhancing the governance, programs, and activities of ACM with the goal of driving a more inclusive culture within the organization and the global community it serves.