Holden Foreman graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science in 2021. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Daily’s 257th Volume. Foreman works as a software engineer on The Washington Post’s engineering team.
For all its talk about mission and human-centered education, Stanford has largely ignored even the basics of accessibility in its computer science curriculum. In fact, it wasn’t until an elective I took senior year (winter 2021) that I encountered any lessons on web accessibility as a computer science major. Apparently, Stanford does not see accessibility as something worth prioritizing.
And this absence goes beyond computer science. Accessibility is something that Stanford should be teaching all its students. It is relevant to any career.
Accessibility means something can be reached regardless of whether the user has a disability or not. Physical infrastructure must be built with accessibility in mind. You may have seen a ramp or elevator near the stairs, for instance, so people who cannot climb the stairs are able to reach the same destination. Similarly, someone blind could use assistive technology known as a screen reader, which allows the user to hear information on a webpage — giving them access to the same content as someone who is able to see the page.
The problem is that much of the online world is not built for assistive technology like screen readers. Even if a blind user has a screen reader activated, there may be content on a webpage that is totally inaccessible to them because of the way that the page is constructed. For example, if important images on a page lack alt text (which is read aloud by a screen reader when present), then the user is left without critical information about the content of the page and its purpose.
Building content for screen readers is just one small part of web accessibility — “a11y” for short (there are 11 letters between the “a” and “y”) — which has been discussed in engineering circles for years. After all, there are many different types of disabilities (per the CDC, about 26% of U.S. adults live with at least one form of disability), not to mention differences in language, location, internet connection and even the hardware or software used to access online content.
We have inched forward as a society in our awareness of accessibility, yet Stanford has been perpetuating accessibility issues instead of teaching us about them. Many images across the University’s various websites are missing basic alt text. I once took a class where someone hard of hearing needed captions, but captions were not added to lectures until midway through the quarter. Accessibility should be the default, not tacked on only after specific needs are raised.
It is not as if there aren’t resources out there for making content more accessible. Groups like WebAIM and the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative have been researching and sharing solutions for these issues for many years. Sites like edX host full-length courses on web accessibility. And there are growing communities on Twitter and other online forums that discuss the topic daily.
In gaming, accessibility is being celebrated at venues like The Game Awards, where a new “Innovation in Accessibility Award” has been handed out over the past two years. On social media, there have been pushes to include alt text and closed captioning with the images and audio that we share.
It should not be the job of people with disabilities to ask that Stanford take accessibility seriously. Just last week, a student called out accessibility issues with the recently opened Disability Community Space (DCS), reflecting a lack of proactivity by the University.
If Stanford is waiting for a public complaint to act on any accessibility issue or to seek the necessary community feedback, then it is failing in its mission. Responding to concerns about the DCS won’t be enough. Stanford needs to dedicate more resources to accessibility education in the long term. That means educating itself and its community members. Web accessibility, for instance, deserves much more focus than a few elective classes that most students will never take. Everyone who passes through the University should be familiar with accessibility.
As a recent graduate who has observed firsthand the consequences of not teaching accessibility (it is stunning how many professional engineers and designers know little to nothing about it), I would be happy to help Stanford incorporate web accessibility into its CS curriculum. I have learned a lot since entering industry, and I know there are others with expertise relevant to different fields.
This all speaks to a larger issue: Stanford is sorely in need of a software engineering program, in addition to computer science, that teaches students about concepts they will encounter in industry. There are too many students like me who go through the Stanford CS coursework and are woefully uninformed, not just in accessibility, but in the uses of Git and other mainstays of modern software engineering.
Accessibility, for its part, is very easy to approach. It is not a “hard problem” in computer science nor in any other field. But it requires giving a damn, and that requires education.