Expanding the Pipeline
On May 16, 2005, Richard Ladner, Boeing Professor of Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) at the University of Washington, was one of nine individuals to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) at a White House ceremony. Ladner, who is well known for his work in computer science theory, was recognized for his long-time support of women and people with disabilities in computer science.
The under-representation of women, minorities, and people with disabilities is severe in the field of computer science. The impact of this lack of diversity is particularly unfortunate because computer scientists create end-user systems that inevitably reflect the cultural and physical biases of their designers and implementers. If the creators of these systems do not reflect the diversity of our society, then the systems will likely be optimized for use by a subset of this society. Writes Wm. A. Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, “… as in any creative profession, what comes out is a function of the life experiences of the people who do it…Every time we approach an engineering problem with a pale, male design team, we may not find the best solution.”
Ladner has served as mentor to University of Washington women at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty levels. Several of these women have won impressive awards, including an Association of Computing Machinery Doctoral Dissertation Award (Anne Condon); a Rhodes Scholar Finalist (Erin Earl); the Capocelli Prize for the best student-authored paper at the IEEE Data Compression Conference (Suzanne Bunton); Finalist for the Computing Research Association (CRA) Outstanding Woman Undergraduate Award (Erin Earl); and Honorable Mention for the CRA Outstanding Woman Undergraduate Award (Mandy Askew).
Even more striking than his work with women has been his outreach efforts to students with disabilities. Ladner’s interest in people with disabilities is largely personal: he is the hearing child of deaf parents and, hence, is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).
As one example of his work with people with disabilities, in 1985 Ladner taught a computer science course (Introduction to Formal Models in Computer Science) in ASL at Gallaudet University, the only university for the deaf in the world. As another example, in the 1980s, his “DBnet” research project pioneered computer networking (remote login and e-mail) for Seattle’s deaf-blind community using innovative large print and tactile displays. During this period, Ladner worked with Barbara J. Wagreich, a deaf-blind computer professional, on ideas to develop DBnet to its full potential. He also worked with then-CSE-graduate-student Ephraim Glinert on a large print user interface for terminals connected to Unix machines. Inspired by some comments by Bill Gates when he visited CSE in the mid 1980s, Ladner became interested in federal laws about computer access for individuals with disabilities. As a result, he organized a panel at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’88) titled “Public Law 99-506, Section 508, Electronic Equipment Accessibility for Disabled Workers.” This panel inspired him to write the paper, “Computer Accessibility for Federal Workers with Disabilities: It’s the Law,” for the Communications of the ACM.
Since 2002, Ladner has been serving as the Ph.D. adviser to Sangyun Hahn, a blind student in CSE. When Hahn applied to the Ph.D. program, several faculty members expressed concern that he might have trouble completing the program. Ladner simply wrote on Hahn’s file, “He’ll do great.” Following Hahn’s arrival at UW, Ladner started a project in collaboration with Professor Melody Ivory of the UW Information School entitled “Automated Tactilization of Graphical Images.” This work enables blind people to “view” diagrams, graphs, and charts in textbooks and technical papers that have been translated into a tactile form. It was inspired by the difficulty that Hahn was having in getting access to the graphs, bar charts, diagrams, and illustrations in his textbooks. Essentially, Ladner developed a project for Hahn in which Hahn’s disability actually became his strength. This work has been funded by two NSF grants and has been receiving a lot of media attention as an example of how computer science can impact the quality of life of people with disabilities.
One of the first results of this project, a tactile directory of the new Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, includes tactile layouts of the seven floors of the building. More recent projects include producing tactile versions of the figures in Hennessy and Patterson’s graduate computer architecture book and in Ostlie and Carroll’s college-level astronomy books. Writes Hahn about his research, “Can you imagine a blind man doing research on image processing? From time to time, I am amazed at myself. No, in fact, not at myself, but at my adviser, Professor Ladner.”
In addition, during every summer but one since 1994, Ladner has spent a week working with the University of Washington’s Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) program, a winner of the PAESMEM in 1997. He supervises high school students with disabilities on computing projects such as cellular automata, which can model image-processing tasks; games such as the Game of Life; and behaviors like those found in Stephen Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science.” Each summer, he recruits graduate and undergraduate student volunteers to work with the high school students on a one-on-one basis.
Over the years, 38 high school students with severe disabilities have come through Ladner’s DO-IT workshops. Of these 38 students, all but one are pursuing a college degree—seven in a computing field, and an additional 13 in other areas of science, engineering, and mathematics. (The one who did not enter college is working in the computing field.)
Beyond computer science, Ladner has been an important contributer to the disabled community on many levels. He is currently volunteering as co-chair of the Steering Committee for the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) that is raising $8.6 million for “A Place of Our Own,” which will be the first transitional housing in the nation specifically for deaf and deaf-blind victims of domestic violence. Writes Marilyn J. Smith, Executive Director of ADWAS, “Richard exemplifies the ideal volunteer—generous with his time, his expertise, his mentoring. When he commits, it is long-term… His respect for deaf culture and American Sign Language is obvious from the way he works to ‘fit in,’ rather than expecting us to assimilate into his hearing world.”
In addition to his work for the Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services, Ladner is on the Board of Directors of the American Sign Language and Interpreting School (ASLIS), a small school in Seattle that trains the top ASL interpreters in the area. In the past he has served on the Board of Directors of the Deaf-Blind Service Center, an agency that serves the sizable group of people in the Seattle area who are both deaf and blind. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Hearing, Speech, and Deafness Center, which is one of the largest agencies in the State of Washington that serves the needs of deaf clients. Within the University of Washington Ladner, together with Professor Sharon Hargus of the Linguistics Department, is spearheading a proposal to initiate an ASL program.
In response to the new initiative in NSF CISE, called “Broadening Participation in Computing,” Ladner and Sheryl Burgstahler, Director of DO-IT, have proposed the AccessComputing Alliance. The alliance is a partnership between the University of Washington, Gallaudet University, and several other universities. The goal of the alliance is to increase the number of persons with disabilities in the computing field.
With Professors Eve Riskin of the University of Washington and Sheila Hemami of Cornell University, Professor Ladner has developed a new project to design, implement, and evaluate new standards-compliant data compression methods that will allow ASL video, and other structured video, to be transmitted in real time over low bandwidth cell phone channels. This project recently received funding from NSF.
With the PAESMEM award, Professor Ladner will create a vertical mentoring workshop for blind students and professionals. The workshop will be a forum for science professionals to mentor graduate students; graduate students to mentor undergraduate students; and undergraduate students to mentor high school students. Each group will learn about avenues to success from the group just “above” it. In addition, there will be an accessibility fair where everyone can learn about new and forthcoming accessibility technology for blind persons in science and technical fields. For example, they will learn about the newest Braille-based PDAs; new research about math to Braille translation; and the latest research in tactile graphics translation. To point out the impact of the PAESMEM on his career, Professor Ladner said recently, “When you get an award like this, it’s not an invitation to rest on your laurels. It’s actually a challenge to do more.”
Eve Riskin is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of the ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington. Ed Lazowskais the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.