SIGACCESS: 50 Years of Support Research on Accessibility in Computing

Jason Freeman, Towson University jfreeman@towson.edu

Abstract

As part of the 50th anniversary of SIGACCESS, a historical research project was conducted to investigate the establishment and history of the SIG. Based on interviews with key figures in the history of SIGACCESS, as well as examination of publications and documents related to the SIG, this article provides an overview of four major eras of SIGACCESS's history, including its founding, a "precarious" era in which the SIG's fate was uncertain, a period of revitalization, and a modern era focused on inclusion.

Introduction

Since its creation in 1971, SIGACCESS has brought together researchers, end-users, and others from around the world who share the common goal of making technology accessible to all. Dr. Andrew Sears, a former chair of SIGACCESS, described it as, "an intimate community of people interested in leveraging information and technology to empower people." SIGACCESS empowers its members by giving them platforms to present their work such as the annual ASSETS conference as well as the TACCESS journal. It also provides a place to connect with potential collaborators.

SIGACCESS is responsible for connecting multiple generations of students and early career scholars with mentors who help socialize them into the world of accessibility research, which they advance with their innovative approaches to making technology available to a larger percentage of the population. Moreover, the research made possible by the mentorship and collaboration that SIGACCESS facilitates has changed the lives of countless numbers of end-users over the last 50 years, empowering them to do things they could only dream of in previous generations. As of 2021, SIGACCESS has the distinction of being the only special interest group, of the 38 existing special interest groups, whose primary focus is increasing the accessibility of computing and information technology (ACM Special Interest Groups).

The history of SIGACCESS can be divided into four distinct eras beginning with the SIG's creation in the 1970's and ending in the current period. The first era, which I call the founding era, encompasses the first few years of the existence of SIGACCESS when it emerged from the ACM Committee for Professional Activities of the Blind. The second era, which I describe as the precarious era, stretches from the late 1970's through the early 2000's. During this period, participation in SIGACCESS waxed and waned, which led to various discussions, and at least one vote, to determine if SIGACCESS should continue to exist. This period also included the creation of the ASSETS by Ephraim Glinert, which was crucial for the survival of SIGACCESS. The third era, which I describe as the revitalization era, was marked by the leadership of Dr. Vicki Hanson as the chairperson of the SIG. During this period several changes were implemented that allowed SIGACCESS to survive and flourish in the 21st century. The final era, which I describe as the inclusion era, is characterized by an increased awareness of the importance of the inclusion of disabled researchers and end-users in the governance of the group. The paper will conclude with some final thoughts related to the future of SIGACCESS.

The Founding Era

The Creation of SICCAPH

The origins of SIGACCESS can be traced back to 1968 where SIGACCESS emerged from the ACM Committee for Professional Activities of the Blind [3]. That year, the committee began publishing a newsletter that has continued through the transition in the name of the organization from the Special Interest Committee on Computers and the Physically Handicapped (SICCAPH) to the Special Interest Group on Computers and the Physically Handicapped (SIGCAPH), and finally to the Special Interest Group on Computers and Accessibility (SIGACCESS). In the century prior to the formation of SIGACCESS, U.S. society slowly progressed toward a realization that disabled workers could significantly contribute to the economy and society as a whole. One area where disabled individuals, specifically blind individuals, made significant progress was in the area of computer programing. Theodor D. Sterling, the original chair of the ACM Committee for Professional Activities of the Blind, along with the rest of the committee, strongly advocated for the hiring of blind programmers. Rather than appealing to the benevolent nature of employers, the committee argued that blind programmers could be a potential answer to the shortage of computer programmers at the time and have some advantages over sighted programmers. Specifically, they argued that the challenges of navigating environments without sight forced the blind to develop a deeper understanding of space and organization, which directly translates to a better understanding of the operation and layout of complex computer programs. Sterling argued that a few accommodations, such as braille computer output and clerks who can physically operate the computer for the programmer, could allow blind programmers to thrive in the typical workplace 1 (Sterling 1964).

From May 8, 1970, to August 20, 1970, an ad hoc committee made up of members of the ACM Committee for Professional Activities of the Blind and members of the provisional SICCAPH had a meeting where they decided to modify and extend the "Newsletter for Blind Programmers" to create the SICCAPH Newsletter. They also divided SICCAPH into sections for the blind, deaf, and motor impaired. After the creation of SICCAPH, Professor Charles E. Hallenbeck of the University of Kansas was appointed chairman. During his brief tenure, he built the membership up to 157 members, before he resigned in July of 1971. On August 1, 1971; Robert A.J. Gildea was appointed as chair of SICCAPH by Walter Carlson, the President of ACM at the time. Early on, various efforts were made to expand the membership of SICCAPH. For example, SICCAPH attempted to engage with Visually Impaired Data Processor International (VIDPI) and have a joint conference2 [3].

In the first SICCAPH newsletter a set of overarching goals were laid out, which still remain major goals 50 years later, they are: 1) to promote the interest of professionals with disabilities working within the area of computing and information technology; 2) to promote the use of computing and information technology to assist those with disabilities in achieving their goals; 3) to provide public education on the benefits of computing careers for disabled individuals [3]. A fourth goal was added in 1973 which is to promote the interest of professionals by affording opportunities for discussion of problems of common interest; encouraging presentation of papers of special interest to this group at annual and regional meetings of the ACM and at other special meetings organized by this group; providing guidance to the ACM Council on matters of importance to this group; and publishing a newsletter containing information of interest to this group; in addition to other appropriate means (Petrick 2012: 71).

The Conversion to a SIG. Robert Gildea first mentioned the possible conversion of SICCAPH to SIGCAPH in the first SICCAPH newsletter, where he argued that the conversion could take place within a year if the committee agreed to it. In the following newsletter, he argued that they were not yet ready to become a SIG, with the major challenge being the establishment of a structure to collect dues. The process of converting SICCAPH to SIGCAPH took place in two steps. First, various parties (including all the members of SICCAPH) had to approve a set of by-laws. Second, members of SICCAPH who are also members of ACM had to sign a petition in favor of the conversion. SICCAPH officially became the Special Interest Group on Computers and the Physically Handicapped (SIGCAPH) in January of 1973.

One early accomplishment of SIGCAPH was its assistance in the creation of an accessible government-run computer center by the Social Security Administration (SSA). In late 1973 the SSA asked SIGCAPH members to review the new computer center's specifications, so that architectural barriers were not included that would prevent the access of people with disabilities. One the recommendations from SIGCAPH was to avoid including gradual slopes on the sides and walkways that would prevent blind individuals from being able to tell which surface they were walking on (Petrick 2012: 71). In July 1974, the SSA reported that they had successfully created the accessible computer center and lauded SIGCAPH for their simple, but important, recommendation (Petrick 2012: 72).

1 In the 1970's much of the interest in blind programmers began to wane with the increased use of keyboards and monitors instead of clerks and punch card readers.
2 However, it should be noted that the founders of SICCAPH were very critical of VIDPI and felt they could do more than that organization.

The Precarious Era

Potential Dissolution of the SIG

Despite this early success, at various points SIGCAPH faced dissolution. For example, In June of 1978 James Kutsch, the SIGCAPH chair, noted that in the last 6 months of 1977, SIGCAPH had no elected leadership [4]. In October of 1978, Kutsch argued that SIGCAPH was not fulfilling its responsibilities as a SIG and sought input from SIGCAPH members on whether SIGCAPH should remain a SIG [5]. In the Summer of 1980 only 11 of the 259 SIGCAPH members responded to a survey on their interests, needs, and information about themselves, which elicited a rebuke from the newsletter editor, Wayne Muth [6]. There were also periods of low membership, which led to a lack of funds for the group. For example, in SIGCAPH newsletter #41 it was mentioned that due to low members (between 300 and 400 members) a major expense, such as a conference, would significantly deplete the budget. In fact, in November of 1995 the SIGCAPH chair Ephraim Glinert reported that the first ASSETS conference was a net loss of $2000, which he reported was "quite satisfactory under the circumstances [8]".

The Creation of the ASSETS Conference

One major accomplishment of the precarious era of SIGCAPH was the creation of the International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS) conference. ASSETS is an annual, inter-disciplinary conference that is organized by SIGACCESS. Unlike some other SIGs, which may have as many as 29 conferences (Hanson), ASSETS is the only conference for SIGACCESS. The conference was started by Ephraim Glinert, the SIGCAPH chair, in an effort to revitalize the SIG. According to Ephraim, the goal was "to provide a forum where researchers and developers from academia and industry can meet to exchange ideas and report on new developments relating to computer-based systems to help people with impairments and disabilities of all kinds" [7]. The first ASSETS conference took place from October 31-November 1, 1994, in Marina del Rey, California and included about 60 participants: 51 participants from the U.S.; 3 each from U.K. and Japan; and 1 each from Switzerland, Germany, and Greece. The 2019 conference included around 300 participants [11]. Twenty-two papers were accepted for the 1994 conference, and they had over two dozen volunteers evaluating papers [8]. It was understood from the very beginning that ASSETS would be an important recruiting tool, which it has been, being that many of the leaders of SIGACCESS from the early 2000's on were introduced through the ASSETS conference.

A major strength of the conference is its small, intimate nature. Participants in the ASSETS conference tend to prefer this type of conference to the larger conferences such as the SIGCHI conference. Another major strength of the ASSETS conference is that it is a single-track conference, meaning that a majority of the participants go to a common set of sessions, which increases the likelihood of interaction between majorities of conference attendees. A major function of the ASSETS conference is to introduce new scholars to the community of researchers focused on accessibility research. Various members of SIGACCESS leadership began their engagement with SIGACCESS through the ASSETS conference. To encourage student involvement the ASSETS conference provides various travel grants for students, in particular students with disabilities, as well as by presenting a student paper award.

Since its inception, the ASSETS conference has facilitated many advances in the accessibility of technology by encouraging papers that take new approaches to major accessibility problems. For example, as of November 2021 the most cited paper presented at the ASSETS conference was the paper titled, "Slide rule: making mobile touch screens accessible to blind people using multi-touch interaction techniques." The paper acknowledges the inherent problems of touch screens. To overcome these problems the scholars introduce Slide Rule, "a set of audio-based multi-touch interaction techniques that enable blind users to access touch screen applications." According to Dr. Clayton Lewis, "Prior to this paper the iPhone was not usable by blind people."

The Revitalization ERA

A major turning point for SIGCAPH took place when Dr. Vicki Hanson took over as Chair from John Goldthwaite. According to Dr. Shari Trewin, the SIGACCESS Chair until 2021, "She (Dr. Hanson) transformed SIGACCESS. She modernized it... made it more inclusive." Dr. Hanson began her formal involvement in SIGCAPH during the 2000 ASSETS conference, where she served as registration chair, setting up the conference registration system. She later became Vice-Chair of SIGCAPH in 2001.

During the period, SIGCAPH was at a significant risk of being disbanded, due to lack of activity. ACM put SIGCAPH on 'probation' and appointed Dr. Hanson as Chair in 2004. To save the SIG, Dr. Hanson formulated a plan. The first major change Dr. Hanson implemented was changing the name of the SIG from SIGCAPH to SIGACCESS. According to Dr. Hanson, she decided to change the name of the SIG from SIGCAPH to SIG ACCESS because the new name is "a better characterization of member interests" as well as being more in-line with contemporary attitudes. According to Dr. Hanson, the name change was based on feedback from members on their current interests, and the common thread was accessibility [9].

The second major change that Dr. Hanson implemented, together with Dr. Andrew Sears, the vice-chair during Dr. Hanson's tenure who later served as Chair from 2009-2015, was transitioning the ASSETS conference from being a biannual conference into being an annual conference. According to Dr. Hanson, this change led to significant growth in the SIG by keeping researchers engaged with the community. In addition, the timing of the conference was moved to October based on a survey of SIGACCESS members. Dr. Hanson also created the student research competition in 2006 to identify talented undergraduate and graduate student members of ACM [10]. Lastly, Drs. Hanson and Sears started the journal ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS), which publishes papers on accessibility, including some extended papers from the SIGACCESS conference.

The Inclusion Era

Over the years, the group has transitioned from a "paternalistic" orientation toward the disabled community, toward being an inclusive group with a drive for social justice. In particular, the role of people with disabilities within SIGACCESS has evolved over the years. Early on people with disabilities had very little role in the leadership or broader membership of the SIG. However, in recent years, there has been a concerted effort to include disabled researchers in the conference as well as to create a dialogue between disabled end-users and the accessibility research community. For example, during the 2020 ASSETS conference there were several members of the disabled community on the program committee. SIGACCESS has various means to encourage the participation of disabled researchers, including travel grants for the ASSETS conference which, while not limited to disabled students, are often used to support those participants.

In the current era, various paper awards are utilized to encourage involvement in SIGACCESS. For example, the ASSETS Paper Impact award was first introduced in 2013. The paper is chosen by a committee of experts who read each paper. According to Dr. Richard Ladner, a prior program chair of the ASSETS conference when this award was introduced, committee members look for papers that, "introduce new innovation and new insights." Impact Paper award winners include Chieko Asakawa and Takashi Itoh for their paper, "User Interface of a Home Page Reader"; Peter Gregor, Alan Newell, and Mary Zajicek, for their paper "Designing for Dynamic Diversity: Interfaces for Older People"; W. Keith Edwards, Elizabeth Mynatt and Kathryn Stockton, for their paper "Providing access to graphical user interfaces—not graphical screens"; Shaun K. Kane, Jeffrey P. Bigham, and Jacob O. Wobbrock, for their paper "Slide rule: making mobile touch screens accessible to blind people using multi-touch interaction techniques; and most recently, Jennifer Mankoff, Gillian R. Hayes, and Devva Kasnitz, for their paper "Disability studies as a source of critical inquiry for the field of assistive technology."

Going forward, there are several new areas for accessibility research to tackle. For example, accessibility in artificial intelligence (AI) is an area that is gaining interest. In 2019, several members of the SIGACCESS community organized a workshop at the ASSETS conference on AI fairness for individuals with disabilities. SIGACCESS researchers have also noted that Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) is an area where greater accessibility is needed. Lastly, sign language translation is an increasing area of research. "ASL is its own language. Real signing is more complex than simply using finger spelling", remarked Dr. Richard Ladner. Over the next 50 years we'll likely see breakthroughs in this these areas, as well as others, based on the progress made in the last 50 years with the aid of SIGACCESS, which will likely continue to be an organization that facilitates collaborations between researchers, including an increased number of disabled researchers, with an interest in increasing accessibility of technology.

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by funding from the ACM Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing (SIGACCESS). Any opinions, findings, conclusion, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author.

References

  1. ACM Special Interest Groups, https://www.acm.org/special-interest-groups/alphabetical-listing
  2. Petrick, Elizabeth. "Fulfilling the promise of the personal computer: the development of accessible computer technologies, 1970-1998" UC San Diego. ProQuest ID: Petrick_ucsd_0033D_12929. Merritt ID: ark:/20775/bb7032075w. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6242116r
  3. SICCAPH Newsletter #5
  4. SICCAPH Newsletter #23
  5. SICCAPH Newsletter #24
  6. SICCAPH Newsletter #28
  7. SICCAPH Newsletter #50
  8. SICCAPH Newsletter #52 & #53
  9. SIGACCESS Newsletter #79
  10. SIGACCESS Newsletter #85
  11. SIGACCESS Newsletter #127
  12. Theodor D. Sterling, M. Lichstein, F. Scarpino, and D. Stuebing. 1964. Professional computer work for the blind. Communications of the ACM 7, 4 (April 1964), 228–230. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/364005.364054

About the Authors

Jason Freeman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Towson University. He completed his Ph.D. at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2016, where he was a Carolina Consortium on Human Development (CCHD) Predoctoral Fellow at the Center for Developmental Science.