May 29, 2020

An Interview with Brianna Blaser, Tapia 2020 Accessibility Committee Chair

Brianna Blaser

Brianna Blaser is a Project Manager for AccessComputing at the University of Washington, where she works to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing education and careers. She is our Tapia 2020 Accessibility Committee Chair. We spoke to Brianna about her career and the Tapia Conference.

Tell me about your background

I was born in Washington, DC and grew up in Maryland. My dad was in the construction business and my mother is a rare book conservator. She worked in a lab repairing things like Shakespeare folios. When I was in high school my Dad was getting his associates degree in construction management and I would tutor him in math. It was an early indicator for me that teaching was not going to be my career path. My mom and I graduated from college the same year. Growing up my mom’s quilting friend’s husband worked at NIST as a mathematician. He got me a summer job working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the Information Technology Lab. I spent several summers there and I did graphics for the Digital Library of Mathematical Functions.

How did you become involved in math, computer science and accessibility?

I went to Carnegie Mellon to major in math. At the time there was just one female student for every two male students on campus and the ratios were even worse in STEM. I was pressured quite a bit as one of the only women in math to go into theoretical math. By the time I graduated I was overwhelmed by a need to learn more about why there were so few women in STEM.

I attended the University of Washington and got my PhD in women’s studies looking at women in STEM. When I graduated, I didn’t want to do research or teach, I was much more passionate about professional development. I joined AAAS and worked in DC while my husband completed his law degree here in Seattle. In 2010, I began looking for a job back in Seattle. When my current position at the University of Washington became available, I realized that I knew a lot about broadening participation in STEM but not a lot about disability. Since then I’ve become really passionate about increasing the accessibility of STEM education and careers and trying to make sure that we include diverse groups like veterans, first generation students, and LGBTQA+ individuals in our conversations around broadening participation.

What are the key projects you are working on today?

When I first came to work in the area of accessibility, I was surprised how little research existed looking at disability and STEM education and careers. One of my recent projects was co-authoring a paper with Richard Ladner for the RESPECT Conference, “Why is Data on Disability so Hard to Collect and Understand?” We found that researchers have many reasons given for not collecting the data. Data about disability can vary significantly depending on how you ask the question, making it difficult to understand what the data is actually indicating. Questions about functional limitations may overinflate the numbers of some populations with disabilities while undercounting other groups. Our goal for this report was to help the broadening participation community move towards collecting and reporting data on disability. We need to collect data about disability when we ask other demographic questions and analyze that data as well.

We’ve also been reaching out to all the students we engage with during the pandemic. Many are worried about accessibility, for example, whether the tools their schools use will be accessible. Others are worried about managing remote coursework or internships because of limitations related to executive functioning. And, yet there are students with mobility impairments who will benefit from not having to commute to school while others are very worried about not being able to learn online.

We are very excited to see many companies focus on hiring people with disabilities, we hope this commitment continues despite an economic downturn.

How did you become involved in Tapia?

My first Tapia conference was in Seattle in 2014. I went both to staff the AccessComputing booth and Richard Ladner and I had a Birds of a Feather session. It may have been the first time something related to disability was on the agenda. Since then, I’ve gone back every year. I’m not a tech person but what I really love is being able to talk to students about their careers. We help fund students to attend the conference, so I often get to meet people in person at Tapia that I’ve been talking to for years. We send students because there is a community for people with disability there and there are organizations interested in hiring our students.

Why should students attend the Tapia Conference?

Students should attend Tapia to go and find mentors. At many large conferences you don’t get to have the same kinds of conversations with professionals. At Tapia, everyone is eager to talk and engage with students. You also get many organizations at Tapia who will not be recruiting at small colleges and universities. It’s a great place to meet with many different organizations and learn from mentors.

What impact do you think going virtual will have?

Some people will find it easier to navigate and some will find it harder. The Accessibility Committee is working hard to ensure that the conference is accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. Being virtual, AccessComputing can increase the number of students we can fund to attend the conference. Being online will give more students access to the conference and that is always good.

We have a lot of resources for creating accessible presentations and programs including: