Computer Science Ethics Must Include Accessibility (my rejected NYT letter to the editor)

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This post includes a letter that Lainey Feingold wrote to the New York Times.  The paper did not print her letter.  She wrote it after she read an article in the Times about ethics classes for computer science students.  The article mentioned privacy and civil rights, but did not mention accessibility.  Digital access means that disabled people can use websites and other technology.  Access is part of privacy because without it, disabled people need help to read confidential information.  No one wants to share private information like bank statements or health records. Accessible content makes sure they don’t have to.  Accessibility is a civil right and should be part of all ethics courses in computer science programs.

file folder labeled ETHICS

On February 12, 2018, the New York Times ran a piece in the business section titled Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It. The article explained that top computer science programs are starting to embed ethics courses in the curriculum. I was glad to see that Stanford’s course would include topics like “artificial intelligence and autonomous machines” and “privacy and civil rights.”

But the word accessibility was nowhere to be found. I thought the article should have included a direct reference to digital access. I certainly hope the courses will include the rights of disabled people to independently interact with all types of digital content and systems. So I wrote a letter to the editor.

Alas, like my last letter to the Los Angeles Times about web accessibility, written with Joseph O’Connor, my letter was rejected. Here it is. Know any computer science professors? I hope you’ll share. Interested readers should also check out Teach Access, a coalition of technology industry, academia and advocacy groups working to address the “common challenge of preparing designers, engineers and researchers to think and build inclusively.”

It’s 2018. Let’s make sure every graduate of a computer science program knows that accessibility is a civil right. Let’s teach the next generation to build technology that works for everyone. Inclusivity of the digital world depends on it.

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Rejected Letter to the New York Times About Ethics and Accessibility

Dear Editor:

It was great to read that top U.S. universities are “hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science” by developing ethics courses for the next generation of computer professionals. (Universities Rush to Roll Out Computer Science Ethics Courses 2.12.18). As a civil rights lawyer specializing in the rights of disabled people to access information and technology, it was especially heartening to read that the new ethics course at Stanford will cover “topics like . . . privacy and civil rights. . .” I hope this means that digital accessibility is a core piece of the curriculum.

Digital accessibility ensures that everyone — including people who cannot hold a mouse, see a screen, or hear a video — can use and create technology, and consume and interact with the information and services it offers. Digital accessibility (including web and mobile access) is about coding to internationally accepted standards, testing according to well accepted protocols, and implementing business policies and processes that bake accessibility into an organization’s culture. Digital accessibility is also about privacy because without it disabled people are forced to rely on help, losing independent access to online financial, health, and other sensitive information.

But at its core accessibility is about people, and the civil right of disabled people around the globe to participate in today’s society. No computer science ethics class can be complete without it.


Lainey Feingold