Alumna Stacy Branham wants to make the digital space accessible to everyone | VTx

Computer science is everywhere

Quote from the Department of Informatics on the UC Irvine website: “Informatics is the field you’ve never heard of and know all about. In a digital age, technology – how we design it, how we use it, and how it affects us – affects all aspects of our lives. It shapes the way we live, the way we work and the way we build the foundations of a global society. Informatics is a window into this dynamic relationship, exploring the interplay of people and technology and what it means for our collective future.”

Branham’s work on accessible computing brings together the interplay of technology, users and the community so that all people can benefit. “I want to create technologies that help us all by empowering people with disabilities to design them,” she said.

In 2021 Popular Science recognized Branham as one of his “Brilliant 10” for budding innovators in science, technology, education and math, crediting Branham for using turnkey technologies, such as virtual assistants, and merging them in new ways to meet the needs of underserved communities. “This distinction brings much-needed attention to the work being done in my lab — in which many of us identify as disabled — and by colleagues in the field of accessible computing,” Branham said when selected for the honor.

A happy accident

Branham admits that she accidentally got into the field of human-computer interaction in her freshman year. Branham identified with an invisible disability and said she selfishly wanted to take advantage of the accessible computing systems.

Branham often felt like a “fish in water” in her classes, as 4 percent of her graduating class in 2014 was female. Today that number is 27 percent.

“It was difficult for women to see the bigger picture, especially when we didn’t see examples of women among the student and faculty populations,” Branham said.

Once she was introduced to human-computer interaction, Branham set to work building a community. She credits the influence and support of many in the Department of Informaticsincluding Dwight Barnette, for whom she served as a teaching assistant and felt empowered in this role to welcome students into the field.

Her first undergraduate course and research experiences were led by departmental faculty Chris North and Scott McCrickard, respectively. The team of Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar, both faculty emeritus, as well as Manuel A. Pérez Quiñones, former associate professor, were highly influential in representing the “other” in computer science and sharing their role as permanent faculty.

Celebrating inclusivity wins

Branham has partnered with one of her students, Emory Edwards, with Google to ensure that all new Chromebooks include images with visible and invisible identities. This also includes carefully curated alternative text and image descriptions to make them accessible to people with different disabilities.

The Inclusive Imagery Project, as part of the INclusive Studio for innovative technology and education (INsite), looks at what is important in representing people with disabilities to ensure a more accessible, equitable and diverse representation in technological design contexts.

The inclusive images and descriptions jointly developed by INsite and Google will be delivered on all new Chromebooks by 2022. This represents an estimated 40 million laptops that will ship for the first time with accessible profile images that actually represent disability.

For example, blind or partially sighted people will know what their user profile images look like for the first time and may be able to choose one with a visible disability like theirs.

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