Alumna Stacy Branham aims to make the digital space accessible to all | VTx

Alumna Stacy Branham aims to make the digital space accessible to all | VTx

Informatics is everywhere

Quoting from the Department of Informatics on the UC Irvine website, “Informatics is the field you’ve never heard of, and the one you know everything about. In a digital age, technology — how we design it, how we use it, and how it affects us — touches 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, examining the interplay of people and technology and what it means for our collective future.”

Branham’s work in accessible computing brings together the interplay of technology, users, and the community, allowing all people to 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 its “Brilliant 10” for early-career innovators in science, technology, education, and mathematics, crediting Branham for taking off-the-shelf technologies, like virtual assistants, and putting them together in novel ways to address the needs of under-served communities. “This distinction brings much-needed attention to work done in my lab – in which many of us identify as being disabled – and by colleagues in the field of accessible computing,” said Branham on being selected for this honor.

A happy accident

Branham admits that she backed into the field of human-computer interaction by accident in her junior year. Identifying with an invisible disability, Branham said she selfishly wanted to benefit from the systems addressing accessible computing.

Branham often felt like a “fish out of water” in her classes, as 4 percent of her 2014 graduating class were women. Today, that number sits at 27 percent. 

“It was hard for women to see the bigger picture, especially when we did not see examples of women among the student and faculty populations,” said Branham.

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

Her first undergraduate course and research experiences were led by department faculty Chris North and Scott McCrickard, respectively. The team of Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar, both emeritus faculty, as well as Manuel A. Pérez Quiñones, former associate professor, were deeply influential in representing the ‘other’ in computing and sharing about their roles as tenured faculty.

Celebrating inclusivity wins

Branham, along with one of her students, Emory Edwards, have partnered with Google to make sure all new Chromebooks include inclusive imagery with visible and invisible identities. This also includes carefully crafted alternative text and image descriptions to make them accessible to people with various disabilities.

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

The co-developed inclusive images and descriptions between INsite and Google will be shipped on all new Chromebooks in 2022. This represents an estimated 40 million laptops that, for the first time ever, will come with accessible profile images that actually depict disability.

For example, blind or low-vision people will know for the first time what their user profile images look like and can potentially choose one that has a visible disability like their own.