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How inclusion drives innovation

in Caps Not Crosby/Columns/Opinions/Uncategorized by

If Swarthmore’s computer science core curriculum has taught me anything — other than some Python, C, and C++ —it is that collaborating with people who think differently from you is one of the most powerful tools in tech. One of my favorite parts about the CS department here is that all of the upper-level classes emphasize collaboration. Unpacking how someone else’s brain interprets information, ideas, and code is the absolute best way to concretize a concept into your brain. Additionally, two people who think differently working on the same project will allow you to partake in the creation of something you never would have been able to build on your own. This conception of neurodiversity arises frequently when discussing Autism Spectrum Disorder, its destigmatization, and expanding societal inclusion. Computer science as a discipline is a window through which these conceptions can become a reality.  It is no secret that autistic individuals face ubiquitous discrimination based on their differences, but what some people do not know is that the intellectual capacities of certain subsets of these individuals — those living with High Functioning ASD — are routinely and grossly underestimated.

As a computer science major, I can attest that coding is a task that requires resilience, meticulosity, and an inclination for both innovation and creativity. Further, coding is an explicitly detailed activity. There are neither innuendos nor overtones upon which someone must pick up. Every bit of syntax does exactly what it is supposed to — assuming your meticulous implementation details are correctly executed — and every line incorporates mathematical and logical reasoning in order to achieve the execution of the programmer’s intention.

Many of the qualities outlined above that are valued in a great coder can be amplified in certain individuals with high-functioning ASD. The disorder does not necessarily impede cognitive function from a purely intellectual standpoint, but due to their unconventional perceptions of social situations, autistic individuals with autism often find themselves disregarded in both school systems and professional settings. I would like to argue that these individuals can not only find inclusion in the rapidly expanding tech world but actually may possess the brains best suited to partake at the forefront of innovation.

I have seen the benefits of letting a kid with autism experiment with programming up close in my placement at Strath Haven High School. Andy, whose name here has been changed for privacy purposes, is a nonverbal autistic ninth grader whose ASD is comorbid with a collection of other disorders including one that severely impedes his motor skills and inhibits him from writing. Andy has taught himself to work with computers in the absence of being able to speak. He sees computers as a means by which he can express himself and communicate, and he often chooses to play with various coding applications. Even with his limitations, it is clear that Andy is quite good at manipulating machines, at times navigating technological devices more expertly than does his teaching aid.

Unfortunately, in the United States, kids like Andy rarely receive the chance to realize their tech potential in an intellectual capacity. 75-85 percent of people with ASD are unemployed, and even those who are higher functioning are often forced into jobs far below their intellectual capabilities. There are approximately 500,000 software engineering jobs that become available in the United States each year, yet less than 1 percent of those jobs are filled with people on the autism spectrum.

Despite running into obstacles in most collaborative work environments, people with ASD are thriving in Silicon Valley, the hub of the American technology world. In that world, some of the characteristics that classify people as autistic or “disabled” function as strengths. It is due to this fact that Silicon Valley possesses a disproportionately high concentration of people with ASD.  Silicon Valley is one of the most productive, innovative places in the country, and the fact that it is opening its doors to autistic people indicates the rest of the world could benefit from doing the same. We are disregarding the potential of so many in our population simply because of unwillingness to engage with difference, and ultimately, that only harms all parties involved.

Why should we care? Besides the fact that more tech-savvy brains collaborating to create and innovate can change the world, members of the Swarthmore computer science community specifically can only benefit from interacting and collaborating with minds different from our own in order to produce new and exciting ways of implementing code. Interactions with such minds may frequently occur in the workplace when we leave Swarthmore — should we be lucky to end up in a place like Silicon Valley.

There exist groups such as Coding Autism that are dedicated to teaching people on the spectrum to code. However, although these are exemplary organizations, ideally, people with ASD should receive the opportunity to learn to code before reaching adulthood. Many autistic children are not given the chance to maximize their potential during grade school and are placed in “regressive” classrooms with other students who qualify for special education. Coding at most high schools is an upper-level elective available only to those who are taking classes at the top of their school’s STEM tracks. Kids with autism, because of their difficulty in classroom settings, could be placed into a special education classroom with kids of far lower IQs and therefore never given the chance to take subjects such as computer science, even if they might excel at it.  

It is important to acknowledge that in order to teach coding, computers are required, and good technology is not an expense all school districts can easily afford. Still, there are ways to incorporate the same skills coding uses into the curriculum via mathematical proofs and logic puzzles that require nothing more than a pencil and paper.  When computers are available, coding should be a focus for all autistic children who possess the capacity to do it; integrating this practice into their education whenever possible will allow autistic children to see and internalize a potential framework for increased inclusion.

In addition to fighting for inclusion, it is critical that we identify autistic people by their strengths instead of solely categorizing them under the umbrella of disability.  “Always Unique, Totally Intelligent, Sometimes Mysterious” and “Nothing about us without us” are two slogans popularized by neurodiversity activists.

According to University of Montréal psychiatrist Laurent Mottron, “Many autistics… are suited for academic science… I believe that they contribute to science because of their autism, not in spite of it.” Similarly, perhaps the best people to develop technologies to benefit nonverbal or low-functioning autistic individuals are high-functioning ASD programmers in Silicon Valley. This fact could then decrease the chances of them being isolated or ostracized.

Finding fields such as computer science that play to the strengths of people with ASD rather than their weaknesses and ensuring these individuals get the opportunity to reach their potential is beyond critical. There is no app that cures autism, but granting people with ASD the skills to create technologies via the practice of coding not only integrates them into a lucrative, productive component of the economy but grants them access to a field that highlights, celebrates, and welcomes their strengths and views their minds as creative, productive, innovative, and desirable.

New Diversity Peer Advisor program to begin in fall

in Around Campus/News by

Next year, eight Diversity Peer Advisors will be assigned to certain dorms on campus in a pilot program coordinated by Karina Beras and Heather Loring-Albright, the college’s residential community coordinators. Three DPAs will be assigned to Willets’ first-year floors, two to ML’s first-year floors, and three to Wharton’s mixed floors. Next year, DPAs will primarily focus on helping first-years, though the three DPAs placed in Wharton will help test their effectiveness in engaging with other class years. If all goes well, the program will expand to more dorms in subsequent years.

According to an email from Beras, the DPAs are to serve as resources for students who are marginalized on the basis of identity and social memberships and challenge the campus culture regarding power, privilege, and group membership. The DPAs are student leaders who educate and promote awareness of diversity and social justice by hosting hall events and evening office hours in the OSE during the week. If, for example, a first year low income student approached an RA because they felt frustrated by their friends’ insensitivity to issues of wealth and income, that RA would now have the opportunity to refer the student to a DPA according to Beras. This student would be specifically trained to tackle such issues more effectively and attentively than an RA could.

“I think RAs are super committed to helping the residents and they do all that they can do, but they are one person, and they are also students,” Beras said. “We recognize that at this point in time it cannot fall all on them, but we also [should not] do nothing about it.”

The goal is to have a greater specialization of hall resources, so that more attention can be given to each student’s individual concerns rather than having RAs and SAMs be the catch-all for any issues. This comes at a time when the Green Advisors program has also greatly expanded, although the timing is completely coincidental, according to Beras. She believes that the new DPA would not narrow the role of the RA but instead would fill a void in hall support that RAs have not been able to address up until now.

“I think there will be some overlap, but I think it will be good overlap. Some of the things that an RA would see or think about, a DPA might not see and vice versa,” Beras said. “There might be some things that DPAs given their training might be more susceptible to pick up than an RA. I think that is where this need for DPAs came from.”

The position was created after students reached out to Lili Rodriguez, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement last September asking for improvements in dorm culture pertaining to issues of diversity and acceptance. Rodriguez subsequently tasked the RCCs with creating the new position.

The DPA program has been modeled after similar programs at other colleges, specifically University of Michigan’s and Dartmouth College’s. In designing the role of the DPA, Beras reached out to a colleague at the University of Michigan.

“One of her main suggesti ons was that you should make the role residentially based because otherwise how do you get a good pulse of what is happening [in the dorm]?” Beras said. Her colleague also stressed that the position should be paid. “[She said] if you don’t make it paid, then what are you saying about the students who are doing this really important work?”

The selection process for the DPA position began the week after spring break. Twenty-five applied for the position, and last week 10 were selected, eight of whom accepted the position. The DPAs have not been officially announced yet, but Beras plans to make this information public shortly. The OSE website will also be updated with more information on the position, in conjunction with the announcement of the RAs for next year.

Athletics works to facilitate inclusion

in Around Campus/News by

Student-athletes and athletics administrators for the most part express satisfaction and pride regarding inclusiveness and diversity in varsity athletics. Between the Student Athletic Advisory Committee and the Athletics staff, students, coaches and administrators often work together to bring problems to light and foster more welcoming environments in varsity athletics.

At Swarthmore, said Assistant Athletics Director and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Nnenna Akotaobi, the athletic staff and coaches work closely with student-athletes to create an athletics program that supports diversity and inclusion. Akotaobi described ongoing focus groups with student-athletes from underrepresented backgrounds where they discuss issues of identity and inclusion on Swarthmore sports teams.

“[We] check in on their experiences,” she said. “‘How are you experiencing athletics? Are you guys having positive experiences? How can we better support your experiences as student-athletes?’ We get a lot of honest feedback from students in those sessions, and that drives how we support their experiences here.”

Programs that have come out of these conversations range from the “Queer Safe Space” magnets that adorn the doors of athletics staff offices to bringing hip-hop activist Jeff Sheng to campus for his exhibit about race and America last fall.

Akotaobi pointed to several student-involved efforts in place that help to address issues of diversity in Swarthmore athletics. Student-athlete representatives from every team make up SAAC, which oversees its own Diversity and Inclusion committee. In the fall of 2013, SAAC launched a diversity and inclusion campaign called RiseUp, which began at that year’s pep rally.

According to current SAAC President Emma Madarasz ’15, the RiseUp campaign was organized as a response to the events of the spring of 2013 and was designed to show that athletes support and are a part of diversity efforts and community work on campus.

Additionally, the Athletics Department and SAAC published a “You Can Play” video to their website, part of a campaign to promote inclusion of LGBTQ student-athletes in college. Pushing against a national sports culture that excludes queer lives and experiences, the “You Can Play” video campaign seeks to normalize the idea that “if you can play, you can play” — regardless of sexuality. More recently, Akotaobi and SAAC have also worked to begin a new Queer Athletes and Allies student group, which has its first meeting this week.

Christen Boas-Hayes ’16, a queer student and member of the softball team, said that she had attended a planning meeting for Queer Athletes and Allies and was excited for its future.

“It seems like a really awesome opportunity that should have been there in the first place,” she said.

Additionally, the athletics staff facilitate a confidential, but not anonymous, process for receiving and addressing student complaints about coaches and staff. At the end of each season, student-athletes can fill out a survey about their athletic experience, similar to a course evaluation. These surveys are used to bring up issues confidentially with coaches and staff, and to track progress from year to year.

Athletic Director Adam Hertz emphasized that while awareness among Swarthmore coaches and athletics staff regarding issues of diversity and inclusion is not perfect, the department works well towards honest and open communication and improvement.

“We give [coaches] a lot of credit for having these conversations, because sometimes these conversations aren’t easy ones to have,” he said. “[The conversations] are not comfortable. I give them a lot of credit for speaking openly and wanting to better understand and provide opportunity for the students.”

Akotaobi agreed with Hertz, describing the consistent effort she sees in Athletics staff frequently engaging with issues of diversity inclusivity at staff meetings. She thinks it’s especially important for coaches to have the opportunity to have honest conversations among themselves about their own struggles.

“I think our coaches do a really good job of actively engaging in issues of diversity and inclusive excellence … Though our head coaches aren’t representative in terms of ethnic diversity, these are issues they are very passionate about,” she said.

All of the varsity athletics coaches are white, and Akotaobi is the only person of color in the Athletics Department administration. Akotatobi mentioned, however, that it is more difficult for Division III programs to draw diversity in coaching and athletics staff than their Division I counterparts.

Boas-Hayes described a very positive experience she had with a coach when she was first coming out. One of Boas-Hayes’ assistant coaches shared with Boas-Hayes her own experience coming out when she was younger.

“She was just like, ‘It’s going to be fine. You know what, this is your first year out and yeah, it sucks, but it’s going to be fine.’ Having someone who you respect so much be so blunt and put it in such simple terms like, ‘Look at me, I’m great, you’re great. It’s going to be fine,’ was really nice,” she said.

Boas-Hayes described feeling comfortable and welcomed as a queer student with her head coach, as well.

“It’s been a joke that she [the head coach] didn’t know I was queer until my girlfriend joined the team,” said Boas-Hayes. “When my coach was saying we really needed players I asked, ‘Can we bring girlfriends onto the team?’ And she was like, ‘We’ve never had a policy on it before! Obviously there have been girlfriends on the team before!’ … It was very friendly and open. She didn’t even bat an eye when I told her. I was impressed. It was very cool of her and I’ve had nothing but respect from my coach about it.”

Hertz stressed the importance of work by the NCAA as a resource for issues of diversity and inclusion on campus, pointing to the millions of dollars in funding that the organization distributes to colleges to promote diversity. He noted that Akaotobi’s position itself is partially paid for by an NCAA grant.

Outside of the student-coach relationship, issues of diversity and inclusion also play an important role in sustaining healthy and productive relationships among teammates. A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ‘16 described her experience as a Black member of the women’s lacrosse team as a very positive one overall. Though race consciousness was never absent from her experience, she felt welcomed nonetheless.

“You are constantly aware of your race, and your blackness. But it’s never to a point where you feel isolated or ostracized,” she said. “I think when you’re surrounded by a group of people who don’t think that you don’t deserve to be there because of who you are, it balances that out.”

Murray-Thomas thinks race did inform her self-perceived social role on the team at first, which affected her experience getting used to the team as a freshman.  “At least when I first came to Swat, I felt like it mattered a little more that I was Black on the team because I felt like I had to find some sort of niche. I had to fit some bubble or some category,” she explained. “For me initially it was like, ‘All right, you’ve got to be the funny one.’ So for the first year or two, I was trying to be the funny one.”

By now, Murray-Thomas feels that she has moved away from what she described as putting as a mask, but has had to reflect on what behavior was related to race, and what was based in her personality.

“I’m at a point where I feel more comfortable in my skin and I don’t feel like I have to do that,” she said. “But I also recognize that part of my contribution to the team is being a person of good spirits and being a good team sport. I’m able to bring out a lot of good energy. That’s not necessarily me trying to compensate, that’s also part of my personality.”

Murray-Thomas noted that feeling this pressure to play a particular, race-related “role” was something she experienced on her team more than other white spaces because athletics have particularly intense requirements in terms of participation.

“Your main white space on campus, for me, is class. Typically, you’re the only Black person in the room, but you’re there for a couple of hours and then you’re out and you can do what you want. You can go sit at the ‘Black table’ or you can go to the BCC and return to your enclave,” said Murray-Thomas. “So I felt less pressure to put on some sort of mask or compensate in any way in other white spaces. If you do feel like you have to compensate, it’s intensified when you play a sport.” Though being an athlete has been a rewarding experience for Murray-Thomas, the close-knit environment can magnify self-awareness of race.

Christopher Bourne ‘17, a Black student and member of the men’s basketball team, expressed a similarly positive experience. For Bourne, the men’s basketball team is a place where he feels as comfortable, and often more comfortable, about race than elsewhere on campus.

“My teammates know me and I know them. I don’t have to worry about how they would think of me because of how I look,” he said. “Even on campus, people can think things about you because of the way you look, and they can be positive and negative. I don’t think it is very negative on campus, but I think it is very sensitive on campus. On the basketball team we don’t need to worry about it because we know each other and we’re comfortable.”

But Bourne has also experienced negative attention from the fans at other schools during games. “When we go to away games, fans [of the other team] have said things about me being the only Black person on the team,” reported Bourne. “But we’ll make jokes about that because we’re not very touchy-feely at all.”

Boas-Hayes has also witnessed harassment at away games. Though she hasn’t personally experienced it, she has seen her teammates receive homophobic insults from fans at away games. The way issues of race and identity handled within teams varies significantly between sports. Boas-Hayes described feeling comfortable on the softball team in particular not just because her teammates are supportive but specifically because the team has many queer-identifying members.

“We have a little queer cohort on the softball team,” she said. “[In terms of] going out to Pub Nite and stuff it’s really nice to go out with people who know how to chat with you about queer things.”

Boas-Hayes recognized, though, that the attitude on the women’s softball team was not representative of every sport, and said she knew of queer students on other sports teams who may feel more isolated. Boas-Hayes thinks that by virtue of talking to current student-athletes, the experiences of students that have faced discrimination and left their teams could be neglected.

Boas-Hayes also noted that, especially on other teams, a lot of queer student-athletes desired more active support in place of passive acceptance.

“Mostly it’s just people wish they had more open support on other teams, is what I’ve heard,” she said. “[People should be] actively addressing it instead of leaving it as something on the side.”

Blake Oetting ’18, a white student on the men’s tennis team, described the way he sees the culture of his team being informed by its makeup.

“Tennis specifically is dominated by large white and Asian populations, which produces team narratives limited by a relatively narrow perspective,” he said. “I definitely think Swarthmore could be more involved in making athletics a more racially diverse experience.”

Hertz spoke to the importance and challenges of incorporating diversity initiatives into recruiting efforts.

“We talk about inclusion and balance at the forefront of our philosophy of recruiting.” he said. “We work pretty regularly with admissions on strategizing on how to best identify and matriculate students of color to provide that balance. But there are inherent challenges, some of the geographic, and some socioeconomic.”

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