Asee peer logo

The Accidental Inclusivity of Virtual Spaces

Download Paper |


2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity)


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

February 20, 2022

Start Date

February 20, 2022

End Date

July 20, 2022

Conference Session

Technical Session 2 - Paper 1: The Accidental Inclusivity of Virtual Spaces

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

Page Count


Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Amanda Kate Lacy Texas A&M University

visit author page

Amanda Lacy is a PhD student at Texas A&M University in the department of Computer Science and Engineering. Her interests are broad, with an emphasis on applying computing to promote access to information and spaces, both virtual and physical. She holds a bachelors in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin, and currently works as a quality assurance tester for Apple.

visit author page


Seth Polsley Texas A&M University, Department of Computer Science and Engineering

visit author page

Seth Polsley is a PhD student at Texas A&M University in the Sketch Recognition Lab under Director Tracy Hammond. His research interests may be broadly classified as “intelligent systems," with an emphasis on studying and building interactions that merge the capabilities of computers with the intuitive behaviors of humans. He holds a Masters and Bachelors in Computer Engineering from Texas A&M and University of Kansas, respectively, and has previously worked at Lexmark International and MIT Lincoln Lab.

visit author page


Tracy Anne Hammond Texas A&M University Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Dr. Hammond is Director of the Texas A&M University Institute for Engineering Education & Innovation and also the chair of the Engineering Education Faculty. She is also Director of the Sketch Recognition Lab and Professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. She is a member of the Center for Population and Aging, the Center for Remote Health Technologies & Systems as well as the Institute for Data Science. Hammond is a PI for over 13 million in funded research, from NSF, DARPA, Google, Microsoft, and others. Hammond holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and FTO (Finance Technology Option) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and four degrees from Columbia University: an M.S in Anthropology, an M.S. in Computer Science, a B.A. in Mathematics, and a B.S. in Applied Mathematics and Physics. Hammond advised 17 UG theses, 29 MS theses, and 10 Ph.D. dissertations. Hammond is the 2020 recipient of the TEES Faculty Fellows Award and the 2011 recipient of the Charles H. Barclay, Jr. '45 Faculty Fellow Award. Hammond has been featured on the Discovery Channel and other news sources. Hammond is dedicated to diversity and equity, which is reflected in her publications, research, teaching, service, and mentoring. More at and

visit author page

author page

Jason White University of California, Davis

Download Paper |


The Accidental Inclusivity of Virtual Spaces

Current State Inclusion is often seen as a “thing we must do” like taxes or charity. Most people do not think of it as a motive for change and improvement; instead, they may view it as a necessity which limits otherwise achievable productivity. It can seem that employees will drag their feet or just go through the motions of handling accommodations, and candid conversations with people bothered by helping the disabled have even revealed prejudice and resentment. In part, this explains why many institutions do the bare minimum that is necessary to avoid a lawsuit.

However, with the move to virtual learning and working, an emergent property of the virtual space is massively improved accessibility. The shift to virtual events has opened up a world of educational and work opportunities for many people who did not have them before. For instance, blind people do not drive, which limits their choices in the pre-virtual world. Today, a blind person may attend a virtual meeting from home rather than negotiate the many hazards of public transport, taxi rides, or ride-sharing. For the sighted, being without a car is frustrating; for the blind, every foray out into the world carries with it real risks to life and limb. The experience of navigating on-foot in heavily trafficked areas can be much like walking through a war zone. By the time a blind person arrives where they want to go, they may be exhausted by adrenaline surges that degrade the performance in the remote location to much less than their true potential.

Personal Example Here is one example from my own experience. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I could not find a quiet space to catch my breath. I adapted by finding a lockable, single-occupant bathroom to collect my thoughts and calm down after running the gauntlet through clumsy, inattentive students (who broke my cane many times). This solution was brilliant, just making use of the resources everyone had. That was until the staff began locking it because apparently students kept having sex in the bathroom… It sounds comical, but this type of situation is familiar to many of us. I had found a way to get what I needed on my own, and the staff tried to be helpful by unlocking it when I was going to arrive. In spite of their good intentions, they frequently forgot. By the time I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I was burned out on submitting official requests. I implemented solutions like these precisely because they avoided the usual bureaucracy.

The virtual world does not require me to physically move myself to a new location for every single class, meeting, or conference. At in-person events, I used to have to wait around with nothing to do while other people arrived late. If this happens at a virtual meeting, I can still be productive. I also never have to be the one who caused the delay. In the ‘bad old days’ of way-finding and public transport, I often had to schedule my transit with huge buffers of time.

Proposed Idea In the relatively short time that the pandemic has caused this shift, I can think of many ways that the virtual conference services have improved. I used to be self-conscious of the synthetic speech from my screen-reading software disrupting the meeting; if I joined without headphones, I would disable my screen reader, essentially locking myself out of my own computer for the duration of the meeting. If someone posted in the chat, I wouldn’t even know it had been done unless they mentioned it because my screen reader was turned off. Recently, the noise-filtering algorithms on some virtual platforms have gotten better at editing out my screen readers so that other participants cannot hear it.

Even with these changes, virtual meeting platforms can incorporate many more accommodations for the blind while simultaneously enhancing the experience for the sighted. In face-to-face meetings, I missed all facial expressions and subtle body language signals that people give when they want a turn to talk, or when they cede the floor to others. This often left me unable to start talking since it felt rude to interrupt someone who was already talking. Similarly, I would talk for longer than necessary because I could not know whether the audience had understood me or not via the usual non-verbal cues.

I believe that a system like ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’( could be implemented in larger meetings, with the meeting software acting as chairman. Such an application would give everyone concrete cues for when and how long to talk, and prevent cross-talk. Much of in-person communication is physical and visual intimidation, posturing and outright bullying. This has unfortunately carried over to the virtual environment. An example that resonates with most of us was the difference between the first and second 2020 presidential debates. The power to cut off a microphone, if wielded responsibly, can make collaboration much more civil and productive. Enforcing order programmatically would increase productivity while allowing people who are disabled or shy to have a voice..

In an effort to broaden participation, we want to collect specific feedback regarding inclusivity in virtual, in-person, and hybrid spaces. Our goal is to build a greater understanding of the issues and personal challenges faced by those who have access or equity concerns. By gathering the perspectives of a broad spectrum of individuals through interviews and surveys, e.g. parents with young children, disabled students, we will use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to discover the key challenges against greater inclusivity and provide guidance for some of the changes institutions should consider to support access for everyone.

I look forward to being treated as a valuable member of the team, not as someone who is always asking for accommodations and slowing the pace of already slow progress.

Lacy, A. K., & Polsley, S., & Hammond, T. A., & White, J. (2022, February), The Accidental Inclusivity of Virtual Spaces Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2022 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015