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A necessary conversation: Social Impact Award winner Jennifer Mankoff inspires the SIGCHI community to take a more expansive view of inclusion

Jennifer Mankoff wearing button-down sweater with hair pulled back with wood and concrete in the background

Eight years ago, Allen School professor Jennifer Mankoff and a group of like-minded researchers who cared about, or needed, accessibility put their heads together after coming to a realization about SIGCHI, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction. While a growing swath of researchers in the community had begun to focus on the design and evaluation of technologies for diverse users, including those with disabilities, Mankoff and her colleagues noted that the venues for showcasing that work — including the group’s flagship annual conference, CHI — were not themselves accessible to many of these same audiences. And thus, AccessSIGCHI was born.

“Around the time we launched, nearly one-tenth of the papers presented at CHI were related to accessibility or disability in some way, yet only about 20% of conferences included accessibility support,” recalled Mankoff, who holds the Richard E. Ladner Professorship in the Allen School where she directs the Make4All Group. “I and Jennifer Rode, who founded AccessSIGCHI, asked ourselves, ‘how can we ensure that our community’s publications and events and procedures make accessibility a priority?’ It’s a necessary conversation, if not always a comfortable one. And it’s ongoing.”

In 2015, Mankoff and her colleagues in AccessSIGCHI (originally known as the SIGCHI Accessibility Community) released a seminal report documenting the state of accessibility within the SIGCHI community and laying out a vision for the future. In it, the authors noted, “​SIGCHI​ ​can​ ​attract​ ​new​ ​members,​ ​and​ ​make​ ​current​ ​members feel​ ​welcome​ ​by​ ​making​ ​its​ ​events​ ​and​ ​resources​ ​more​ ​inclusive.​ ​This​ ​in​ ​turn​ ​will​ ​enrich SIGCHI,​ ​and​ ​help​ ​it​ ​to​ ​live​ ​up​ ​to​ ​the​ ​ideal​ ​of​ ​inclusiveness​ ​central​ ​to​ ​the​ ​concept​ ​of user-centered​ ​design.​” The group has since released three subsequent reports on a biennial basis assessing current conditions and issuing recommendations for improvement. This month, in recognition of Mankoff’s efforts to make not only technologies but also the community that creates them more accessible to members with diverse needs and experiences, that same community honored her with its 2022 SIGCHI Social Impact Award.

“Jen exemplifies the meaning of the SIGCHI Social Impact Award,” said colleague and previous award recipient Richard Ladner, professor emeritus in the Allen School. “Her career has been driven by her desire for social impact in multiple ways, including but not limited to improving the lives of people with disabilities through technology, improving the lives of everyone through technology to support environmental sustainability, and improving the accessibility of CHI sponsored conferences for the benefit of the entire CHI community.”

Mankoff is known for her holistic approach to research, including an understanding of how structural factors can impede people’s access to technologies in addition to the technologies themselves. She and her collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University, where she was a faculty member before she joined the Allen School in 2017, helped to document and advance the potential for consumer-grade fabrication tools and techniques, combined with a wider variety of materials, to support “medical making.” 

Says graduate student Megan Hofmann, who led much of this work and starts as faculty at Northeastern University in the fall, “At the onset of the COVID pandemic, medical making suddenly took on a new urgency. Jen encouraged me to engage with this through my contacts in Colorado, my home state, while she worked to support efforts at the University of Washington.” This work resulted in the delivery of hundreds of PPE (personal protective equipment) devices in Washington and over 100,000 PPE devices in Colorado. It also led to a series of conference publications, including an examination of the role of medical makers in resolving acute and chronic shortages of PPE while upholding standards of clinical safety, and recommendations for building a more robust infrastructure to support medical making communities in meeting local needs — both of which earned honorable mentions at CHI 2021.

Another area in which Mankoff has been a leader is in the development of tools and materials for fabrication that are accessible to — and relevant to — people with disabilities. Her work in this area has ranged from machine knitting to 3D printing, and helped to establish the importance of tools that allow re-use and design by domain experts who are not also fabrication experts.

Mankoff has also been instrumental in bridging the gap between disability studies and assistive technology research. Her work to apply the theoretical underpinnings of the former to promote a more inclusive and self-advocating model for the latter earned the 2021 SIGACCESS ASSETS Impact Award from the ACM Special Interest Group on Accessible Computing for a paper 10 years or older with lasting impact. More recently, Mankoff has advanced mixed-method approaches, including interviews and biometric data, for understanding university students’ mental health and well-being on a large scale via the cross-disciplinary UW EXP study, such as the impact of discrimination, pandemic-driven remote learning, and accessibility innovations and challenges of the same.

In an effort to promote cross-campus collaboration and community partnerships to advance accessibility research, education and translation, Mankoff was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the UW Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences (CREATE). She currently serves as founding co-director of CREATE with her colleague Jacob O. Wobbrock, a professor in the UW’s Information School and adjunct professor in the Allen School. Seeded with a $3 million from Microsoft, CREATE’s mission is “to make technology accessible and to make the world accessible through technology.”

Beyond her contributions in accessibility research spanning almost three decades, Mankoff helped to steer the SIGCHI community in new directions through her research linking sustainability issues with HCI. It was a connection that few had made before she began co-organizing conference workshops on the topic in 2007; in the process, she and Ph.D. student Tawanna Dillahunt, now a tenured professor at the University of Michigan, also set a new standard for HCI and sustainability research by deliberately engaging underserved populations as part of this work.

“Jen was one of the first in HCI, and the first among sustainability researchers, to specifically seek out people from low-income communities to help uncover new concerns such as how sustainability plays out in the landlord-tenant relationship,” Ladner noted. “Jen’s work emphasized the importance of working with diverse populations at the intersection HCI and sustainability, and her research with underserved communities continues to this day.” 

While she has never shied away from pushing her colleagues to take into account perspectives and experiences different from their own, Mankoff’s activism recently took a more personal turn. Last fall, she suddenly lost her voice. With her primary means of sharing information cut off, she resorted to her rudimentary knowledge of American Sign Language — something she and her son had begun learning by chance just two months prior — and tools such as a portable whiteboard. Mankoff, whose first experience with inaccessibility came during graduate school due to a repetitive strain injury before she was later diagnosed with Lyme disease while building her research career, was already keenly aware that the world is not organized for people with disabilities. But suddenly, she understood the ableism and artificial obstacles that people face when going about their daily lives in a whole new way:

“In essence, this is the first disability experience I’ve had that is defined entirely by the numerous barriers put up by others,” Mankoff wrote in a candid blog post about the episode. “I will admit to being surprised by the sheer amount of discrimination I’ve encountered in a single month.” She goes on to describe gatekeeping practices that threatened her ability to obtain services, ableist jokes and disbelieving and dismissive health care providers. Mankoff ends by saying “I suspect this is mostly about being in a new situation. But I’d argue that is exactly when compassion and support are most needed!”

Mankoff has since recovered her voice; it would surprise no one who knows and works with her to learn that this recent experience has galvanized her intent to use it to speak up even more forcefully for those whose voices, too often, still go unheard.

“Jennifer has contributed significantly to accessibility through both her research and her activism, from creating technologies and tools that empower others to ensuring conferences are inclusive and accessible to all,” said Wobbrock. “She is a highly deserving recipient of the SIGCHI Social Impact Award, and I am proud to call her a colleague, collaborator and friend.”

Mankoff was formally recognized during the CHI 2022 conference that took place as a hybrid-onsite event earlier this month. She previously was elected to the CHI Academy in 2019.

Congratulations, Jen!