Posted by Stacy Jeziorowski on Mar 02, 2022

Headshot of Gina Fugate

“Just because a person is blind or visually impaired or even if they have multiple disabilities (for example, cerebral palsy, scoliosis, dyslexia, autism, etc.), it doesn’t mean that they are not capable of doing computer science or actively contributing to the world.” 

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“Just because a person is blind or visually impaired or even if they have multiple disabilities (for example, cerebral palsy, scoliosis, dyslexia, autism, etc.), it doesn’t mean that they are not capable of doing computer science or actively contributing to the world.” 
Top text reads, "Gina teaches assitive technology and computer science. Computer science helps empower others with accessibility and usability." Bottom text reads, "Gina Fugate. Lego engineering & technology. Maryland school for the Blind. Baltimore, Maryland, USA." Photo shows Gina standing in front of colorful lines of code. CSTA Equity Fellow Gina Fugate is a Lego Engineering & Technology Teacher at Maryland School for the Blind. She has 15 years of teaching experience, including teaching blind and visually impaired students in a public school setting in Appalachia. Gina is a first-generation college graduate and began her teaching journey focused on high school English. After learning about her own eye condition, Gina earned her M.Ed. in Special Education with an emphasis on Visual Disabilities from Vanderbilt University.
“I define equity as providing an equal opportunity for all, which, if truly done, simply does not accept segregation or exclusion of others,” said Fugate. “Although our society tends to segregate, approaches that help a specific group of learners often helps other specific groups of learners. I wholeheartedly believe that it is possible to help learners of all types to learn with and from each other.” 
The Maryland School for the Blind comprises a diverse group of students, many of who face additional socioeconomic barriers in addition to blindness or visual impairment. Fugate shared that many are shocked that the school’s students are involved in computer science. 
“Sometimes people assume computer science is impossible for our students. And yet computer science has become typical for us.” 
Fugate’s school addressed inequities annually by competing in the First Lego League. The DOT5UDOGS (a.k.a. Underdogs) and 180 Optimum are two First Lego League teams that compete against other First Lego League teams in Maryland. For the DOT5UDOGS, it is an opportunity for them to leave the safety bubble of the Maryland School for the Blind to experience a competition at a public school. The First Lego League experience allows them to see how their coding, teamwork, and other skills have empowered them to positively contribute to First Lego League and beyond. 
“Believing in opportunities that integrate learning for everyone is my mantra,” shared Fugate. “Even when my students are involved in First Lego League, we purposefully include other teams [who do not have blindness, visual impairment, etc.], and we encourage them to ‘play with us.’ It is important that we dedicate ourselves to not only demonstrating inclusion and advocating for inclusion, but we must naturally invite others to participate and learn.”
The school also holds an annual summer camp and often incorporates inclusive computer science experiences. 180 Optimum, our Outreach First Lego League team, was created as a result of that camp and the high interest in robotics. Students who do not attend school during the school year participate in the summer programs and are so excited about computer science, which is unfortunately not always presented in an inclusive manner in public schools due to so many programs being inaccessible to screen readers.
“I inherited the Lego team in 2016 and have been able to take accessible programming and advocacy to a new level,” shared Fugate. “We have been involved with Lego headquarters in Denmark and even had two Lego representatives come visit our school to learn more about Quorum programming. We continue to collaborate with Lego on both an international headquarters level as well as the state level.” 
Fugate is passionate about this program. “We are explicitly taking students who have had no coding experience due to inaccessibility in their public school experiences, and we are diving into computer science full throttle.” 
Her approach to tackling inequities involves what Fugate calls “positive advocacy.” They are dedicated to every part of the competition, and her students are empowered to share their experiences and how they do robotics. 
“Although that statement may seem simplistic, it is important to consider that we are constantly addressing inaccessible materials in this process,” shared Fugate. “From videos to documents, there are no narrative descriptions or alt tags for the abundance of visual information. Despite this, my students and I work together to not let our ‘lack of vision’ prevent us from achieving.” 
Throughout her career, Fugate has experienced little or no accessible computer science opportunities and fully accessible opportunities. “In the case of inaccessible computer science, I have found that inaccessible computer science is due to poor design and often unintentional exclusion,” she said. 
Fugate applied to become a CSTA Equity Fellow to learn more about nurturing the relationship between design, accessibility, and inclusion. She’s interested in merging these aspects since she’s in a unique position to understand the importance of each and how they can be integrated. 
“I adamantly believe that there is evidence that some accessibility features (like contrast or screen reader capability) can benefit multiple groups of learners,” shared Fugate. “Blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, other learning disabilities, and autism can benefit from the text being read aloud. We can also show how a person who uses those features can collaborate with a person who doesn’t necessarily have to have that feature by necessity yet is not harmed by the presence of that feature. After all, when it comes to computer science, we must be conscious that we are nurturing the next generation of engineers.” 
“I want to work with teachers and programmers like that so that we can figure out what we can do to empower the computer science community to embrace diversity, including the needs that diversity brings with it.” 
Learn more about the CSTA Equity Fellowship and this year’s cohort here.