by Amanda Lacy, edited by Hannah Cooper
An unintended but devastating side effect of Universities expanding the use of group projects is the exclusion of the visually impaired. Groups appear ideal, primarily because the role teamwork plays in an employment setting, but in reality, group assignments bring out the worst aspects of the social ‘game’ played in the classroom. For blind students, group projects are a race to the bottom, where they get assorted into the group with the lowest-performing students in the class, or end up with no group at all — the dreaded group of one.
Universities could focus on potential accommodations for the visually impaired. This can include recorded sessions, brailler or computer for note taking, stated names prior to speaking, verbal descriptions of visual aids and demonstrations, and handouts in braille, on tape, or in electronic format that can be read before the meeting. 
These solutions do not adequately address the challenges faced by blind students in most group projects, let alone in highly competitive Computer Science and Engineering programs where activities are much more visual than simply having a discussion. As an illustration, I have always found that group members will introduce themselves once, but no one ever continues to start with their name when they speak, as this is not how they normally communicate, and it is challenging to remember to do something atypical while also solving engineering problems. I call this the ‘Simon Says problem’ after the game of the same name. For example, a student may have trouble in class and speak up by saying “Simon says, I’m not sure I understand how this algorithm works.”
The first challenge a blind student must overcome is simply joining a group, if any. If group selection is voluntary, the group project starts with an immediate self-selection of students who are high-performing and affluent. They look around the room and lock eyes, and like magic, a majority of groups have formed. The remainder of the students figure out that they do not have a group and pick someone in the class randomly, or by social status cues. At the very end of the group formation process, those who remain are the students who were not paying attention, the socially impaired, and the ones who could not play the ‘game of glances,’ like blind students.
In one course I took, the homework load was very heavy at times, but students were allowed to lighten the load by working the problems in groups. Since I was incapable of following along as students worked out math problems on paper, I had to do all of the work myself. When I have managed to join group projects, I have frequently come across the problem that the other group members want to use their favorite code editor (usually Sublime), but it is inaccessible. Even if they switch to a better editor, there is still the issue of collaborating on the same code when the others can communicate quickly with their eyes and a mouse and are unwilling (and unable) to slow down so that I can understand what they are saying. They work so fast that it feels like sorcery to me.
With the pressure to perform in a group, it is no wonder that many blind students do not want to subject themselves to this ritual. Just as many students do not date to avoid the problems of rejection, humiliation, and disappointment, many disabled students feel liberated when they are enrolled in online courses, which often do not have group projects, or where their disability status can be hidden from others.
Picking group members could be made more egalitarian and less humiliating if a computer program was used to mediate the selection process. People in the class would register their choices for group members by forming groups as they always do, but knowing that the choices they made were not guaranteed to stick. Then, the program would then do its best to create groups with highly desirable students along with an even distribution of less-desirable students while conforming to the group members’ wishes as much as possible. This would avoid the situations where the blind student is just ‘odd man out,’ or is awkwardly forced into an existing group by the teaching assistant. The data collected by the computer program could be used to answer several interesting research questions such as:
- Which characteristics matter most when groups are self-selecting (e.g. income, race, or academic performance)?
- What are the differences between the groups that form first, and those that form last?
- Do the groups that are allowed to self-select out perform those that are formed by the algorithm, or vice versa?
 “Group Work/Discussions.” Group Work/Discussions | DO-IT, https://www.washington.edu/doit/group-workdiscussions.