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Using Scratch to Engage Students with Disabilities


Each July since 2003, I have directed Calvin College’s Imaginary Worlds Camps (IWC), in which my helpers and I introduce middle school students to the basic ideas of computing, using engaging tools like Alice  and Scratch. Detailed information about these camps is given in [1, 2], available online via

From 2003-2008, I taught students to create movies using Carnegie-Mellon’s Alice software.  I was generally happy with Alice, but I had been getting increasing numbers of repeat campers, so to keep the content fresh and new for them, I decided in 2009 to teach students to create games or music videos in Scratch.  This went very well, details of our experience are given in [2].

Students with Disabilities

In each IWC since 2004, we have had at least one camper with a serious disability. All have been male campers.  The 2009 camp attracted three disabled boys:

  • “Allan” with muscular dystrophy,
  • “Bob” with high-functioning autism, and
  • “Chris” with blindness.

(Names have been changed to protect anonymity.)  In this story, I will discuss how their disabilities affected their experiences at the 2009 IWC.


Allan was a 14-year-old attending IWC for a second time.  His muscular dystrophy affected his legs, and he wore leg braces beneath his jeans.  During our daily activity/lunch break, he would play a game like chess or cards with fellow campers, while other boys threw a Frisbee or ran around. Most of Allan’s fellow campers were unaware that he had any disability.

Allan’s disability had no effect on his ability to use Alice in 2008 or Scratch in 2009.  His 2009 project was a game that was very similar to those of his fellow campers, defining custom animations and handling user-events with a techno audio track. As part of our assessment program, we asked the campers what they liked best about IWC, and what they liked least.  Allan reported that what he liked best about IWC-2009 was “Scratch”; and what he liked least was  It was too short.”


Bob was a 14-year-old attending IWC for the first time.  His autism occasionally produced verbal outbursts when he became excited or frustrated (not uncommon when learning to program), but he generally had very good communication skills.  He rarely took part in activities during lunch break, but he would discuss Scratch, computer games, movies, and other topics with his fellow campers.  In short, his fellow campers knew that Bob was a little different, but it was not a barrier for him.

Bob’s project was an ambitious interactive movie-game, in which, for some parts of the story, the player guided the hero past challenging obstacles; in other parts of the story, predefined animations moved the characters to advance the story. 

Bob loved using Scratch’s sprite editor to create costumes for his hero and villain sprites.  But he was very frustrated by not completing his project prior to the Showcase session. However, he was consoled to learn that he could finish his project at home and then update his project on the Scratch website. Bob reported that what he liked best about IWC was “making my game”; he liked “not getting my game done in time” least.


Chris was a 13-year-old attending IWC for the first time.  His father contacted the author months before the IWC began, explained that his son was blind, but was very interested in music, and would like to create a music video.  Was this possible? 

The author invited Chris and his father to Calvin’s campus for a Scratch demo. Chris owns a computer with a Braille interface, but Scratch had no accessibility features or support for a Braille interface, so it quickly became apparent that something quite different would be needed for Chris to participate in the camp.

Chris’s father decided to take a week of vacation and join Chris at the 2009 IWC, to help Chris create a project by serving as his eyes and hands. Chris and his father attended each classroom session where his father watched and Chris listened to the demo.  In the lab, they sat at one of the aisle workstations, where Chris would communicate his ideas for what should happen next, and his father would work at making those ideas happen on-screen.  Together, they created an interesting story involving a flying saucer, a vampire bat, and mutant humans.  Its sound track was a fascinating mixture of bagpipes, the X-Files theme, sci-fi sound effects, and other interesting sounds.  Chris reported that what he liked best about IWC was the “sounds library in Scratch”; he left blank the question regarding what he liked least.  I take that to mean he liked everything!


Students with disabilities who are able to use a mouse can use either Alice or Scratch, thanks to their drag-and-drop IDEs.  Likewise, many students with learning or behavioral disabilities will find the creative and graphical aspects of both programs to be deeply absorbing.  I have had almost no behavioral problems at IWC over the years, as students find both of these programs to be very engaging.

Both Alice and Scratch are highly visual; neither provides accessibility features for students with visual impairments. Either program may be difficult to use for students with visual impairments, and impractical for blind students, unless sighted persons work with such students as their eyes and hands.

From my perspective, using Scratch in the 2009 IWC was a great success. Our assessment indicates that all involved had a very positive experience learning about computing. I hope this story will encourage others to plan their own outreach efforts, and I look forward to reading about them.


[1]    J. Adams. Alice, Middle-Schoolers, & The Imaginary Worlds Camps. Proceedings of the 38th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (March 2007). pp. 307-311.

[2]    J. Adams, Scratching Middle Schoolers’ Creative Itch, To appear, Proceedings of the 41st SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (March 2010).

Charlie Freund

Great stories, Joe.

I've worked with a number of students that were diagnosed with Autism. It is such a spectrum of possible characteristics. The one that stands out to me was quite the opposite as your story of Bob. My student would develop games that took a really long time of button mashing to progress. He drew stick figures and the player's character shoot the bad guy. Nothing moved except the constant spray of little bullets and a health bar that trickled down slower than molasses!

I tried so hard to keep encouraging him to branch out to new ideas, adding new elements. But this would get him REALLY frustrated. All he wanted to do was this same concept, but with each new bad guy having even more hit points and requiring even longer to shoot!!

Never found a "solution"... but the student was overall happy. It's just hard for me as a teacher to feel like I'm not challenging students. But maybe I was??

Technology courses seems to be a bit of a beacon for students with different needs. I'm glad we have this Scratch community together to discuss such stories!



Karen Brennan

Joel -- Thank you so much for sharing these stories. (And the references to further readings!)

Bob's comment about "not getting my game done in time" reminded me that there's always this tension between choosing a project that's personally meaningful and exciting, and choosing a project that's tractable given contextual constraints (e.g. how much time you have, what resources you have access to). I never want to discourage ambitious projects, but appreciate that the end-product is important to participants!

Thanks again for sharing. I look forward to reading about IWC 2010!


Ai Boon Tan

Hi. Thank you for sharing your story.  I would like to share a thought which occurred to me as I read your ending paragraphs.  Due to the difficulty experienced by visually impaired students in using Scratch during your camp, perhaps you can ask for seeing-eye volunteers before your camp and train them to take care of  visually-impaired students. This will enable the latter to integrate with the other children and also allow your volunteers to take care of their fellow students and mesh their ideas together for a joint project.

Best regards,

Ai Boon

Ashley Lee

Thanks, Joe, for sharing these captivating stories. It's really heart-warming to hear how you're reaching out to kids with different learning styles and abilities. Your stories made me realize how diverse the Scrach learning community really is.