From problem to solution in 24 hours

Perkins’ first hackathon challenges college students to invent new technology tools for people who are blind.

More than 100 college students from around the country participated in Perkins' first-ever hackathon.

This story appears in the Summer 2018 issue of In Focus.

The challenge was unlike anything they’d heard before: design software to make working out at the gym accessible for someone with a visual impairment.

Margarita Zias, a student at CUNY Queens College, turned to her teammates.

“Let’s close our eyes and picture we’re at the gym,” she said. “What would we need?”

At that moment, Zias was surrounded by more than 100 college students from schools across the country, all of whom had traveled to Perkins School for the Blind to attend PerkinsHacks, the organization’s first-ever hackathon, held April 13-14. Armed with laptops and a willingness to forgo sleep in the name of accessibility, participants from schools like Boston College and Georgia Tech spent 24 hours trying to solve real-life challenges faced by people with visual impairment. The challenges ranged from filling out paper forms in a doctor’s office to navigating a crowded college cafeteria.

“These are important issues to solve if we’re going to narrow the gap between people who are sighted and people who are not,” Perkins President and CEO Dave Power told participants during the opening ceremony. “With your attendance, we’re halfway there.”

Each team worked closely with a challenge expert – someone with a visual impairment who had experienced the obstacle they were trying to solve. A team of students from Olin College of Engineering checked in frequently with Chris Nagle, a software engineer who has low vision, as they worked to build a tactile lever device that would allow him to quickly interpret large data sets. 

“At most hackathons, you don’t get a chance to interact with users as you go,” said Olin student Kathryn Hite. “Getting Chris’ feedback along the way was so helpful.”

Students also had the opportunity to learn from industry experts, many of whom led workshops, served as mentors or judged their final designs. A total of 17 sponsors, including Microsoft, Google and athenahealth, provided volunteers, technical advisors and funding for the event.

“It was super inspiring to see college students designing with accessibility in mind,” said Google Software Engineer Tom Rudick, who served as a PerkinsHacks mentor. “There were so many great ideas throughout the weekend for how to make technology work for everyone.”

Saturday afternoon, hackers raced to complete prototypes of their designs before time ran out. During judging, Zias and her team presented a demo of their app “B-Fit,” which allows a gym-goer with visual impairment to reserve a specific machine in advance, and request an optional “spotter” to help them use it.

Their Challenge Expert, JoAnn Becker, was ecstatic.

“I’m so excited by this,” she told the team. “Gyms could use this as a solution if their machines don’t have accessibility built in.”

For many hackers, the Perkins event was their introduction to the world of assistive technology and user-centered design. Keynote speaker Larry Skutchan, director of technology product research at the American Printing House for the Blind, emphasized the important role of technology as an equalizer in the lives of people with visual impairment.

“A blind person does not want sympathy, they do not want handouts,” he said. “What we want is equality. We want an equal chance to enjoy a rich life, just like you do.”

The message hit home for Emily Vogelsperger, an English and computer science double major at the College of the Holy Cross.

“This was so incredibly eye-opening,” she said. “It blew me away. I was texting my friends the whole time [saying] ‘This is what I want to do.’”

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