PerkinsHacks: 24 hours to change lives

At its first-ever hackathon, Perkins challenges college students to invent new technology tools for people who are blind.

Teams hard at work at the first-ever PerkinsHacks.

Shane Kelly, a senior at Olin College of Engineering, pulled up a line graph on his computer. Most people with vision would be able to trace the rises and falls in data, but for those without sight, Kelly and his teammates had devised a solution. He gestured to a device the size of a mouse adorned with two levers.

“Each lever represents a line on the graph,” he explained. “If you put your fingers on them, you can feel where the data spikes.”

Kelly was one of more than 100 college students to descend on the Perkins School for the Blind campus Friday afternoon for PerkinsHacks, the organization’s first-ever assistive technology hackathon. Armed with laptops and a willingness to forgo sleep in the name of accessibility, participants spent the next 24 hours trying to solve real-life challenges faced by people with visual impairment. 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 here, we’re halfway there.”

Each team received guidance from a challenge expert – someone with visual impairment who had experienced the challenge they were trying to solve. Team EZForm checked in with Perkins employee Jerry Berrier, who is blind, as they worked to build software that would enable someone with visual impairment to fill out a paper medical form confidentially.

“It challenged us to look at the problem from someone else’s perspective,” said Hieu Ngo, a student at UMass Dartmouth. “We learned so much.”

As the night wore on, students took breaks from their projects to attend workshops in assistive technology led by Google, Microsoft and others. They also had some fun – engaging in sugar-fueled rounds of corn hole and even a midnight game of goalball, a sport developed for athletes who are blind.

The next morning, teams worked frantically to complete prototypes of their designs. Sitting at a table scattered with various forms of caffeine, a team from CUNY Queens College explained their idea for an app that allows a gym-goer with visual impairment to reserve a specific machine in advance, and request an optional “spotter” to help them use it.

“I’m so excited by this concept,” said challenge expert JoAnn Becker, who is blind. “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, emphasize 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.”

Aaron Leventhal, senior software engineer at Google, urged hackers to consider assistive technology as they embark on their careers.

“I see the field growing,” he said. “If you work on accessibility, you won’t be disappointed.”

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.’”

Read more about the 22 designs submitted by PerkinsHacks participants »

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

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