Better Living Through Technology: Dispatches from the Connect Ability Hackathon

Inside a weekend of hacking, stenography, and making world-changing technologies for people with disabilities.

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Apr 26 2015, 5:00pm

Pallette Prototype, courtesy of Oliver Hoffman

A young man sits on a stool at the front of a crowded room with a wire dangling from between his closed lips. In his mouth is Pallette, a device he and his members designed and built over the weekend for the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge. His tongue controls the pointer on-screen projected beside him as he navigates between slides for his group’s presentation. As the demonstrations ran late into Sunday evening, the room was still buzzing with energy: 15 groups, one after another, each demonstrating their technology to help make the lives of people living with disabilities easier, and to directly address the isolation the same people often face. 

The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge is an international, interdisciplinary competition for technological solutions to problems that people with disabilities face every day. It is a call to action and awareness to technology makers, whose design decisions often marginalize people who are unable to interact with technology in the same ways. Neil Giacobbi, the Executive Director of the challenge and Public Affairs at AT&T, explains, one goal is “to get students to think in terms of universal design and access as a predicate for any commercial design.” Says R. Luke Dubois, an artist and the co-director of the challenge, “This is an all-hands-on-deck maneuver. It’s 2015—we need to really start looking at this shit. We have all this amazing technology to do stuff, and not enough of it’s being deployed in this space.”

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(L to R) 
Cornell Tech students 

Dan Levine, Oliver Hoffman and Shawn Bramson give a demo of Palette. Image by the author

Take screen readers, for instance, web interfaces for blind or visually impaired users: although it's standard practice to caption images on the web, there is no way to caption images on Twitter. Thus, developer and accessibility advocate Cameron Cundiff tells The Creators Project, blind users are being left out of important, increasingly image-based conversations. Cameron took first place at the hackathon with @alt_text_bot  a Twitter bot that will caption images in tweets that mention it. Though @alt_text_bot is not yet fully integrated into the Twitter experience, Cameron explains, “There’s no silver bullet, but I think things like this hackathon help developers at least be thoughtful of [accessibility]. Which is awesome, because if you’re thinking about it, you have to make a conscious decision not to do it, and I think most people would at least grapple with that decision and hopefully make the right one.”

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@alt_text_bot in action, screencap via 

A developer, an industrial designer, and a stenographer teamed up to take second place with Stenospeak, a lightweight wearable rig that combines the text-to-speech functionality of an Android phone with the incredible efficiency of stenography. It allows people, with or without the ability to speak, to participate in realtime communication at conversational speeds. Stenography is a skill that requires practice, but Stanley Sakai, a self-taught stenographer and one of the creators of Stenospeak, is adamant: “There’s no reason why somebody who’s functionally and cognitively well, but has this one barrier of speech, can’t learn to use a stenograph.”

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Mirabai Knight, stenographer extraordinaire, models her group’s Stenospeak

“A lot of what the clients in this community need are appallingly simple straight-forward everyday things,” Dubois tells me. 

“But it makes the difference between being able to do something and not," adds Anita Perr, clinical associate professor of occupational therapy at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. 'It’s not between doing it and doing it better. It’s so there’s a little device that goes in the edge of the box so you can open it. Which means somebody can open their cereal box instead of having to go to their neighbor.” There was an elegance in the simplicity of so many of the creations, as the problems they addressed were so concrete. 

Watching each presentation, I can't help but imagine their uses beyond those in which they were intended. “There’s never any downside to this stuff," Dubois continues. "That’s the other thing we were trying really hard to get across. It’s not a zero-sum game.” Added Giacobbi, “So much of what was developed today could be applied to people who are seniors, to traffic safety, not to mention all of the commercial applications.”  

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Waiting for the next spectacular creation, Image by the author

Over just one weekend, a room full of students and makers were making significant progress on long-standing problems that people with disabilities face every day. “People want to connect, and we don’t always know how to connect," Xian Horn, a writer and teacher living with Cerebral Palsy, explains. "The barriers don’t really exist if we know what’s really needed.”

For creators, there's a world of opportunity ripe for the taking. “That’s the whole Connect Ability thing," says Perr. "It’s these little connections that make huge ability differences.” In a time where it’s so seductively easy to get swept up in the fervor of technology, the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge is a resounding call that we are all part of the same struggle for autonomy and self-expression.

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Stenospeak prototype, courtesy of Stanley Sakai

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Hacking into the night

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Sketches for Stenospeak, courtesy of Stanley Sakai

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