A Tech Challenge To Empower People With Disabilities

North Texas developers are taking their projects to a national competition with an award of $100,000.

By Lauren SilvermanJuly 23, 2015 7:39 am

This story originally appeared on KERA Breakthroughs

Sometimes Chad Hebel will go to a restaurant with friends only to find himself physically cut off from his company.

“You’re looking under the table at everybody else,” Hebel says.

Hebel is in a wheelchair, and he’s a businessman with an eye for innovation. Both of those factors make him a valuable resource for developers looking to design assistive technologies to bring to market. Hebel, who mentors startup companies for the Dallas accelerator Health Wildcatters, says where there’s a need, there’s a business opportunity.

An Opportunity For Developers

Just like buildings constructed decades ago weren’t designed for people with disabilities, many of the high tech gadgets and apps created today leave out a segment of the population.

Which is exactly why Mohammed Azmat Qureshi is spending his days in a lab at UT Arlington surrounded by loose cables and pieces of robotics.

“There’s a huge potential of using the technology that is out there in a different way for the differently-abled people,” says Quereshi.

Qureshi and his partner Oluwatosin Oluwadare are one of several dozen teams that have submitted a proposal to a tech challenge called Connect Ability. The competition, which is sponsored by AT&T and New York University, is meant to empower people with disabilities. The prize is $100,000.

Hackathons across the country brought together developers and people living with disabilities who were available to provide feedback. One was organized by the Plano-based group, LaunchAbility and held at Tech Wildcatters.


Oluwadare says the device he’s created with Quereshi, called “EyeCYou” will help the visually impaired “see” people in front of them.

To show how it works, Oluwadare puts on a pair of glasses. In this prototype, he uses plastic safety goggles with a camera attached, and snaps my photo.

Then, the device begins to speak in a robotic voice: “The description of the person in front of you is as follows,” it says. “Person one is wearing an orange dominate shirt, has a light-skinned complexion.  She is a female adult.”

So far, the device reports age, complexion, shirt color, and gender. Oluwadare admits this personal assistant in the early phases, and some of the features it’s programmed to describe can make some uncomfortable – like skin color and gender — but feedback from people who live with disabilities is helping to shape the technology.

“Unless you talk to the people that you’re trying to help, you’re not going to know — even with your best intentions — how to help,” says Xian Horn. Horn is a writer from Manhattan who has cerebral palsy, which impacts her mobility. She’s also working with developers in the Connect Ability Challenge.

For Horn, the priority is hands free technology. She has poor balance and muscle control

“So the fact that I walk around the world with shiny blue ski poles means that my hands are occupied,” Horn explains. “So for me the priority would be hands free technology. Anything that would allow me to use my phone maybe without taking it out of my purse would be great.”

Horn also likes a device called Pallete, which transforms your tongue into a mouse that can control anything from a wheelchair to a light setting. That might help people who have conditions like multiple sclerosis. Another technology called DrumPants gives a voice to people with difficulty speaking. They just have to tap sensors on their pants or shirt. Horn says the control box might be too large to fit well on a cane, and she got to give that group feedback.

“We can collaborate and create things that not only work in theory but actually have an impact on the future of someone’s life,” Horn says. “This kind of technology can be life changing.”

The winner will be announced on July 27th, the day after the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.