By Aisha Tepede

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken a new approach to build upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact by providing award funds to academic institutions across the USA with the opportunity to develop research projects.

Individuals who have disabilities deal with hindrances restricting them from achieving better economic opportunities, quality of life, health, and wellness. The NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program enables universities and nonacademic institutions to develop solutions to address societal challenges through convergence research and innovation within a collaborative and multidisciplinary effort. Recently, the program made 16 awards under its Track H: “Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities,” including 6 in the Midwest. The transdisciplinary program builds upon basic research to develop new technologies and accelerate novel solutions that can address challenges faced by persons with disabilities.

One arena of the opportunities includes accessibility for those who are visually impaired.

Saint Louis University, in partnership with nonprofit and industry collaborators, received funding for a program that focuses on those with blindness or visual impairments (BVI). The program aims to address the disparities seen among the BVI population. With many members being disproportionately unemployed, unable to travel independently, and limited in furthering their education, this program aims to bridge the gap and create inclusive approaches to information access and strengthening inclusion among those with disabilities.

Another team focusing on visual impairment is led by Wichita State University, with collaborators at Kansas State University and Georgia Tech. In order to address national health and welfare, the team is fostering the formation of MABLE (Mapping for Accessibility in BuiLt Environments). The design is meant to allow those with visual and mobile impairments to navigate spaces through digital accessibility maps of indoor environments. Innovations such as these create vital opportunities for people with disabilities to foster daily practices of independence and develop new frameworks for quantifying economic benefits.

Other researchers in the Midwest are doing related work on visual accessibility. Professor JooYoung Seo serves as the Director of the Accessible Computing Lab in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “One of the ongoing projects in our lab is the development of an accessible data visualization system, particularly designed for blind and low-vision users,” Seo said. “This system leverages multimodalities like sound, speech, and braille to allow users to explore and analyze data. This project is of paramount importance, particularly in today’s digital era where data literacy is a crucial skill for everyone. By creating an accessible data visualization system, we are providing equitable access to visual information and contributing to data literacy for all individuals, regardless of their dis/abilities. This project illustrates our commitment to designing technology that is inclusive and supportive of everyone’s data needs.”

Seo also serves as senior personnel on the Delta high-performance computing (HPC) project, funded by NSF and led from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at UIUC. Seo’s role involves identifying and addressing accessibility issues. “Our goal is to improve the interface to make it more inclusive for users with disabilities. The essence of this project lies in its potential to transform accessibility in the realm of high-performance computing. In a field where high efficiency and speed are paramount, we must also remember that true innovation should be accessible to all. Delta strives to break down barriers and create an environment that is equally beneficial and inclusive for all users, regardless of their abilities. This project underscores the principle that every user, regardless of their abilities, should be able to utilize technology with ease.”

The impact these projects have on people with disabilities is invaluable as well as for those who work in the field or plan to. Addison Graham is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Illinois State University (ISU) studying Special Education—Specialist in Low Vision and Blindness, with a Certificate in Early Intervention (SED w/ LVB Cert. in EI) and the president of ISU’s Braille Birds. The group is a registered student organization (RSO) that fosters education and spreads awareness about the blind and visually impaired community.

As an incoming educator in Special Education, Addison states,

            “With innovations like MABLE filling the need for greater ease-of-use navigational accessibility indoor of buildings, individuals with and without visual impairments could greatly benefit from the mandated reporting of a building’s interior design.”

Other teams receiving NSF awards under the Convergence Accelerator program include Michigan State University, Purdue University, and Northwestern University, which focus on projects for individuals who have speech impediments or are hearing impaired and create mobility independence for individuals with motor impairments. Projects such as these open opportunities to increase wellness and navigational accessibility for persons with disabilities.

To see a more in-depth description of each research project being conducted at various universities across the USA, see the table below.

Although the awardees each have different approaches and scopes of involvement of opportunities for persons with disabilities, there is a shared interest in synergizing work through facilitated collaboration in order to cultivate improved situations of development for marginalized populations. The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub (MDBH) provides a venue for outreach and engagement that increases the potential for benefitting society and the themes seen with the institution’s awards. Collaborations with MDBH foster the use of data in developing solutions to enhance the quality of life and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. These and other activities address topics that bring together diverse perspectives that open solutions for persons with disabilities.

Get Involved

Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub if you’re aware of other people or projects we should profile here, or to participate in any of our community-led Priority Areas. The MBDH has a variety of ways to get involved with our community and activities.

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University, Iowa State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the national NSF Big Data Hubs community.

Summary of new NSF Convergence Accelerator Midwest disability-related awards

Bridging the Fragmentation of Information Access – An Integrated, Multimodal System for Inclusive Content Creation, Conversion, and Delivery (Saint Louis University)This project aims to address information access as a consolidated initiative to create a unified framework for authoring accessible materials.
Convergent, Human-Centered Design for Making Voice-Activated AI Accessible and Fair to People Who Stutter (Michigan State University)This project aims to resolve limitations in voice technology by developing and implementing policy, advocacy, and AI-based solutions to make voice technology accessible and fair to people who stutter.
Developing Experiential Accessible Framework for Partnerships and Opportunities in Data Science (for the deaf community) (Purdue University)This project aims to create strategic initiatives to overcome barriers and biases that deaf individuals face in the workplace for deaf learners in order to teach data science content.
Leveraging Human-Centered AI Microtransit to Ameliorate Spatiotemporal Mismatch between Housing and Employment for Persons with Disabilities (Wayne State University)This project aims to promote disability inclusion in workplaces by enhancing the availability and reliability of paratransit services by delivering an open-source human-centered Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that aids microtransit services.
Mobility Independence through Accelerated Wheelchair Intelligence (Northwestern University)This project aims to accelerate the accessibility and utility of power wheelchairs by leveraging practical machine intelligence to enhance safety and facilitate independent wheelchair operation.
Towards a Community-Driven Framework for the Creation and Impact Analysis of Digital Accessibility Maps with Persons with Disabilities (Wichita State University)This project aims to use MABLE (Mapping for Accessibility in BuiLt Environments) to provide digital accessibility maps of indoor environments with an interface for assessing, planning, and navigating, based on the affordances and capabilities of the user.