By Aisha Tepede

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub (MBDH) is committed to being a venue for outreach and engagement that increases the potential for benefitting society through the Priority Areas the organization leads and the amplification of other investments and opportunities.

One avenue for this is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) recent Convergence Accelerator program track focused on disability-related research, which allows universities and nonacademic institutions to develop solutions to address societal challenges for persons with disabilities through convergence research and innovation within a collaborative and multidisciplinary effort. Our recent story on these awards explores them in more detail.

In this post, we will focus on a discussion surrounding the impact these projects have on people with disabilities with Addison Graham, 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 and the president of ISU’s Braille Birds student group.

How did you decide on special education as a career and choose to emphasize low vision and blindness?
“I got here by how I believe most people get into the field, pure chance. I wanted to pursue a specialization of Special Education. When visiting Illinois State University’s (ISU) Summer Seminar, I was introduced to the three subfields of the major (i.e., LBS—Learning Behavioral Specialty, DHH—Deaf & Hard of Hearing, and LVB—Low Vision & Blindness). I chose to attend the LVB talk where an LVB professor talked to us about the field. My father then suggested I go into the field and see if I liked it; not wanting to do everything my father suggested but understanding that it was a great suggestion, I decided to go along with it. Now, I am a 4th year still majoring in Special Education with a Specialty in Low Vision and Blindness with a Certificate in Early Intervention (SED w/ LVB Cert. in EI).”

When working with individuals with disabilities, do you think it teaches you more about yourself and the type of educator you want to be?
“Absolutely! Training to become a teacher is a stressful, but rewarding, endeavor. Much reflection and analysis of what, how, and why you do the things you do in your lesson plans is thoughtfully considered at every step.”

With braille being one of the biggest inventions for visually impaired people, and as the world moves into more technological advances, what do you think is important for inventors to remember when creating new technologies to help the community?
“To answer the question, web developers must adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Standards; however, *no new technologies are needed to support individuals with visual impairments. I have an asterisk there for a reason, which I will touch on in a moment, but let me explain my position.

The Asterisk: New technologies have changed the way Blind People live for the better. Some of these solutions were designed explicitly for the Blind Community, and others not so much, but what is important is how helpful they are to the people who use them on a daily basis.”

He adds, “It is important for inventors to consider and incorporate the Blind Community. This does not mean having one blind man look over the project and say, ‘Good enough, I think.’ But reach out to experts in the field of Education & Policy for the Blind. People who are blind will be your boss, employee, and consumer; why make something they can’t even use? Having organizations such as American Printing House for the Blind (APH), American Foundation of the Blind (AFB), Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IBVI), and/or National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to consult with your company or team or having a separate person on the team dedicated to understanding and implementing accessibility into your specific project is a necessity.”

He closes with, “Remember, oftentimes this community doesn’t need a complete workaround, just a ‘digital ramp’ to allow them to access the same information as everyone else. If the Bus 101 Company creates an app to let people know when and where the bus routes are, it cannot be just a picture. If it is, then it should be accompanied by Alt Text that is easy for the blind user to navigate to find their stop just as easily as any sighted person. Accessibility to software, hardware, places, and products, is the gateway to independence, but if we only address the needs of these very real human beings whenever it is convenient for us, then we deprive real people of the opportunity to live their life on their terms.”

What is a “Digital Ramp”?
“The phrase ‘Digital Ramp’ refers to the common example people think of when they hear the word ‘accessibility,’ that is a physical ramp to a door for someone who is in a wheelchair. If a ramp refers to someone with a physical disability getting access to a building through the ramp rather than the inaccessible stairs, then the lack of a digital ramp can be thought of as a barrier for people who use technology but are unable to access it. Examples include the following: a deaf person not having the options for captions; an elderly person, someone who is technologically illiterate, or someone with a cognitive delay being expected to navigate a frustratingly unintuitive website to secure something necessary (e.g., government-subsided healthcare); or a blind individual using Bus 101’s app being shown a picture of the bus routes with no Alt Text rather than a description of when and where the buses will be.”

As the interview continued, Addison shared recommendations for industries in order for them to better support the Blind Individuals already using their services or inside of the field itself. See the table below:

Property Management Personnel or City PlannersUse of braille signs from reputable companies on everything permanent that has visual information (i.e., print text, pictures, models).

Use of tactual information on maps in parks, cities, airports, hospitals, shopping malls, etc.

Following American Disability Act (ADA) guidelines when designing buildings, indoor and outdoor spaces.

Consider designs that include and prioritize humans rather than cars.
Business & Education PersonnelUse digital document accessibility features to improve usability for individuals with visual impairments, such as:

      • If you have to, only use PDFs with text selectable or Object Character Recognition (OCR) and avoid using poor scan-in PDFs.
      • Use Headers (e.g., Title, Header 1, Header 2, etc.) and Repeating Header Row in Tables (i.e., using the “Repeat as Header Row at the Top of Each Page” feature in Table Properties under section “Row” allows Screen Readers and visual users to access the Header Row Title of the specific column they are in).
      • Use audio descriptions to describe what’s happening when the audio of the video does not tell you enough information (e.g., a step-by-step tutorial with light piano music playing in the background).
Hardware DevelopersUse of physical buttons and tactual indicators for all ports and cable types as well as access to screen-reading technology via software by using an AUX port.
Software DevelopersAdherence to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Standards as well as universally accessible screen-reading technology that is available via the hardware of an AUX port.

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.