ConnectAbility Challenge Winners Help Celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Federal Hall serves as stage for teams who enhance access for all, including Tech Kids Unlimited: LOLA

Group of people accepting award

“NYU was founded on the concept of being in and of the City, and that theme still resonates within the University. Over this past summer we were proud to partner with AT&T to make New York a bit more friendly and livable for its residents.  The ConnectAbility Challenge provided us with a platform to bring together bright developers from around the globe to create apps and other solutions for those with disabilities. This use of technology to enhance people’s lives is a pursuit worthy of praise and celebration.”

NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan expressed those sentiments to mark the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), at an event where he was joined by Senator Charles Schumer, NYC Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities Victor Calise, and AT&T New York’s president Marissa Shorenstein, using the iconic Federal Hall as a backdrop to honor the passage of an act that created more opportunity and access for all Americans.

“Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and with the stroke of a pen, he helped tear down the shameful walls of exclusion that kept disabled Americans from achieving their potential,” Schumer explained to the audience. “Today we can help do the same with the click of a mouse, the flash of a screen, or the programming of a sensor.”

Co-sponsored by AT&T and NYU’s ABILITY Lab--which is housed at the Media and Games Network (MAGNET) and is comprised of NYU’s School of Engineering, Steinhardt, and Tisch--the Challenge drew submissions from around the globe.  One winner had a special connection to NYU: Laugh Out Loud Aid (LOLA), which won in the category of Social/ Emotional Solutions was conceived by Seth Truman, a student with Asperger’s who attends workshops at TKU, as it’s known, was founded by Beth Rosenberg of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Integrated Digital Media program and her son, Jack, to teach 21st-century tech skills to young people with autism spectrum disorder, learning and emotional disabilities, processing problems, and other such issues. TKU workshops are held on weekends and school breaks and are among the popular options offered during the School of Engineering’s Summer of STEM program.

Users of LOLA get daily reminders via the app to practice needed everyday tasks (like brushing teeth and wearing deodorant) and social skills (like greeting someone when they enter a room). The reminders come in the form of comical gifs that were themselves created during a Tech Kids Unlimited gifs workshop. (The deodorant gif, for example, created by student Paloma Kalisch, age 17, features a whimsical dog whose armpits are emitting a stench represented in classic cartoon style by wavy lines.)

Seth comes by his sense of humor naturally: his father, Greg, had been a writer on the hit kids’ show The Wiggles, and it seemed self-evident to him that other students with Asperger’s would respond better to funny reminders than to parental nagging. The judges of the ConnectAbility Challenge evidently agreed—as did the general public. LOLA garnered not just the Social / Emotional Solutions prize but the People’s Choice Award as well, taking home a grand total of $12,500 in prize money.

Beth Rosenberg was thrilled and gratified but unsurprised by the success of her team, which included a School of Engineering grad student, Matias Seijas, who was the programmer for the app, and a recent School of Engineering alum, Cristina Ulerio, who created the app’s video and serves as TKU’s program manager. “Working with the ABILITY Lab and the School of Engineering means that we can draw on a large pool of talent and resources,” she says. “And across the entire community, there are people—including Luke DuBois, the co-chair of the IDM program and a huge TKU fan—who share our goals of nurturing the next generation of savvy kids like Seth, with the ability to create tech and not just consume it.”

Just as the simple act of carving out curb cuts (as has been required by the ADA) enhanced life for countless people in wheelchairs, the winning solutions opened up a new world of possibilities.  In addition to LOLA, for example, grand prize winner Kinesic Mouse, which also took home the award for Best Mobility Solution, uses a 3D camera to detect facial expressions and head rotations, allowing users to operate personal computers totally hands-free.  Another honoree, Ava (Transcense), which was deemed Best Solution for People with Sensory Disabilities, is a mobile app that helps people who have hearing disabilities by tracking conversations in the surrounding area and translating the sound into text in real time.

AT&T New York President Marissa Shorenstein asserted, “The promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to remove barriers that people with disabilities face--it’s clear from these extraordinary submissions that technology plays an important role in fulfilling the law’s mission.”

“Increasing access and creating more connectability are centrally important concepts to what we all focus on in Academia,” Dean Sreenivasan concluded, “whether it be through providing education for those that are less economically advantaged, researching ways to allow more data to be transferred at lower rates for all people, or simply working with young new York City public school students to ensure that they have the knowledge to make an informed decision about which field they want to pursue. There is no better use of one’s time that to democratize opportunity, and that is exactly what each of you have done today.  You have enhanced opportunity for those with disabilities and I am proud that NYU can be a partner to such a lofty goal.”

The full set of winners can be seen on the press release.