Software ‘developer day’ for disability apps puts UW-Stout in strong company

After AT&T and New York University held the first hack-a-thon to come up with technologies to help people with disabilities, the call went out for other likely campus hosts for the software-based Connect Ability Challenge.

Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stepped forward with solid ideas. So did UW-Stout

Yes, that UW-Stout — the same campus of roughly 9,400 students in Menomonie that brands itself as “Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University,” and which perennially chalks up job placement rates of 95%-plus for its graduates.

“It’s the four R&D universities you normally think of, right? Johns Hopkins, Duke, MIT, and us,” joked Paul Schwartz, who helps manage Stout’s Vocational Rehabilitation Institute. “It’s a feather in our cap, and we’re definitely up to it.”

The Connect Ability Challenge was launched in April to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark federal law passed with bipartisan support. Developers in the competition will create software, wearable devices, and other technology solutions to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.

A daylong workshop, or “Developer Day,” will be held Saturday at UW-Stout to give students, faculty, and others outside the campus a chance to learn more about the competition, and to test their ideas. The deadline to enter the contest is still about six weeks out – 4 p.m., June 24 – but the UW-Stout workshop will give developers a head start. Teams will be formed, and participants will hear from people with disabilities and strategize around possible solutions.

Why UW-Stout? The campus offers a unique combination of gamers, software developers, and other techies, along with a certified program designed to help people with disabilities.

“I’m very impressed with the students we have here at Stout,” said Schwartz, who has been a part of the campus for nearly 25 years. “They are hands-on, minds-on doers. They’re not theoretical kids. You give them a problem statement and they’re going to hit it hard.”

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The challenge asks for ideas in four functional categories, and one category addressing public policy touching people with disabilities. The four functional categories are people with sensory disabilities, people in need of mobility solutions, social and emotional solutions, and solutions for people with communicative and cognitive disabilities.

Schwartz expects many solutions to revolve around use of “smart” mobile phones, mainly because they’re nearly ubiquitous and can be used by disabled people without calling much attention to themselves.

“In you are disabled in some way, you don’t stand out like a sore thumb because you’ve got a goofy looking medical device. You have a smartphone like everyone else,” Schwartz said.

Smartphones have been technically refined through years of use, he added, and they provide an instantly scalable platform for software applications written with specific tasks in mind.

The UW-Stout event will serve as a testing ground for ideas, with teams and individuals pitching their concepts after they learn more about the range of problems faced by people with disabilities. Developers will then spend time working on their software and likely return to UW-Stout for another session before formally entering the contest at http://connectability.challengepost.com/.

There are $800 in local prizes as well as a total of $100,000 in national prizes offered by AT&T, whose technicians will be able to help developers along the way. Challenge competitors can come from just about anywhere, including outside the United States, so long as entries fit within published rules.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has opened myriad opportunities for disabled people, from physical access changes most people now take for granted, to education, and employment. It has provided independence, dignity, and choice for 54 million Americans. Technology can help push the accomplishments of the ADA to new levels.

“The technology is out there,” Schwartz said. “People just have to put the parts together.”

The workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 16, in the Cedarwood and Maplewood rooms of the UW-Stout Memorial Student Center. It is open to all comers. Learn more at http://wisconsin.att.com/rsvp/.

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