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MIT Hackathon Tackles Accessibility Challenges

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently hosted its annual Assistive Technology Hackathon (ATHack), an event that brings together people with disabilities and students from the graduate to Ph.D. level to work on prototypes for assistive tools.

During this year's multidisciplinary event, teams built "an accessible beanbag-toss game, a personalized blood pressure cuff, a portable and collapsible shower chair, battery and structural optimizations for power soccer league wheelchairs and more," according to information released by MIT.

The event is modeled on an assistive technologies class that pairs student teams with a community member who has a disability in an effort to develop tools to overcome an accessibility issue. ATHack works much the same way, with 70 students and 13 co-designers from the community forming 16 teams that competed for awards in codesigner collaboration, engineering design and functionality.

Usually, hackathons will stock up on general materials, then participants will claim them from a stock room on a first come, first served basis. When supplies run out, teams must make do with the newly limited options. ATHack is different in that teams have two weeks of planning prior to the event itself and submit a list of required materials to ensure they have what they need. The unusual arrangement allows teams to spend their time at the 12-hour event building their tools and troubleshooting them.

"Our goal [for ATHack] is to inspire everyone there to think about accessibility and to pursue projects in this space in the future," said Jaya Narain, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who co-founded and co-organized the event, in a prepared statement.

"Hopefully, [ATHack] inspires people to look for projects that are closer to home, as opposed to looking for that next big thing to solve," said Ishwarya Ananthabhotla, another co-founder and co-organizer of the event and a graduate student in MIT's Media Lab, according to a news release. "There are interesting problems right around you."

One of the community members and codesigners participating this year is Juan Ramirez, a power soccer player on a team competing in a national tournament in June. In power soccer, players in powered wheelchairs spin to kick the ball with a cage on the front of their chairs, which means the strength of their kick is limited by how fast their chairs can spin.

To help the chairs spin faster, the Ramirez and his team outfitted them with ultracapacitors that release energy in a burst during a spin, then recharge slowly. The team also came up with a scheme to help teammates communicate more clearly for in-game strategizing using buttons and colored lights.

"Being able to have something with a physical structure with big buttons helps with communications," said Ramirez in a news release. "I'm very excited about these solutions that [the students] have brought up .... They are taking this very seriously, and I'm so surprised by the outcome."

"I had never done a hackathon before ... and I wanted to do this one because I think it's different from other big hackathons," said Jeba Sania, an MIT undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a member of Ramirez's team, in a prepared statement. "We work with problems that have direct solutions immediately .... I've always wanted to get into tech that has a direct social impact."

Ramirez and Sania's team took second place in codesigner collaboration and Sania said he plans to explore assistive technology further through the class ATHack is based on.

ATHack also maintains a database of projects, even those that didn't work, in the hopes that other might learn from their successes and mistakes.

"Even though our project might not be successful, we have documentation on what we tried and thought of, and someone else can go through it and learn from what we did," said Thanh Nguyen, an MIT undergraduate in mechanical engineering, according to MIT. "Even if we don't have a successful project, someone else will learn from what we did."

For more information about ATHack, visit

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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