By Tom Still

MADISON – 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 the

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-percent 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 day-long 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, 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.”

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 smart
phone like everyone else,” Schwartz said.

Smart phones 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

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 to 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 in
the Cedarwood and Maplewood rooms of the UW-Stout Memorial Student Center and
is open to all comers. Learn more at