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SLU team developing software for blind learners gets $5 million federal grant

St. Louis University professor Jenna Gorlewicz is leading a team developing software that will make visual materials most accessible to people with blindness and low vision. The researchers include educators, private companies and others.
St. Louis University
St. Louis University professor Jenna Gorlewicz is leading a team developing software that will make visual materials more accessible to people with blindness and low vision.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $5 million grant to a team led by St. Louis University researchers developing software for people who are blind or visually impaired.

The Inclusio software is meant to translate visual content — like a bar chart or an illustration in a geometry textbook — into formats that more readers can understand.

“It’s not just a visual display,” said SLU professor Jenna Gorlewicz, associate dean of research and innovation for the School of Science and Engineering. “It has vibrations, sound, text to speech, all embedded within it. So the features come to life through all of your senses. If I’m blind I can feel it, if I print it out on an embosser. If it’s on my mobile phone, I can feel the bars in a bar chart. And I can hear it.”

Researchers are designing the software to work with users’ existing devices, such as a mobile phone or tablet. It will be a platform that converts existing content into forms that are legible for people who are blind or have low vision, and it will contain a library of content that can be customized for an individual’s use.

The team is one of six nationwide chosen for the second phase of the federal science agency’s NSF Convergence Accelerator, which aims to bring together researchers in related fields to solve problems facing people living with disabilities.

Gorlewicz leads a team that includes representatives from American Printing House for the Blind, Washington State School for the Blind and UNAR Labs. Consultants include people living with blindness or low vision.

Existing materials for blind students can be extremely expensive. A custom order for a math textbook rendered in Braille can cost a school system tens of thousands of dollars, said Kevin Hollinger, a longtime educator in the Francis Howell School District who works with blind students and is working with the SLU research team.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, tools for distance learning have grown more popular. Digital learning tools can make information more accessible to people living with disabilities, but only if they’re designed to do so, Hollinger said.

“Everyone was thrown into a situation of, ‘Wow, we’ve got to get electronic resources and content available right away,’ but they didn’t think forward enough to figure out how the accessibility piece moves forward,” Hollinger said. “It’s really hard to figure out how to get kids graphics, how to get them tactile material that is meaningful, that they can interpret with their fingers.”

Funds from the National Science Foundation grant will be paid out over three years. Inclusio researchers said they aim to start releasing the software after two years.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.