The following areas are being addressed as part of the project. The overall goal is to make competitive robotics and related pursuits accessible to blind and visually impaired students.
1. Competition Mats and Similar Smooth Surface Elements
Nearly all robotics programs use mats designed solely for sighted students and instructors. Students with vision deficiencies require verbal instructions and other assistance to navigate the surface.
We are experimenting with modifying several existing technologies to create mats with accessible, tactile surfaces. The focus is on producing subtle surface markers combined with braille symbols that blind or visually impaired students can identify. We want to make robots as easy to use for sight-impaired individuals as for the general population.
Our first prototype mat is was completed the week of Oct 10, 2018 and meet all our criteria. The students at the Maryland School for the Blind evaluated it and made a number of recommendations.
Our second generation mat was tested on Oct 27, 2018. The students were stunned at the access they had to the challenge. A blind NASA engineer was at the meeting as well. The STEM Director at the school said, "The kids were in absolute shock at all of the accessibility and realizing that people like D_ are at NASA. Today was priceless!"
2. Programming Software
Most youth robotics programming environments cannot be used with existing tools for blind or sight-impaired students. Students must rely on sighted staff and coaches to do the programming for them. This of course greatly diminishes the students’ learning process.
We are working closely with Quorum Software, an accessible, self-voicing, environment. Blind or visually impaired students can program the robot with this tool. See more at Quorum Software and Quorum Sample Code and Demos.
We have been granted permission to use the Quorum software in Maryland's 2018-19 FIRST LEGO League program. Teams from surrounding states have expressed interest in competing in Maryland this year.
On Oct 27, 2018, Lila visited with the students and answered questions about Quorum. A number of the students had downloaded her sample code and had closely analyzed it.
3. Rules and Instructions
Most rules are either published on complex websites or PDFs. In both cases, rarely is the underlying information properly formatted for access by screen readers or for adaptation to braille.
We will develop a set of guidelines for making digital documents accessible or for producing braille-printed rules.
We are adapting the rules and documents of the current year's FIRST LEGO League challenge as a development process for our recommendations.
We have prepared a version of our tactile overlay for use in letter size printing on the schools thermal printer.
4. Providing Accessible Competition Areas
Very often the setup of the competition tables or related objects is not accessible to students with disabilities. For example, the height of a FIRST LEGO League table makes it inaccessible to young students and students with physical disabilities.
We are investigating affordable adaptations that would lower the tables for easier access.
5. Overall Space and Event Considerations
Spaces used for robotics competitions can be unsafe or difficult to navigate for blind and visually impaired students.
We will develop a simple set of guidelines that any organization and implement at little or no cost to safely accommodate the participation of these teams. This could be as easy as placing teams with disabled students at the tables closest to the entrance/exit.
6. Social Considerations
It is important to a visually challenged team that their members not be identified as the ”blind team,” but rather compete as equals to the other teams with no special recognition.
We will develop a clear set of guidelines that any organization can implement at little or no cost to enable the participation of these teams in such a way that undue recognition is not given to their differences.