award winners and Cherie GagnonAccessibility manager Cherie Gagnon (right) congratulates winners in the Innovative Designs for enhancing Accessibility (IDeA) student competition.

Ideas to enhance accessibility earn recognition for students

Positive change can start with a simple idea.

Students took their ideas to solve accessibility-related barriers and competed in the 2023 Innovative Designs for enhancing Accessibility (IDeA) student competition, in February. The winners were formally awarded at UWindsor’s Accessibility Awareness Day Events on March 28.

First prize went to Masters of Applied Computing (MAC) students Medha Muppala and Kiran Prasad Puthan for their idea called, AccessEase which describes an artificial intelligence (AI) assisted document accessibility software.

“The software would use natural language processing and machine learning algorithms to automatically scan and analyze documents for accessibility issues, such as poor colour contrast or font size, and then make the necessary adjustments to improve the document’s accessibility for users with disabilities,” says Puthan.

The software would boast a read-aloud feature that uses text-to-speech technology to read documents aloud for users with visual impairments. A document summarization feature that uses natural language processing would summarize long documents into shorter versions for users with reading or learning disabilities.

“By using AI-assisted document accessibility software, the University of Windsor can ensure that all students, employees, and visitors with disabilities have access to information and communications that are formatted in a way that is easier for them to read, understand, and engage with, which would be a significant step towards making University of Windsor the most accessible university in just a few years,” says Muppala.

Second place went to a UWindsor research team with plans to make Google, Bing, and other search engines more accessible. Print Accessible Web Search was presented by Farinam Hemmatizadeh, master’s student with the School of Computer Science in Hossein Fani’s Lab. Hemmatizadeh is working on this idea with her supervisor Dr. Fani, a computer science professor.

“A huge proportion of our society are experiencing a form of disability or will experience it at some point in the future through aging,” says Hemmatizadeh.

“It is really important that search engines like Google make whatever they provide for people, accessible.”

Hemmatizadeh says a search engine will not recognize someone who is experiencing difficulty.

“It is important that all the ways that are helping making search engines better, are actually useful for all, we should provide information that is relevant whether you are experiencing disabilities or not.”

She says there are better ways to accommodate people with dyslexia, short-term memory loss or low vision. For example, Hemmatizadeh points out the feature that when someone starts typing in a question to a search engine, options pop up for the type of question they may want to ask. This is not helpful for someone with limited vision.

“The options are not readable for people who are using screen reading software, so they cannot read these examples correctly,” she says.

“We are working on different formats, different ways that will help that intersection, that universality that is helpful for all the people.”

The fourth place idea, called Shelter Everywhere, was presented by Dhwani Krunal Patel, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

IDeA is inspired by the goal of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) to make Ontario the most accessible province by 2025. The annual student competition is put on by the Office of Human Rights, Equity, and Accessibility (OHREA).

—Sara Elliott