Makeathon Develops Prototypes for People with Disabilities

With Cornell Tech, the Future Reaches Into Roosevelt Island's Past

Updated 32 weeks ago David Stone
Cornell has hosted hackathons in New York City, like this one at Google in 2016.
Cornell has hosted hackathons in New York City, like this one at Google in 2016.
Photo Credit: Jesse Winter

Roosevelt Island's barrier free design and commitment to making a place for everyone, regardless of income, physical condition or ethnicity, made me proud to rent here when I first arrived. Sadly, values that promoted those things have eroded here. Cornell Tech is working to enable their recovery, on Roosevelt Island and beyond.

My dad was physically disabled, and my first career, which brought me to New York and Roosevelt Island, focused solely on improving the lives of adults whose conditions made finding work difficult to impossible. Work contributes much to defining us within our communities.

Building a career and raising a family in a time that never knew the term "barrier free" or thought twice about curb cuts and handicapped parking, my father suffered silently. In his sixty-six years, I never heard him complain once about his limitations. Those days, you'd get only sympathy, not ordinary respect. Handicapped meant weak, and my dad never settled for weak.

TOM's Mission

“TOM makeathons are a platform designed to make our entire society more inclusive,"  Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of Reut Group, which created TOM, told the Cornell Chronicle. TOM is the Reut Group’s Tikkun Olam Makers. 

Cornell TechEntrepreneurship at Cornell and the Cornell ILR School’s K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability are partners in TOM. On April 21st thru the 23rd, over 180 people will work "to develop affordable assistive technology for people with disabilities" in collaborative teams.

"The goal is to develop hardware and software prototypes that improve inclusiveness for people with disabilities, filling a need where there has been no market or government interest. Designs will be published online for public use," according to a Cornell media advisory.

Among other things, "students will work on the development of a device that will allow users of non-motorized wheelchairs to access their personal bag or storage, an idea proposed by a resident of Roosevelt Island, where Cornell Tech will open this September."

Roosevelt Island Irony

The media advisory arrived in my email on the day I finished an article about Roosevelt Island residents making their way through life in wheelchairs, learning to express themselves through spoken word poetry (think hip hop without music) and planning to perform, coincidentally, on the very day the TOM Makeathon begins.

When I talked with three of the emerging poets on Tuesday afternoon, Roosevelt Island's current failures at inclusiveness framed mutual concerns.

"I haven't been able to even shame the Residents Association into recognizing that you guys exist. They have a Common Council that doesn't give you a single seat, even though their President lives right there," I told them, pointing at The Octagon.

Coler Hospital houses over 800 people, the longevity of their residency averaging longer than most complexes on the rest of the Island.

"Do you feel invisible in the community?"

Uniform nods of agreement.

"One of them tossed a quarter in my lap," Vincent says.

Tito, whose disability causes his left hand to form an upward turned palm, adds, "Somebody put a dime there.

"Everybody in a wheelchair isn't a beggar," he adds with a scowl.

Rony talks about how much he likes Roosevelt Island and hopes to stay, but he doesn't know anyone who will help him find a place in one of our buildings. Recently, he was surprised to find, when a friend moved, that 546 Main Street is built barrier free. Rony has lived here since 1992.

How Cornell Tech Can Help

Even before the makeathon was planned, Cornell Tech included adaptive technologies among its areas of focus.

The media advisory tells us, Students from Cornell Tech will participate in the makeathon. Many worked with TOM this winter in Israel at a similar event hosted by the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, Cornell’s academic partner institution at Cornell Tech.

Tito, Rony, Vincent and their friends at Coler win if Cornell is able to develop, not just technologies to help normalize their daily lives, but also a greater awareness that disabilities are external to the heart and soul of being human. They can be overcome.

“TOM makeathons are a platform designed to make our entire society more inclusive. It allows the most talented top professionals to contribute the best of their skills toward alleviating the difficulties faced by society's most challenged,” Grinstein told the Chronicle.

Now that Cornell Tech is all in with doing its part, as a community, we need to get to work on that invisibility thing. Are the rest of us equally up to the challenge?

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