A Visionary Idea

Saint Louis University scientist Jenna Gorlewicz’s team is building Inclusio, a groundbreaking digital tool to translate graphic information into accessible formats for people with blindness or low vision.

Work

Story By Ginger O’Donnell
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

Educator and engineer Jenna Gorlewicz was studying medical robotics at Vanderbilt University when she met a sixth grader who would change the course of her career. Kira, a student in a school where Gorlewicz was volunteering at the time, looked up at her and said, “You’re an engineer? That’s so cool!” Then Kira said, “I’ll never be one,” citing her blindness as a key barrier.

Struck and disheartened by Kira’s self-reflection at such a young age, Gorlewicz proceeded to learn more about the barriers that individuals with blindness and low vision face. She would come to learn that poor accessibility standards historically have affected these students, particularly in the STEM fields, where textbooks often contain dense graphical information and diagrams. This content has neither been effectively nor efficiently translated for this group of learners.

Moreover, these inequities remain pronounced as students enter adulthood, and they have stark implications for their quality of life. As of 2023, roughly 45% of blind and low-vision people of working age participate in the labor force, as compared to 75% of the non-visually impaired, non-blind population. Nonetheless, Gorlewicz had been galvanized to do something about the situation. She refocused her dissertation on accessible graphics — e.g., charts, diagrams, maps, and graphic organizers — just as touchscreens hit the market.

Jenna Gorlewicz, associate dean of research and innovation at Saint Louis University.

Fast forward a few decades: Gorlewicz is now the associate dean of research and innovation at Saint Louis University (SLU), where she also serves as an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering. In addition, she is the founder and leader of ViTAL, an educational technology startup. This January, she and a team of long-standing partners in the blind and low-vision community received a highly competitive $5 million Convergence Accelerator Phase 2 award from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to further develop a groundbreaking technology called Inclusio. It seeks to address the concern expressed by Kira so many years prior by providing easy and equitable access to visual information, regardless of vision level or disability status. 

“The longer I work in this space, the more and more I hear stories like Kira’s in different forms for different people,” Gorlewicz says. “These stories are really what drive the Inclusio project.”

Inclusio is part of the NSF Convergence Accelerator’s Track H: Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, which awarded 16 early-stage teams in December 2022 and advanced six teams to Phase 2 in December 2023 to continue development of prototyping and sustainability planning. In total, NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program is investing $41.8 million in use-inspired research to enhance quality of life and provide greater opportunities for gainful employment for persons with disabilities.

Seyoon Choi, a product design and evaluation specialist for Inclusio who is slated to graduate from SLU in May 2024 with a master’s degree in social work, demonstrates the tech on a tablet.

Inclusio is a suite of digital tools with three main components: a searchable content repository; automated, AI-powered tools for retrofitting visual information into accessible formats; and accessible authoring tools to build such inclusive content from scratch, being developed by UNAR Labs, ViTAL, and ViewPlus. As a software solution, it is designed to break down silos in what currently is a highly fragmented accessibility landscape. It will do this by serving a variety of end users, including publishers, teachers, and individuals with blindness and low vision. And it will operate on users’ existing devices, allowing them to choose their preferred format by generating content alternately reliant on sound, touch, sight, or a combination thereof. 

“Imagine a bar chart on your touchscreen. If you move your fingers around on the chart, you can feel vibrations and hear text labels,” says Gorlewicz, whose CHROME (Collaborative Haptics, Robotics, and Mechatronics) Lab at SLU specializes in haptic, or touch, technologies. “It maps your fingers’ exploration of the information and conveys it through vibration and sound, in addition to a visual display.”

This ability to display information in multiple formats — and to do so on demand, based on user preference — is known as interoperability. Inclusio is pioneering interoperability in accessibility, with the potential to transform how people engage with information. The same user might prefer braille in certain situations, touch technology in others, and spoken description in yet others, according to Seyoon Choi, a product design and evaluation specialist for Inclusio who is slated to graduate from SLU in May 2024 with a master’s degree in social work, and who is blind. “I’m a graduate student still, so I’ve been through the thick and thin of it,” he says. “The biggest obstacle is being able to access visual information when you need it, in a format which you prefer.”

Kevin Hollinger, an Inclusio consultant and 25-year veteran teacher of blind and low-vision individuals in the Francis Howell School District.

Indeed, centralizing and improving access to graphic information represents a huge leap forward for the blind and limited vision community. At present, it often takes half a year or more to create accessible formats of textbooks, as well as highly trained specialists and expensive equipment costing thousands of dollars.

Kevin Hollinger knows this problem all too well. An Inclusio consultant and 25-year veteran teacher of blind and low-vision individuals in the Francis Howell School District, Hollinger seeks to achieve access that meets three criteria: robust, timely, and equitable. “School districts should not have to suffer a financial windfall because materials are inaccessible,” he says. “Inclusio is going to help bridge that gap.”

Dan Gardner, CEO of the tactile graphic manufacturer ViewPlus, shares Hollinger’s enthusiasm. Gardner’s father, a former physics professor at Oregon State University, founded ViewPlus roughly 25 years ago after an eye operation left him blind, and he invented new tactile technology to continue his research. Gardner sees the Inclusio project, for which he serves as co-principal investigator, as a “once-in-a-lifetime tech move opportunity.” As he seeks to carry his father’s company into the future and expand its reach across the world, St. Louis-based Inclusio is central to his strategic vision. “We’re global,” he says of ViewPlus. “We see this struggle all over the world. This is something that goes everywhere.”  

Seyoon Choi and Jenna Gorlewicz of Inclusio working in a lab on the SLU campus.

Steve Noble, a nationally recognized researcher with a focus in mathematics accessibility and assistive technology, describes Inclusio as a forward-looking concept for blind and low-vision students. Noble is working with Inclusio through its partnership with Pearson, an educational publishing and services company, where Noble is the principal researcher in accessibility, psychometrics, and testing services. Much of Noble’s work over the course of his career has been in producing accessible textbooks for blind and low-vision individuals.

“The huge delay in accessible materials that many blind or low-vision students face blocks a lot of students from progressing in the STEM fields,” Noble says. “The Inclusio platform is really looking at solving these problems throughout the education spectrum.” 

The involvement of Choi, Hollinger, Gardner, Noble, and roughly a dozen other partners nationwide from across education, the publishing industry, and the blind and low-vision community demonstrates Inclusio’s roots in human-centered, user-inspired design. The platform is being developed via a highly iterative process — a sort of ongoing feedback loop from disparate end users. 

“Inclusion really starts from the ground up,” Choi says. “What excites me the most about Inclusio is the utmost potential created through such an extensive design, development, and testing phase. We (users who are blind or have low vision) are fully included in the process.”

And yet, this deeper level of collaboration begs the question: After so many years, why are the different constituencies of the accessibility community finally coming together in this groundbreaking way? Gorlewicz and her project partners all credit forward-thinking federal funding. 

Enter Pradeep Fulay, a program director at the NSF, who advocated for a Convergence Accelerator track focused on enhancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He helped lead the NSF’s efforts to gather feedback from the research community about enhancing opportunities for such individuals. In April 2022, with his direction, the NSF released a funding opportunity for just that purpose.

Like Gorlewicz, Fulay is an established, highly successful scientist as well as someone with a personal connection to the experience of disability, as his mother acquired hearing loss and he witnessed the ripple effects on others. For Fulay, too, science is a deeply social enterprise. This grant, he says, is unique among the roughly 11,000 grants that the NSF awards each year due to its emphasis on innovation through partnership and real-world impact through concrete deliverables.

Seyoon Choi and his guide dog Kaplan pose on the SLU campus.

“‘Convergence’ means we want to bring in different domains of knowledge, technical expertise, and lived experiences,” he says. “And ‘accelerator’ is about having a vision and sustainability plan to take this research further along, beyond the three years of NSF funding.”

Toward this end, the NSF offers Gorlewicz and her team an entrepreneurship curriculum and coaching services to help effectively bring Inclusio to market. Following three years of rigorous user testing, they plan to initiate a soft launch within a pilot group of partners and gradually expand Inclusio’s reach across the nation and world. 

But the work is so much bigger than a new technical tool, Gorlewicz says, noting that the deeper partnerships already feel like a groundbreaking achievement. And, significantly, it is one in which the St. Louis region is taking the lead, drawing on the expertise of SLU engineers, veteran metro area teacher-leaders like Hollinger, and engaged advocates from within the St. Louis blind and low-vision community, like Choi.

“Collectively, our work is just beginning,” Gorlewicz explains. “But it is a culmination of decades of work in this space, and the realization that if we’re going to do what we’re all passionate about, it’s got to be bigger than what we’re each doing as individual entities. Inclusio is about reshaping the entire access ecosystem. We are designing a future where information can be seamlessly created for all individuals, including young people like Kira, and thereby reimagining how we think about accessibility from the beginning.”

Jenna Gorlewicz, Kevin Hollinger, and Seyoon Choi of Inclusio.

Join the Story

  • Watch Inclusio’s marketing video to learn more about the groundbreaking technology.
  • Connect with Jenna Gorlewicz on LinkedIn.
  • Explore more stories about inspiring St. Louis entrepreneurs who are contributing to the growth and success of the area’s startup community.