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Saint Louis University and Partners awarded $5 Million from NSF’s Convergence Accelerator Program


ST. LOUIS – The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that a team led by Saint Louis University will receive a $5 million award as one of 6 teams chosen to advance to Phase 2 of the Convergence Accelerator Program, Track H: Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. 

Jenna Gorlewicz, Ph.D.

Jenna Gorlewicz, Ph.D. SLU File Photo.

Launched in 2019, the NSF Convergence Accelerator is centered around a vision to accelerate solutions toward societal impact. A group of innovators, led by Jenna Gorlewicz, Ph.D., Associate Professor in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and Associate Dean of Research and Innovation in the School of Science and Engineering at Saint Louis University, are working on a solution to make information accessible and inclusive to all individuals, particularly those with blindness or low vision. This collaborative team from academia, industry, start-ups, and non-profits is developing a new technology (termed Inclusio) that enables anyone to find and create accessible content. 

Through integrated partnerships, the team will scale up Inclusio, which can take in multiple types of data and output it to mainstream platforms (e.g. mobile and web apps) and assistive platforms (e.g. tactile embossers). This innovation enables individuals to see, hear, or feel content anywhere, anytime. It also enables teachers and content providers to rapidly generate accessible content that works across widely adopted platforms.

“Inclusio fills two critical gaps in making highly visual information accessible. One is promoting stronger learning and professional outcomes, particularly in STEM disciplines. But equally important is ensuring the inclusion of diverse learners and professionals,” Gorlewicz said. 

Gorlewicz explains that lack of access to information, particularly graphics, has been a long-standing challenge which underscores growing disparities in educational attainment, full-time employment, and independent living for individuals with blindness or low vision. Bridging these gaps is the overarching theme of Inclusio and what brought the team together.

The initiative is built around strong collaborations, and in particular, the lived experiences of those with blindness or low vision. 

“A key advantage of Inclusio is the human-centered, iterative design and development approach, where rapid user testing and inclusion of the community drive the blueprint of the innovation,” said Gregory Triplett, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Science and Engineering. 

Collaborators include partners at Vital, UNAR Labs, ViewPlus Technologies, Northeastern University, Pearson, American Printing House for the Blind, DAISY Consortium, Desmos, Highcharts, Benetech, San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Foundation for Blind Children, Francis Howell School District, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Washington State School for the Blind, and Alabama School for the Blind; and consultants with expertise in human-computer interaction, lived experience with blindness and low vision, and STEM education and assessment of students with visual impairments. 

When thinking about the long-term goals of this convergent work, Gorlewicz said, “Inclusio is pioneering a new era of accessibility by building a cohesive framework for multisensory content and information access. We’re not just solving today's challenges; we’re architecting a future where all content seamlessly adapts to individual needs.”

About the NSF Convergence Accelerator Program, 2022 Cohort, Track H: Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities 

The U.S. National Science Foundation is building upon research and discovery to accelerate use-inspired research into practice. The Convergence Accelerator program, an NSF capability designed to address national-scale societal challenges, selected 16 research teams for its 2022 cohort, Track H Phase 1—focusing on an important research area - Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. 

In December 2023, NSF selected six projects for Phase 2, awarding $30 million across the convergent research teams or up to $5 million in funding per team to continue developing solution prototypes and to build a sustainability model to continue impact beyond NSF support. By the end of the 24-month Phase 2 effort, teams are expected to provide high- impact solutions that address societal needs at scale. 

"A convergence approach between researchers, innovators, and persons with disabilities spanning organizations and communities across multiple sectors is crucial to ensure these NSF-funded solutions address barriers to employment, freedom of movement, and quality of life for persons with disabilities," said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. "The selected Phase 2 teams are fostering strong partnerships to ensure their use-inspired solutions assist a wide range of people. At the end of Phase 2, NSF expects these teams to provide high-impact deliverables that will be sustained beyond NSF support."  

About Saint Louis University 

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers more than 15,200 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.