Students at Catlin Gabel created an app to help people with cognitive disabilities stay on track at work.

By Kerry McGinley

 When Jon Hamilton first clicked through an app crafted by students from Catlin Gabel, his eyes lit up. With colorful pictures depicting his responsibilities, audio explanations and clear instructions from the app, Hamilton, who has cognitive disabilities, could better stay on track as he worked in the school’s Media Arts department managing equipment and other tasks.

 That’s when the young women from the Portland, Oregon, high school Community Engineering program knew they were on the right track. The team developed the JonApp to earn a spot in the finals for the SourceAmerica Design Challenge for their first submission to the annual contest to improve the workplace for people with disabilities.  

“The best part of this experience for me for sure has been seeing how excited he is and how excited his parents are and hearing how much it’s helping him, the potential it has to help him,” said Natalie Dodson, a junior on the all-female team. “Also hearing from people in my daily life how much they think it can help them as well.”

The Design Challenge pairs college and high school engineering teams with nonprofits employing people with disabilities to develop products, technology or systems to make work safer, more enjoyable and more productive for people with disabilities. Students typically find a nonprofit in their community to work with. The Catlin Gabel team reached out to On the Move, a Portland nonprofit supporting people with disabilities in accessing competitive jobs in the community and creating social connections through community-based programs. That’s when the students learned they could partner with someone working at their own school.

“We first met with the executive director and employment manger to find out what kind of problems they face,” said Layton Rosenfeld, junior. “It kept coming up that a lot of people had an issue organizing their tasks. They were particularly concerned that they were able to do the task really well, but had a hard time transitioning between tasks so they required a job coach.”

The team drew from software design skills they learned in the school’s four-year computer science sequence and as members of the robotics team to create an app that could offer some of the same assistance a job coach could. They shared each iteration of their app with Hamilton to get his feedback. They added features such as checking for quality of the task completed, creating a checklist so Hamilton could log his progress and more.

Because Hamilton has trouble reading, text-heavy apps are difficult for him, said Dale Yocum, who coaches the team and teaches in the school’s engineering program director. Hamilton’s supervisor loads the apps with tasks for the day. Pictures and voice prompts alert Hamilton to what he needs to do next. He also checks off tasks as he completes them.

“The idea of the app is to be a very simple task tracker and project tracker for people with cognitive disabilities,” Yocum said. “There’s all kinds of applications on the market right now that are designed to do that, but they can be really quite confusing and daunting from a features standpoint.”

The team hopes to expand the app to a web-based tool that can support others with similar issues staying on task, Rosenfeld and Dodson said. If they win the contest, they’d like to use prize money to purchase tablets to support additional employees with disabilities, they said.

“The best part I think was first seeing Jon use the app and his ease of clicking through the buttons and his excitement in completing the first part,” Rosenfeld said. “Another really exciting moment for me was continuing conversations with On-the-Move and realizing how many other people could use this in the workplace and so many other places in their life.”

It’s a connection that brings benefits well beyond the parameters of the Design Challenge, said On-the-Move Executive Director Leah Gagliano.

“For us, this challenge embodies our mission so wonderfully: enriching the social fabric of our community through the fuller participation of adults with developmental disabilities,” Gagliano said. “We are truly grateful for SourceAmerica and the brilliant and compassionate students and staff at the Catlin Gabel School.”

The students are also grateful for their experience.

“It has opened my eyes to this community and some of the struggles they face with employment and just how hard it is to survive in a society that is so unwelcoming,” Dodson said. “A lot of people in this community can’t stand up for themselves as well as others.”

For Rosenfeld, her introduction to the disability community through the Design Challenge made a lasting, positive impression.

“This was my first time working with anyone with a disability,” she said. “I was a little unsure how to approach it. (Design Challenge) helped me humanize it. I definitely learned a lot about how to interact. We’ve developed a friendship.”