SourceAmerica Design Challenge Logo

By Theresa O'Neill

This year, more than 60 college teams participated in SourceAmerica's College Design Challenge. Created in 2001 to recognize technological workplace advancements for people with disabilities, the Design Challenge has now expanded to include competitions for both high school and college students. Its increasing popularity has helped raise the profile of the cause, while also serving as a valuable resource to our nonprofit agencies.

At the start of the Design Challenge, each team selects a coach and a local nonprofit agency with a real-world workplace barrier for their employees with disabilities. During two semesters, the students partner with nonprofit management and the employees with disabilities to develop a process, device, system, or software that overcomes the workplace barrier. Submission requirements include an in-person presentation, a technical paper, and submission video. This hands-on service learning opportunity enhances the students' engineering, communication, writing, math, presentation, and social skills.

"Students gain a different perspective working directly with people with disabilities," said SourceAmerica's Kevin Ryan, who serves as a mentor for the Design Challenge. "Our hope is that as they go through their careers and encounter a person with a disability, they will be more open to giving them an opportunity."

California State University at Los Angeles students and their coach stand in front of their first place-awarded project at the College Design Challenge.
This year, the top three teams were invited to present their projects to a panel of judges and the public during SourceAmerica's Grassroots Advocacy Conference in Washington, DC. First place was awarded to California State University, Los Angeles; second place to Ohio University; and third place to United States Military Academy at West Point.

MVLE's Tixoc Loza, who helped judge this year's competition, said: "There's not a lot of support in the nonprofit sector like this. These students work really hard. They've managed to devise a solution that keeps costs down and improves efficiencies, all the while thinking of the person with a disability."

Ohio University has been participating in the Design Challenge since 2007. Team coach Gregory Kremer, Mechanical Engineering Department Robe Professor and Chair, said: "The Design Challenge is a popular option for our Senior Capstone Project. In our college town [Athens, OH], we have a Community Demonstration Day, where students' present their Design Challenge projects, among others, to show how they're making a difference."

At the close of the competition, the students were emphatic about how much they'd enjoyed the project and the unique experiences afforded to them.

"One of our key takeaways from the Design Challenge is that workers with disabilities should be considered capable," said United States Military Academy at West Point team member Luke Martin. "We can only hope the workers at Access: Solutions for Living [formerly Occupations, Inc.] learned as much from us as we did from them."

Interested in becoming a CRP partner to Design Challenge teams? The benefits to you, the educational institution, student participants, and your community are far-reaching. Access free, custom, assistive technology while giving students a real-world experience that helps to break down barriers to work for people with disabilities. Contact Charissa Garcia, Design Challenge Coordinator, The Institute for Economic Empowerment, SourceAmerica via email at or (703) 584-3940.