Technology, Accessibility, and Design

Technology, Accessibility, and Design (TAD) is a course at Olin College of Engineering. It was developed by Caitrin Lynch and Paul Ruvolo.

The course equips students with an interdisciplinary set of tools to design, build, and critique technologies that mediate access to physical and digital worlds. We use disability, specifically blindness and low-vision, as a lens to examine the ways in which technology (e.g., assistive, medical, consumer) can both enhance and diminish access to economic, social, and informational resources. Students will examine the history of such technologies and analyze modern trends. Building from this perspective, students will learn about design processes and implementation strategies for maximizing the accessibility of the technologies they build.

During the course, student teams will work with a community partner to design a technology to enhance accessibility (along some dimension) for a user group with some form of visual disability. Students will learn and employ user-centered approaches throughout the course. If you are interested in collaborating with us on this course, please see our information for potential collaborators page.

Information for Potential Collaborators

This document contains information for collaborators interested in working with students in the course “Technology, Accessibility, and Design” at Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Massachusetts. This first version of the course was taught by two Olin College professors: Dr. Paul Ruvolo, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and Dr. Caitrin Lynch, Professor of Anthropology. The second version of the course will be offered in spring 2019 and taught by Paul Ruvolo.

Do you have a project?

We’re looking for people over age 18 who are blind or have low vision, or who work with people (including minors) who are blind or have low vision. We are looking for people who would like to work with a team of engineering students to create a system, service, or product to improve some aspect of the lives of people with visual disabilities.

Starting in late February 2018, students in the class will begin collaborating with community partners. You might be interested in working with us if:

  • You live or work in the Boston area.
  • You have a real-world opportunity you’d like to work on with a small group of students.
  • You have an idea for a project but do not have the time, resources, and/or skills to do it yourself.
  • You are willing to interact with the team in person at least a few times late Febrary and early May 2019, to help students, supply details about your idea, and provide feedback and suggestions.

What kind of work can the students do?

Students in this class are engineering undergraduates in their 3rd and 4th years. They will work in teams of 3-4 students. They have a multidisciplinary set of skills in design, engineering, and the arts, humanities, and social sciences. They will be learning a practical set of tools to turn design ideas into real-world systems, services, and products.

Projects that would be a good match for this class might include:

  • Assistive technology related to activities of daily living such as transportation, shopping, entertainment, and sports.
  • Creation of social awareness or community systems to support people with visual disabilities.
  • Low-tech accessibility tools for daily use.
  • Systems, services, or products to support access to education and employment resources.
  • Support tools for parents, caregivers, or teachers of people with visual disabilities.


December 2018: If you are interested in working with a student team, please send me (Paul Ruvolo) an email ( and we can discuss your ideas. Or call the number 650-279-8868 to speak with me (Paul directly. Even if you only have a general sense of a potential project, I can work with you to develop your idea for the course. Assuming that there is a good fit, I will then work with you to craft a project description.

February 2019: Students will choose projects and assemble teams, and I'll put your team in touch with you.

Late February 2019 through early May 2019: Students may visit you either at your home or work depending on the nature of your project.

May 2018: At the end of the semester, students will give you a final report on their project. We hope they will also be able to provide a working version of the system, service, or product. There will also be a final celebration of the our collective work that I'd like you to attend.

Frequently asked questions

What sorts of projects have been done in the past?

The students worked on seven different projects during the 2018 course:

  • A customized web accessibility checker for preliminary accessibility auditing.
  • An accessible and customizable spinner game.
  • An website for cooks who are visually impaired or blind that features accessible recipes and cooking tips.
  • A rigid tether to improve communication between trail runners who are blind and their sighted guides.
  • A white paper on ways to improve way finding for residents at a treatment center for neurodegenerative diseases.
  • A set of tactile stickers for kitchen and exercise equipment to improve accessibility of these devices to people who are blind or visually impaired.
  • A light-up attachment for a mobility cane to improve orientation and mobility training for students with cortical visual impairment.

Can the students work with confidential data?

Yes. One of the goals of the class is to give students experience dealing with real-world issues like confidentiality. We will discuss the ethics of human-centered design, including privacy and confidentiality, and students will learn methods and tools for protecting confidentiality.

If your project requires students to sign an NDA, we can discuss that option.

Who owns any intellectual property created by the project?

The students do. At the end of most projects, the students make their project available to the collaborator without an explicit contract.

Another option is that the students can make their work available under an open source license.

Can college students produce high-quality work?

Our students are very talented, however, since this work will be done in the context of an educational experience, it is difficult for us to promise a certain quality of output. The professors have many experiences of students producing projects of very high value for external collaborators.

What sorts of projects are not appropriate for this class?

Projects that are so concretely defined to exclude substantial creativity in the design process, or projects that are mission-critical to you or your business are not appropriate for this course.

A little about Olin

Olin College of Engineering is an undergraduate college with the mission to prepare students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world. Olin is dedicated to continual discovery and development of effective learning approaches and environments, and to co-developing educational transformation with collaborators around the globe. Our professors are passionate about teaching, and our students who are engaged and excited about learning.

Our curriculum is hands-on and includes many projects where students engage with real-world problems, working with external collaborators.

Olin is in Needham, MA, about 10 miles from Boston.