A winning project through EPICS in IEEE’s “Access and Abilities Competition” opens exciting new doors to inclusivity for those with disabilities in Panama 

Renowned 19th century Filipino writer and activist José Rizal once famously said that “the youth is the hope of our future.”  And nowhere is this better exemplified than with the many projects being driven by young people around the world through “EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) in IEEE,” an initiative which provides opportunities for students to work proactively with both engineering professionals, technological innovation, and local organizations/partners to develop solutions that address global community challenges.  

One project that’s truly embodying this spirit is called “Closing the Gap in Engineering Education for People with Disabilities — Panama” and is part of EPICS in IEEE’s “Access and Abilities Competition,” an annual initiative which challenges students worldwide to use their engineering skills to help solve accessibility issues within their communities.

Enhancing Access

Among the 15% of the world’s population living with disabilities (an estimated one billion people!), the nearly 40 university and high school students participating in “Closing the Gap in Engineering Education for People with Disabilities — Panama” identified that some 30% of those disabilities involve reduced mobility and that, within their own country, 87,000 people in Panama suffer from visual impairment.  Given that the local Universidad Tecnologica de Panama (UTP) in the province of Chiriqui doesn’t have automated doors, the students’ project focuses on the Panamanian population with visual and/or physical disabilities and seeks “to provide them with tools that allow them to attend educational institutions that have almost non-existent spaces for inclusion.”

Fueled by a $8,100 EPICS in IEEE grant and officially launched in Spring 2023, the project involves 15 undergraduate students from the Universidad Tecnologica de Panama’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Departments and 24 students from four different high schools in Chiriquí (50% of whom are female).  Among other objectives, the project aims to enhance autonomy, individual development, and quality of life for people with moderate to severe visual impairment and/or physical disabilities, develop auditory information points with low-cost equipment and generate Braille signs using 3D printing for people with visual impairment, design and build a personalized wheelchair for an individual with physical disabilities, and automate university doors within engineering departments to provide greater access to classrooms and corridors for those with physical disabilities.

This photo shows the Braille workshop that helped students learn how to type/read in Braille before creating the signs with the 3D printer.

Promoting Greater Inclusivity

As the year-long project currently progresses through its final months, the participants – all of whom have received instruction in 3D design as well as in reading and writing Braille – confirm that the experience has been transformative and will make a positive difference in the lives of so many with disabilities.

“This project will be very useful, especially in [Panama], as there are usually no adaptations in buildings for people with disabilities,” shared high school junior Gael Villarreal, who hopes to study astronomy in college and confirmed that the project has strengthened his programming skills.

For high school junior Valery Rodríguez, who hopes to study Maritime Engineering in college, the project similarly offered the opportunity to acquire new skill sets.  “I’ve learned something I never thought I would, such as Braille and its application to 3D printing plates,” said Rodriguez, who, like fellow participants, is also learning how to use Arduino, an open-source electronics platform comprised of easy-to-use hardware and software that senses the environment and affects its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators.  “Through the EPICS in IEEE grant process, I learned valuable skills in project management and communication while using technology to benefit a community.”

“This project will impact the community by helping people with disabilities feel more included in the university and receive equal access to education as others,” echoed high school junior Gianny Rodriguez.  Among the many personal and professional lessons taken away from the project, Rodriguez added, “I learned that you need to have new experiences, be sociable, meet and get along with new people, and work as a team to be successful.”

High school junior Ivelin Gonzalez wholeheartedly agreed with her fellow participants.

“In addition to learning the importance of teamwork, this project really strengthened my analytical and problem-solving skills and introduced me to 3D printing and Braille,” Gonzalez said.  “Before this project, I wasn’t really connected to how disabilities can affect people, but by understanding more about how people with disabilities live and communicate, we can facilitate ways for them to be more connected and navigate spaces more easily.”

As the students work with instructors and each other on one of the project’s final deliverables – design and construction of a personalized wheelchair built around the measurements of an individual with disabilities – they’re excited to help contribute to a world that promotes greater inclusivity.

“The people involved in this EPICS in IEEE project have taught me so much and I’m so grateful to be a part of it,” shared high school student Ivelin Gonzalez.  “It’s been a great opportunity to learn and meet new people and the results of this project will help so many others in the end.”

“This project has helped our participants develop a great sensitivity,” confirmed Dr. Victoria Serrano, project lead and full-time faculty at UTP, of the many positive outcomes of the ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative.  “This has been evidenced by a recent survey we conducted in which students said that what they liked the most about the program was that “they could build circuits and create different mechanisms to help other people.”

Based on her first-hand experience, Julissa Arauz, a blind member of the community partner, agrees that this project offers great support and benefit for people with disabilities in the Chiriqui province by providing the guidance in Braille that enables them to travel from one classroom to another.  She hopes that this model can be replicated in other institutions to help blind people navigate through the system more easily and is grateful for the project and the opportunity to have been part of its development as a Braille instructor.

This project is part of the EPICS in IEEE Access and Abilities Competition and the funding for this project was made possible by the Jon C. Taenzer Memorial Fund established by the IEEE Foundation in 2019 with a generous bequest from the Estate of Mr. Taenzer, an IEEE Life Senior Member. For more information on EPICS in IEEE’s “Access and Abilities Competition”, visit https://epics.ieee.org/get-involved/access-and-abilities-competition/.