Vanderbilt Student Rethinks How Tablets Can Help Disabled Students

Jenna Gorliewicz working with Kira and Quinn. (Pat Slattery/Vanderbilt University)

The potential educational power of the tablet is immense. But figuring out the best way to use it to connect with visually disabled students is no easy job. Lucky for us, a Vanderbilt grad student and her advisor have incorporated a type of technology that isn’t typically found in tablets. But it will be very soon.

Jenna Gorlewicz, a graduate student in the Medical and Electromechanical Design Laboratory (MED Lab) at Vanderbilt University, and her adviser Robert Webster, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, rethought how tablets could be used to teach the visually impaired.

They built a way for Android tablets to make a sound and provide haptic feedback. Haptic feedback is essentially the ability for a device to provide a sensation when you interact with it. Imagine your tablet vibrating every time you touch a certain area of the screen. Stuff like that.

But Jenna took the current haptic abilities of tablets a step further and is working on ways to integrate these haptic-enabled tablets into the STEM curriculum. In fact, she’s been able to incorporate the technology into tablets that cost as little as $300. I’m impressed.

Gorlewicz has programmed these tablets so they vibrate or generate a specific tone when the student’s fingertip touches a line, curve or shape displayed on the screen. The devices can generate vibrations with a number of different frequencies and hundreds of different sounds. This allows Gorlewicz to assign different tactile or audio signals to different features. For example, in an exercise that includes an X-Y grid, she can set the horizontal and vertical lines to vibrate at different frequencies and set points to make a certain tone. In this way, it’s easier for the students to distinguish between the gridlines and the points on the grid.

Close-up of Kira testing an Android tablet. (Pat Slattery / Vanderbilt University)

So how have teachers at a nearby high school reacted to the haptic technology and the low(er) cost of the tablets? The only tablets Jenna had found to feature the technology were $2,500, making it impossible to integrate into any curriculum. But when Hillsboro High School was able to test Jenna’s tablet technology out, they were thrilled.

“When Jenna first approached me with the idea, I thought it would be interesting and might be some small help,” said Ann Smith, a teacher of the visually impaired who works with Kira and Quinn at Hillsboro High School in Nashville. “The more experience I have with it, the more valuable I think it could be. It makes the work more accessible. The students are really interested and they talk about it even when Jenna isn’t here.”

The future is bright for haptic technology thanks to the incredible accomplishments by Jenna. In fact, students that use the device are already giving her ideas on how to make it even better. Look for this technology to be tightly integrated into the tablets of the future. Thanks in large part to work done by people like Jenna.

Be sure to read the full article from Vanderbilt News here.


  1. NaomiK

    March 7, 2012 at 7:11 am

    I’ve been working with a school in Edinburgh and they’ve found the tablet is the perfect platform for helping children with learning difficulties, even without any ‘haptic’ technology. There is one kid who has severe sight problems but can use the zoom function to be able to see the screen better. But I think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done with producing quality apps. This one is good quality in terms of content (although the graphics could be better), it’s for very young autistic children

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