The Touch of Genius Prize: Recognizing Braille Innovation

By Hannah Ransom Canning, Executive Assistant

When I first started in September 2016, I received a full breakdown of tasks that I would be fulfilling in my new position as Executive Assistant to the President. One of these tasks was taking on the role of the Program Administrator of the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. It seemed a little intimidating that I would be managing all of the coordination for submitters and calls and meetings for our Adjudication Committee.

togprize_logo

However, having now worked with the team to bring this competition to its fruition, I couldn’t imagine a more understanding and helpful group of people who are dedicated to fulfilling the meaning behind this prize. The Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize was developed to inspire innovators to support tactile literacy. After putting out a call for applications, we received 18 submissions from around the world that displayed their best efforts and ideas to continue supporting braille or other tactile literacy innovations. After careful deliberation, the Adjudication Committee decided our winner was John Hudelson, for his submission of BELLA. BELLA is the Braille Early Learning and Literacy Arcade, a programmable, educational software and hardware gaming platform using audio, visual, and tactile feedback to teach pre-braille skills, braille reading, and braille writing. By inserting a card with a barcode on it programmed for one of the four games or story option, you can interact with the device to use BELLA in a variety of teaching methods. The games KeyCrush, Whack-A-Dot. Cell Spotter, and Alphabet Cards are used to teach the chords of the braille alphabet, finger dexterity, and letter association between letters, braille cells, phenomes, and words by following prompts on the brailed barcode cards. The committee tested all of these features and were impressed by BELLA’s responsiveness and ability to program different cards for some of the games.

img_1126

The committee also selected Mandy Lau’s Reach and Match Learning Kit and Inclusive Learning Program for an honorable mention. This kit and its accompanying curriculum is designed for children with vision impairment as well as those with multiple needs to develop braille literacy and communication & social skills through tactile strategies and play-based activities. The kit contains mats that are differentiated in a variety of ways. On one side, they have a color: red, blue, green, or yellow, with a corresponding raised-line pattern. On the opposite side, there is a large brailled and large print block and an indented line to follow this “Braille Trail” to learn the braille alphabet. The Reach and Match Kit’s curriculum includes many programs to help preschool and kindergarten teachers.

From this competition, I have discovered how many creative individuals there are who are researching and developing new ideas. The submissions we received showed much promise and ingenuity, and the committee encouraged many of the submitters to improve their designs and consider submitting an application next year. Administering the Touch of Genius Prize gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet in the world of braille literacy, and I am looking forward to learning even more.

Finding a Touch of Genius

Many of our customers and friends know that NBP, with support from The Gibney Family Foundation, offers a $20,000 prize called the Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation.  What few people know is how this process works.

Louis Braille flaming headTouch of Genius Prize for Innovation logo

The Prize was developed to inspire an innovator to continue the promotion of braille literacy for blind people worldwide.  Each year, NBP puts out a call for applications and receives a wide variety of projects ranging from educational methods to tactile literacy products to high-tech solutions.  This past year was no different with NBP receiving twenty competing applications.

Once I organize all of the application materials, complete submissions are passed to our esteemed Adjudication Committee for evaluation using our criteria of innovation, sound intellectual merit, feasibility, relevancy, and ability to make meaningful changes.  The deliberation is a two-step process in which the committee first meets via teleconference to discuss the applicants and select those for further consideration.  After I receive additional information requested during our teleconference, the committee members descend upon our offices in Boston for a ‘meeting of the minds’ to experience prototypes, appraise the projects’ viability, and “fight” over who our ultimate winner will be.

This year, the final deliberation meeting lasted five hours.  In the end, the Adjudication Committee was so impressed with the applicants that they decided to split the Prize money between one Awardee and two Honorable Mentions.  The Prize was awarded to Emily Wharton for her submission of the “Code Master Adult Braille Instruction System” and Honorable Mentions were awarded to two teams –Michael Coleman, Michael Rosen, and Joshua Coffee for their submission of “inTACT™ System for Interactive Tactile Graphics” and Cagatay Concu, Kim Marriott, and John Hurst for their submission of “GraVVITAS: Graphics Viewer using Vibration, Interactive Touch, Audio and Speech.”

I am astounded every year by the depth of knowledge our committee members possess in their individual areas of expertise.  I am also repeatedly impressed by the creativity of our applicants in discovering innovative solutions to the problems associated with advancing tactile literacy for blind individuals.  After four years administering the Prize, I continue to walk away from our meetings with my head swirling with new information and with hope for the future of braille and tactile literacy.