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Bridging the Disability Divide

By Nisma Elias '12 on March 05, 2012 02:03 PM

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At Reed's first-ever Working Weekend, it all came together for Gabriel Forsythe-Korzeniewicz '12, an economics senior. The career-focused event, which was held February 3-5, was designed to help students and newer alumni get a jump-start on internships, contacts, and careers. Alumni organized and led panels in 10 different subject areas and participated in a three-day StartUp Lab, where they served as entrepreneurs and led teams of students through the presentation and marketing of their original ideas to investors. On Sunday, the Lab culminated with final pitches to a live panel of Angel, Venture Capital, and Incubator investors.

Gabriel, whose brother has Down syndrome and is a self-advocate in their hometown in Maryland, has always been very active in the disability community. In high school, Gabriel mentored disabled kids and volunteered during his junior summer at Reed with the Northwest Down Syndrome Association in Portland. He also won the prestigious McGill Lawrence Internship award in 2011 and used it to work for the Autism Centre in Accra, Ghana. He has been focusing his academics on disability related themes besides doing other non-profit work related to disability outreach in Portland.

Gabriel, two other Reedies, Finn Terdal '13, Clemmie Wotherspoon '12, and two Oregon Episcopal School students, Matt Fernandez and Akash Krishnan, won the StartUp Lab for their product called Emotitron. Gabriel responded to Akash and Matt's blog post on the Reed StartUp page inviting Reedies to join their team for the Lab.

Emotitron is an algorithm that determines the emotion of a speaker by measuring 57 different features of an audio signal against a prerecorded signal that's already been defined by a human listener as "angry," "sad," or "happy." Currently pending a patent, its high school inventors have already won the prestigious 2010 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology and have been featured in the New York Times. Emotitron may be a solution for helping autistic children and adults recognize and interpret emotion using voice recognition technology, which explains Gabriel's interest in the project.

The winning team meets regularly to strategize a business plan with the help of Portland Seed Fund, a for profit company that invests in startup companies and surrounds them with mentors, field experts and a peer group of entrepreneurs, who understand their challenges and help them become more successful.

Since last semester Gabriel, along with Alice Alsup '13, have been trying to set up Camp Aardvark, which is a disability advocacy and outreach program. The idea is to set up a weekend day camp for three weeks where volunteers would work with 8 to12-year-old children with developmental disabilities every Saturday. The program will team up with the Autistic Children Activities Program (ACAP) and the Autumn Society of Oregon (ASO) to host a one-day camp at ACAP later in the spring semester, which will serve as a template for a camp next year. Gabriel is hoping to find leaders to participate in this camp who might take it over next year.

"Intellectual disability isn't very present here at Reed and this camp has the potential to bridge Reedies with an outside community that is somewhat invisible," Gabriel explained.

The technology behind Emotitron presents endless possibilities, including using the children from Camp Aardvark as a focus group and then using the information to build a better prototype.

"We are looking to develop the software in the next few months; perhaps even have an app by then," said Gabriel. Because Emotitron understands what its user is feeling, perhaps it could be fused into making Siri, the Apple iPhone 4S feature that responds to requests to send messages, make phone calls and appointments, more sophisticated. It offers huge potential for the disability community, who do not have much inclusion in the technology world.

We wish Gabriel good luck with all his endeavors.