Design competitions come in all shapes and sizes but none are as inspirational as The AbilityOne Design Challenge. This national competition for high school and college students was born out of the desire to decrease the high unemployment rate for people with disabilities.

The idea is simple. Give students the chance to use engineering and design to harness the power of Assisted Technology to transform lives. Assisted technology comes in many forms, from electronics, to physical objects, to software, to interior design modifications, but all have the single purpose — make the previously inaccessible, accessible.  During the competition students, working alone and in teams, design devices or develop systems that assist people with disabilities so they can become more productive in the workplace and take a job that they couldn’t have mastered without the newly created technology.

As much as the competition is about solid design, it is equally about understanding the obstacles that people with disabilities face each day. Every disability presents unique challenges and specific obstacles. The scope of particular needs lets students take a personal approach, by finding a problem that speaks to them and designing solutions that play to their own skills set.  Some teams design physical objects and some teams design software.

For many students it is the first time they have had the chance to use their skills as designers to help people over come lifelong obstacles. The competition transforms the lives of not only the disabled consumers who might one day buy and use the products, but the lives of the students creating them. As student contestant Dennis Levin told the the Washington Post, “We really learned . . . how the power of an idea can change people’s lives and change the way they look at their work.”

Teachers are on the front lines of the competition.  They work as mentors and coaches to help guide the students through the design process. The multi-step process includes visiting and observing a person with a disability in their workplace, creating a working prototype, making a video which demonstrates the product, and writing a paper that describes the product and the design.

This year 88 teams from across the country took the AbilityOne Design Challenge.  Many amazing assisted technology products were created. The wide ranges of devices all had one thing in common; all addressed the needs of specific disabled clients.  The clients, who are integral to the process, get to attend the finals. The prize for best Engineering Design went to a team from Poolesville High School, in Poolesville, Maryland.

The Poolesville team visited the Francis Scott Key Center and walked away inspired. The center employs workers with disabilities to perform a number of tasks and produce a variety of products. One of the products is a round rubber gasket, known as an O-ring that has many uses.

During their visit the students found that the process it took to produce an O-ring was time consuming and particularly cumbersome for many of the employees. The students put their minds to it and invented The Nexus.  The Nexus was an acrylic frame in the shape of a hexagon that let the employees make numerous O-rings simultaneously with a greater degree of accuracy and success.

The AbilityOne Design challenge continues to change lives, not only of the recipients of the technology but of the contestants who enter every year and learn first hand of the challenges and courage that people with disabilities face on a daily basis.

About SourceAmerica

Established in 1974, SourceAmerica creates job opportunities for a skilled and dedicated workforce:  people with significant disabilities. SourceAmerica is the vital link between the federal government and private sector organizations that procure the products and services provided by this exceptional workforce via a network of more than 1,000 community-based nonprofits. Headquartered in Vienna, VA, SourceAmerica provides its nonprofit agency network with business development, contract management, legislative and regulatory assistance, communications and public relations materials, information technology support, engineering and technical assistance, and extensive professional training needed for successful nonprofit management.  SourceAmerica is an AbilityOne authorized enterprise.

About the AbilityOne Program

Providing employment opportunities to nearly 50,000 people, the AbilityOne Program is the largest single source of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities in the United States.  Nearly 600 participating nonprofit organizations employ these individuals and provide quality goods and services to the federal government at a fair market price.  The AbilityOne Program is administered by the U.S. AbilityOne Commission®http://( an independent federal agency.


Wethersfield High School of Wethersfield, CT, placed first in the national AbilityOne Design Challenge, winning Best Overall Design for their device called The Path. This assistive technology was created to allow employees with limited dexterity or no use of their hands to package metal chains used for military ID tags in small envelopes. Click here to watch a video about the device.

Video Library

Video stories of this year’s other high school finalists include:

  • Best Engineering Design recipient: Poolesville High School, Poolesville, Md., The Nexus which enables adults with developmental and physical motor disabilities to assemble rubber o-rings as gaskets in metal plates.
  • Best Use of Assistive Technology recipient: Poolesville High School, Die Cast Guide which empowers employees with visual impairments at the Blind Industries and Services of Maryland to manufacture buffer pads.