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Two award-winning apps that empower people—one for PWDs, and another for children with special needs

By Karen Racelis Published Apr 08, 2022 6:00 am

Design considerations often start with asking “What.” What is this material? What are our limitations? As design moves into the future, developers are beginning to change toward focusing on the needs of the users. The new trending question is: Whom are we serving through this design?

For the WE Project: Inclusive Design for People with Disabilities, underserved users are the starting point. Held from November 2021 to January 2022, the project was a collaboration between the Japan Foundation, Manila and UPSCALE Innovation Hub to showcase and develop inclusive design for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs).

It's important to engage young people in these kinds of projects because of their energy and fresh perspective.

From 22 initial applications, four teams were chosen to pitch their projects. Bookuna, a vaccine booking service, helps users sign up for discounted vaccination services with over 30 partner clinics. Pic-A-Talk is a mobile application that links words with pictures to assist users who struggle with regular verbal communication and the persons who care for those users. Gabay is an application that pairs PWDs with volunteers for increased mobility. Kids Who Farm, a startup inspired by a child interested in agriculture, empowers communities by demonstrating methods for hyper-local food production. 

“It's important to engage young people in these kinds of projects because of their energy and fresh perspective,” according to Miguel Acosta of the WE Project coordinating team. Innovation now grows at a rapid pace and the youth are right in the middle of that growth. I believe that, being "innovation natives," the youth can offer ideas that fit the times. 

Young STAR discussed inclusive design and its future with the chief executive officers behind the winning projects, Gabay and Pic-A-Talk.


Gabay is an accessibility-forward application that helps PWDs instantly request assistance directly from volunteers anytime, anywhere. Originally a service for wheelchair users, research led its founders to the needs of patients with Muscular Dystrophy. Not only are these patients wheelchair users, they are unable to move by themselves. This is the struggle that was made evident by the founders’ initial data gathering.

YOUNG STAR: Take us back to the start. Where did the idea for the project come from?

Gabay CEO Dinah Angot: This project began in a classroom, during my Physical Ergonomics class. It deals with reducing pains and struggles in physical work. For our final project, we were required to solve a physical ergonomic problem with an app solution. At first I thought, “That’s tricky! What kind of tangible problem can an app solve?” So our brainstorm led to the idea of providing assistance to PWDs.

To narrow down our concept, we spoke with some PWDs. Our initial idea was to serve wheelchair users in general, but interviews led us to a specific condition. One of our interviewees is a person with Muscular Dystrophy (MD), a condition in which muscles shrink, which means the patient gets weaker over time. Many patients with MD don't want to go outside. The (public) design in the Philippines is not really suitable for PWDs, especially for wheelchair users. When we figured out that this was a big pain point, we began exploring how we could help reinstate their confidence in going beyond their homes. 

How does Gabay work? 

Let’s say a patient currently does not have an assistant. He would probably stay home and rely on the aid of a relative or someone else from his immediate environment. Thing is, many of those people are busy. Now say that this patient needs to visit the hospital tomorrow. With Gabay, he can book that service, specifying his need for a volunteer with the capacity to carry his weight, load him onto a wheelchair, then a car, and so on. That information is matched to a volunteer based on ability, location and other factors. If there’s a match between a user and a volunteer, they discuss the specifics and then meet at the scheduled time.

How do you feel about the future of inclusive design in the Philippines? 

I feel optimistic, because I can see that the country continues to strive for better inclusivity. But I believe that this would be developed faster if, in the upcoming national election, we elect leaders who have platforms for PWDs. Let's choose our candidates wisely.


Pic-A-Talk is an assistive mobile application for non-verbal children with special needs, such as children with autism, learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities. It helps users to easily identify words through pictures and verbally communicate with its text-to-speech feature.

Where did the idea for the project come from?

CEO Uma Rea: Pic-A-Talk also began as a classroom project. The challenge posed to the students in my Software Engineering class was a pretty general one: “Come up with a solution for a problem.” The inspiration for Pic-A-Talk arrived in the form of my younger sister.

I have a younger sister who has autism and she’s nonverbal. The way that she communicates with us is by searching images on Google. Verbal communication is difficult for some children with autism. In the case of my sister, her autism coupled with speech apraxia made learning vocabulary very difficult and slow. I grew up watching my sister attempt communication by pointing at her surroundings. Sometimes, she would point at thin air. The primary struggle on my family’s end came in the guessing. What would happen is we’d have to guess what she wants. We’d just try to guess her utterances: What she’s trying to say? What she’s pointing at?

How does Pic-A-Talk work? 

Pic-A-Talk was conceived as a way to reduce the guessing time. The picture exchange communication system (PECS) assists users who communicate nonverbally by providing an organized list of words. Under the category “clothes,” for example, a child would find pictures of clothing items such as “jacket,” “pants” and “slippers.” When the user selects a picture, its corresponding word is pronounced via the gadget’s speech output function, which emulates verbal communication. 

Moving forward, what remains to be done in terms of inclusive design? 

There's much we can do in terms of being more inclusive, especially with the PWD community. There's still so much outdated information, myths and misconceptions surrounding certain groups within the community, and those ideas enforce harmful stereotypes. We need to go beyond awareness. We should learn how other countries provide solutions in order to build a more inclusive Philippines, just like in Pic-A-Talk, where we tackle the communication gap at its very root.