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University student wins MEDA 5K pitch competition with system to help visually impaired people

Hilary thank you for MEDAx winAs Published in The Marketplace Jan-Feb 2019

Hillary Scanlon doesn’t want vision loss to prevent people from sustainably disposing their waste.

Scanlon, a 23-year-old Wilfrid Laurier University student, has a personal stake in the issue.

Two years ago, she lost her vision due to a rare neurological condition.

She responded to that challenge by starting a company, Sustainability Through an Inclusive Lens (STIL) through her school’s social entrepreneurship option. Scanlon’s efforts recently won her a $5,000 prize in the MEDA 5K pitch competition.

The pitch event, held in Indianapolis as part of MEDA’s Business as a Calling convention, featured four finalists who promoted their concepts to a judging panel. Contestants were evaluated on how their business aligns with MEDA’s values of sustainability, scalability, innovation and empowerment.

STIL designs systems of rubber floor signs to help blind people independently dispose of waste, recycling and compost in a sustainable fashion. “STIL developed out of my personal frustration with my inability to participate in the seemingly simple task of proper waste disposal in public spaces,’’ she said.

“I could no longer find waste containers or sort my trash if I happened to stumble upon one.”

Scanlon held design labs with blind individuals, environmental activists, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, custodial staff and a manufacturer of waste and recycling containers.

“The last thing I wanted to do was create a product that works for me, but not for anyone else, so I included various custodial staff and physical resources in the actual process of designing these mats.”

STIL products comply with US and Canadian accessibility standards, and work with most institutional cleaning machines and products. Testing has indicated the product will be helpful to both blind and sighted people.

Over one million Canadians are currently living with blindness or partial sight. In the US, almost 7.3 million people have some level of visual disability. Those numbers may double within 25 years.

STIL’s product involves tactile and visual mats, proximity indicators that cover the ground around a waste container. This allows people to easily identify when they are close to a container.

By placing the system on the ground, persons with vision loss do not have to touch or feel the containers.

A second component is stream indicators, similar mats that are placed directly in front of containers. Raised shapes help people know if they are in front of a waste, recycling or compost container.

For Scanlon, STIL is more than a series of mats on the ground. “It is an enabling and inclusive device for public institutions and environments.”

She thinks her company has the potential to help millions of blind people globally contribute to a more sustainable future. Her MEDA success was only one of several wins in 2018. A $32,500 award in February will allow the STIL system to be implemented at WLU campuses in Waterloo and Brantford, ON next year.

Her biggest expense in bringing the product to market is the $9,000 up front cost to produce moulds used to create the mats. The systems will sell for between $50 to $90.

The initial product is a low-tech system that aims to be as inclusive as possible. Scanlon hopes to eventually develop an app to allow blind individuals to identify waste receptacles using their phones and expand products to international markets.

“Ten years from now, I hope that members of our community, both with and without sight, will never have to think twice about how and where to properly dispose of their waste. For today, I just hope I’ve helped you all to see sustainability through a more inclusive lens.” ◆