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Yasmeen Holguin, ’23, and Alison Nana are searching for “Need-Knowers.” That is the term used by Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) for people with firsthand experience living with a disability. TOM — a global venture that began in Israel in 2014 — wants to identify what overlooked challenges Need-Knowers are up against, design affordable products to address these problems, and then distribute them as widely as possible.

Alison Nana (far left) stands next to Yasmeen Holguin during an event for TOM Fellows in Atlanta. Their group built a Toddler Mobility Trainer for a child who is too young to use a wheelchair.

And Holguin and Nana, graduate students in Gallaudet’s Accessible Human-Centered Computing program, have been selected as 2023-2024 TOM Fellows. “We have the responsibility of setting up a TOM community of makers and innovators,” explains Nana, who hopes to tap into resources at Gallaudet and other area schools so they can brainstorm some big ideas and get to work.

Colleges and universities are ideal places to create and connect, says TOM’s US Program Manager Sarah Wish. That is why TOM’s fellowship program (tomuniversity.org) has been expanding rapidly. This fourth cohort of fellows includes 78 students from 50 campuses in 10 countries — and marks the entrance of Gallaudet into the program. “Inclusivity is integral to what Gallaudet stands for,” says Wish, who thanks faculty for their support and help with recruitment. “We are so grateful for the partnership we have.”

All of this year’s fellows, including Holguin and Nana, gathered in August in Atlanta for a kickoff event gearing them up for their mission, which is driven by “Tikkun Olam” (“to repair the world” in Hebrew). Learning the stories of Need-Knowers was inspiring, Holguin says, recounting the example of a girl without a right hand who loved the violin. A TOM team worked with her on a design that allowed her to hold the instrument, so she could finally play it like she wanted.

It was especially moving to experience this kind of impact firsthand at a “Build Party,” an event focused on making a product from TOM’s open source portfolio of solutions. “We built a special seat for children who struggle with their legs,” Holguin says. When they finished their Toddler Mobility Trainer — made from wood, rubber, foam, and fabric — they presented it to a young child who can’t walk. “That boy can now move independently and play on his own,” says Holguin, who was struck by the child’s big smile.
As a mom of two, she was drawn to the TOM program because she wants to improve children’s lives.

Nana is also motivated by the idea of harnessing technology to make a difference. Before coming to Gallaudet, she earned an undergraduate degree in Special Education from the University of Buea in Cameroon and then went to nursing school — all without any interpreters. “I understand the frustration of things not being accessible to people and I wanted to be one of the few that fights for it to happen,” Nana says

Being TOM Fellows gives them both a chance to pursue these passions and link up with an organization they believe in. “For me, what stood out was the fact that they were actually putting in their all to help the people that need the help,” Nana says. “I felt so humbled to be part of a community like that.”

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