Young Mind Benders Create Digital Solution to Make Catering Services Inclusive
Mind Benders aim to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face in restaurants, cafes, bakeries and other catering facilities.
The young innovators’ team Mind Benders is one of the two teams selected to represent our country in the Generation Unlimited Global Youth Challenge. They were challenged to create digital solutions that support more active inclusion of children and young people with disabilities in education and everyday life.
Mind Benders aim to remove the barriers that people with disabilities face in restaurants, cafes, bakeries and other catering facilities. Their Digital Menu mobile application includes a library of digitized restaurant menus adapted to be accessible for people who with visual and hearing impairments and people with dyslexia or autism. Working directly with restaurant owners, so far, the team has managed to develop accessible menus for 25 restaurants. In the future, they are planning to increase the number of menus and introduce an accessible option when making orders online.
Mind Benders were one of the two teams to receive a national prize for their digital solution to make catering services inclusive, and they will participate in the global challenge with a chance to receive additional funding of up to $20,000, as well as support from the global incubation program of Generation Unlimited partners to scale up their solution.
UNICEF Young Reporter, Dario Korolija, 20, talked with Kiko, Marija, Ivona, Ana and Damjan from the Mind Benders team to find out more.
Dario: You are one of the national winners. Did you expect a victory? How does it feel to have an “entry ticket” to the global challenge?
Kiko: I didn’t expect us to win. During the break, just before the winners were announced, I had something to eat and said to myself: “That’s it, we’ve had great success.” The moment the winners were announces and I heard: “Mind Benders”, I wondered: “Is this some kind of mistake?” I was very positively surprised.
Marija: I had a feeling that we were going to win because we have a functional product that meets a real need and it is a great platform for people with different types of disabilities. Such a comprehensive mobile app is not available on the market so far. As for the “entry ticket”, as you call it, we don’t have a specific answer. Since the beginning of our participation in the challenge, we’ve been fully focused on creating the best version of the Digital Menu. Let’s say that the challenge for us is a path that can lead us to help achieve a more inclusive society.
Dario: How did you become a team; did you all know each other before the challenge?
Ivona: Marija, Damjan and I are studying at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology - FEEIT, that’s how we know each other. The topic of my graduation paper was related to people with disabilities, and that’s how we met Kiko who has a visual impairment. During the pre-workshops we had the opportunity to network; Mrs. Victoria Wallack, a sign language interpreter, introduced us to Anna, she has a hearing impairment.
Dario: How was the idea for the Digital Menu born?
Mind Benders: The idea is Kiko’s. He himself and people with various types of disabilities experience barriers everyday while using the catering facilities’ menus because they are not designed to be accessible. This is how the idea for a Digital Menu was born.
Dario: What made you apply for Generation Unlimited and what does it mean for you to take part in such challenge?
Ivona: We learned about the challenge from our professor Hristijan Gjoreski, and as we were moving through the advanced stages of the challenge, he became our mentor.
Damjan: We are very happy that we have the opportunity to participate in a challenge of this nature. It’s a great to help those who really need it, but also to for us to learn and develop our own skills in parallel.
Dario: How did the GenU Challenge and working with a mentor contribute to your success? Did they encourage and motivate you?
Kiko: The whole process is based on strong partnerships and cooperation with different stakeholders. This initiative itself, including the mentor, particularly helped us to get where we are now. Since our mentor is not my professor, I think I could give the most constructive feedback. I was positively surprised by his abilities. He has a great level of understanding of the needs of people with disabilities. He is always interested in helping us, supporting us, sharing his ideas openly and giving us feedback both as a friend and professor.
Our initial idea was not to win the national Generation Unlimited Youth challenge, but to help people with different disabilities. When we realized that we had the space to expand to cover a number of target groups, we got more motivated to work.
Dario: Has the incubation and mentoring process transformed your initial solution and to what extent?
Mind Benders: While our idea and goal remained the same, the incubation and mentoring process was crucial for further developing our initial modest version of the Digital Menu.. During this phase, we were able to include our target groups’ who participated directly; we designed and tested the modes for support of people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, dyslexia, intellectual disability, and the regular mode. We are grateful for the support received from the special educators who, during the three-day co-creation workshop, helped us a lot in focusing on what modes to create.
Dario: What did Kiko teach you about the needs of persons with visual impairments?
Ivona: At the beginning we met with Kiko, when he explained to us how people with visual impairments function independently in society, how they use a computer and a phone, I was shocked. I asked him a lot of questions, which I assumed may have been strange for him.
Dario: What skills did you acquire throughout the process?
Mind Benders: Participation in the challenge has given us a unique opportunity to develop new skills such as: how to develop a business plan, skills in marketing, communication with partners and target groups, organizational skills and teamwork, which we are already applying in various areas of our personal and professional life. We believe that we’ll be using these skills for a long time.
Dario: What were the initial public reactions to your solution?
Mind Benders: The public is delighted with our team and the inclusive solution we are creating. We hope that in the future, the Digital Menu will become a standard in the industry, which will enable everyone to order a meal independently and without barriers.
Dario: You received some seed funds to further develop your solution. How are you planning to use this money and what will you focus on in the coming period?
Mind Benders: We’ve received the additional support recently. We haven’t decided yet how to use these funds. However, in the coming period we will actively work on marketing, advertising content and further developing the application interface.
Dario: Which mode was the most complex for you, and which was the easiest to develop?
Mind Benders: The mode adapted for persons with hearing impairments was the most complex to develop and took us the most time. This mode required us to create quality GIFs showing food and beverages in sign language. On the other hand, the mode adapted for visually impaired was the easiest to develop, because we only had to implement the Text-To-Speech (TTS) tool, which is widely available on many platforms.
Dario: You’ve proven that young people are positive change agents, especially when they are supported. What are your recommendations for achieving greater and more comprehensive digital inclusion in North Macedonia and the region?
Kiko: Thank you. This is a philosophical question. In order to accelerate digital inclusion, I believe that these types of initiatives and actions should not be left only to us, the young people. It is time that adults learn from young innovators, that they go deeper to understand these crucial issues, build bridges with all those who are seriously working in this field so that together we can remove the barriers that limit the well-being of people in society.
As for scaling-up the Digital Menu and using it in tourism promotion in North Macedonia, we are open to the institutions to discuss how we could jointly contribute in this area.