Chad Leaman is director of development at Neil Squire Society, which uses technology, knowledge and passion to empower Canadians with disabilities. Their programs offer an opportunity for people with disabilities to develop computer and employment skills and to provide solutions to removing technological barriers as they prepare to enter or re-enter the workforce. Leaman introduced LipSync, a mouth controlled input device, which was created to enable people with little or no hand movement to operate a touchscreen device. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper spoke with Leaman recently about his vision going forward.
Chet Cooper: How did you get started with Neil Squire?
Chad Leaman: I got started here because of Neil Squire himself. In the early ‘80s, he was a university student who got into a car accident and broke his neck at the C1-C2 vertebrae level. After that he couldn’t move his legs or arms, and his speech was impacted. He could barely move his tongue, and only spoke in a whisper, which made him hard to understand.
His cousin, Bill Cameron, invented a system, now known as Sip-and-Puff, where Neil’s inhalations and exhalations on a tube in a machine were translated into the dots and dashes of Morse code. That was connected to a state-of-the-art computer and converted into type on the screen. It might say, “I’m thirsty.” Or “It’s a lot warmer in LA than it is in Vancouver today.” That opened the door for emerging technology to increase his accessibility and improve his life.
Cooper: That’s great.
Leaman: It was a great solution for Neil, but there were all these other people at Vancouver’s GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre who needed a solution that worked for them. So over the 35 years of the organization, we have developed a lot of commercially available technologies. We run a program for the province of British Columbia, which helps employers cover the cost of accommodations needed by the people with disabilities that they hire.
A lot of our employment-related programming is funded by our government. So by helping people get back to work and improve their quality of life, it in turn allows them to become taxpayers.
Cooper: It restores dignity, too.
Leaman: Yes. The area we’ve had a tougher time in, however, is funding research and development. Through our R&D office, we invented the Jouse 3 Joystick product back in the ‘90s, which is a joystick-operated mouse; it’s mounted to a computer and the user controls it by mouth and chin, moving the mouse cursor up, down, left, or right, while using the Sip-and-Puff to type.
Cooper: A hands-free solution.
Leaman: Jouse is great with a desktop or laptop, but it’s not a super-mobile solution because it needs a control box, and it’s got to be plugged into a wall. It doesn’t allow access to what’s changed the world in the last few years: mobile devices. So we built a prototype update called LipSync, which has all the controls on the head of the device and runs on little power, such as a cell phone or battery pack. But after it was sent to manufacturing a few years ago, that company went bankrupt.
About a year and a half ago, Google had an impact challenge for companies to propose different ideas and solutions on how technology impacts quality of life for people with disabilities. So we submitted a LipSync proposal and, working through Google, came to the point where we were like: “We want to release this open source.” It was not another $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000 medical device. It’s something that can be made locally by a maker or hacker.
Cooper: I didn’t know that. So you couldn’t take the battery out of the Note 7?
Leaman: You couldn’t. You could put an SD card in so you could expand your memory. I like my Note 4, and apparently I’ve got to learn to love it for a while.
[Leaman pointing to his mobile phone] Here’s a picture of Don; he’s on our board of directors. He was in rehab with Neil, who passed away in ‘84. That’s when they basically started a nonprofit and gave it Neil’s name.
Cooper: Looks like Neil was fairly young when he died.
Leaman: He wasn’t yet 30. So this is a picture of Don using the LipSync program on a tablet. This is a hollow tube, which goes into the switch there, and it gives you the ability to click and move the joystick around. The guts of it are on the device there.
We’re just starting some user testing now and looking at how we’re going to engage makers to create this; there’s a whole boom in this area. There’s this huge hacking contest. They apparently had over 200 different openings for these sorts of things. We entered the LipSync along the way. We didn’t get to the finals, but the fact that Google already gave us $1 million, we don’t really need the money to do this. These sorts of spaces are great, but they’re filled with hackers and makers, and people with disabilities aren’t aware of what’s going on. Fortunately, that gap is being bridged. That’s the work I’m starting with—a pilot in Vancouver we’ll roll out across Canada in early 2017 during an “access megathon.” We’re also in the early phase of trying to start a community of makers with disabilities.
Cooper: What’s the level of invention that comes out of the hackathons?
Leaman: They’re very much like rudimentary prototypes. They’re not going to be around. What we want to try to do is a little more work in curating to make sure the quote-unquote “ready for prime time” is actually ready to be used and offers users more support. So a little less
Cooper: What drew you to this field?
Leaman: When I was in university, I was in computer science and had a summer job at Neil Squire. Along the way it just kind of clicked. They didn’t have me in a cubicle punching code. Instead, I was applying some of my knowledge to help people, which really resonated with me.
At Neil Squire, you have a fair amount of creative freedom; you’re given a lot of rope. So far I’ve managed not to hang myself. I’ve tried things along the way. In the last few years I’ve moved more into a fundraising/development role, also known as “Chad has started all these programs—like eight of them—along the way.” And for the last two years, I’ve been more involved with fundraising and development.
Cooper: What’s your level of involvement with research and development?
Leaman: I’ve worked with our R&D manager on opportunities within that department. It’s funny because we had to complete lots of grant applications. One had only five questions, each requiring an answer of 500 words or less: “What’s your big idea? Who will it impact? How will it be scaled?” They did the vetting, and then we had some ongoing conversations with them on a few things to get the funding. Google’s been great. They’ve helped us like an ambassador. It’s a great relationship, and it’s helpful that Google makes Android. We’ve worked on the accessibility part to make sure that what we create is compatible with them.
Cooper: I keep hearing good things about Google, and keep meeting them around the world. They do things quickly, putting their money where their mouth is.
Leaman: Yes. Now I’ve got two things I’m trying to accomplish. To connect with makers and bring them in, and to get LipSync into people’s lives. The Christopher Reeve Foundation says that in Canada and the US, there are over a million people who have no use of their hands. For someone like that to have a way to use a smartphone, to do anything that you and I can do, to have that independence of access, would be transformative. I’m trying to bring that to people.
Going forward, I’d really like to raise the profile of the LipSync as a solution, because things like the Jouse cost a few thousand dollars, and it does well as long as it’s plugged into the wall. We want to raise awareness that we have a solution, and that we’re at a point where we’re going to release all the schematics and diagrams on assemble. We’re doing some user testing right now. For us it’s not a revenue generator, but a mission to help people with disabilities use smartphones like everybody else.
Cooper: That’s why some people like the stylus, because it helps them compensate for some of the control they’ve lost. They can point with their fingers and speak into it.
Leaman: Speech recognition; it’s easier to edit it than to type it all out.
Cooper: When you mention people who can’t use their hands, is that finger grip or the whole hand?
Leaman: On the Canadian disability survey they have a four-point scale from no use at all, to some problems, to great difficulty. It’s hard to know the exact number of people who fall into each category, but there’s certainly an unmet need.
I’ve been working with a couple of local universities. The idea is very similar to the access make-a-thon model, which is a multi-based event, where you’ll have a person with a disability at the center of a team, and then have students who are working in electronics or engineering or design who help that person create a solution. I want to position the event as less prototyping new things—although I think some of that will happen anyway—but more like: “Here are four or five things we know are vetted and that have helped people, let’s help bring it into this person’s life.” We’re hosting it at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, which is a partnership between the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.
We’ll have lots of smart young people coming together to try to help people. We’re doing the first one of those in January 2017, and we’ll replicate it in the Vancouver area. From there, we’ll start scaling it out across Canada over the course of the next couple of years.
Cooper: Sounds promising.
Leaman: We have many smart young people who are going to change the world. And on the disability side I’m working with the Rick Hansen Foundation. In the ‘80s, he went around the whole world in his wheelchair.
Cooper: Was there a documentary?
Leaman: Yes—the Man in Motion World Tour. It’s pretty famous in Canada, and it started with Terry Fox; he had cancer and lost one of his legs below the knee. Two years later, he started what he called the Marathon of Hope, where he did a cross-country run with one prosthetic leg; he was out there every day for 143 days, until he died of cancer at 22.
We’re also looking at different learning styles. We built something similar to ReadSpeaker, a learning platform where basically you take snippets of text and send them to Google Translate from English to English, and it gives you an mp3 file. We sync that up so you can play it on our site. It allows a lot of people who learn differently to get support by hitting a play button.
Cooper: Keep up the good work.
Read more articles from the Isaac Lidsky Issue.