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 ...
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