Canadian non-profit answers call for assistive IT

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As it often happens, it was Nigel Livingston’s own differently abled child who inspired him to form CanAssist, the non-profit assistive technology group that, earlier this month, was recognized for its efforts with a $750,000 grant from the provincial government.

CanAssist is run out of and is partially funded by the University of Victoria, where the eight-year organization got off the ground with a simple request from a community member.

Having suffered a near-drowning accident in childhood, a young man became blind and experienced spasms where his finger would lock into place. Due to his interest in the differently abled space, Livingston (formerly a University of Victoria biology professor before he took up running CanAssist full-time last summer) and a technician in his lab crafted a pressure-detecting ball connected to a small pump that would push back on the finger when it became locked. The device was used by the young man to operate a cassette player and listen to his favourite music.

This was the first of around 150 projects that CanAssist has worked on over the last eight years. The organization is staffed by students, staff, and community members who contribute all kinds of expertise, from engineering to kinesiology, and even music. Each project is inspired by a request from the differently abled community, which has resulted in a wide variety of devices and software.

One area that CanAssist focuses on is human-computer interaction. Said Livingston: “The computer was designed for people who are fully functional, but what if you can’t use a keyboard or see the screen?”

They have written a software program, via a Mozilla extension, that allows those unable to pilot a mouse to navigate a Web page. It will show all the selectable items, and you either type or say (courtesy of a voice recognition engine), for instance, ‘charlie,’ if the link you wanted began with c. If there are multiple c-words, the program will list them, and then you would type or say the number you wanted. For those who find it difficult to type, CanAssist has developed an on-screen keyboard.

A transparent overlay on-screen would be utilized with a head-activated “mouse.” There are several boxes of letters that the user can choose, and from there the Web prediction engine would offer choices to help speed up the process. These software packages are already being used by the differently abled community, and Livingston hopes to one day launch the program as readily available freeware.

Livingston and his team have also developed a tricycle for blind children that utilizes ultrasonic sensors. They send out soundwaves and, after bouncing off objects, can come back to the child in the form of beeps that increase in frequency or loudness as the child nears an object.

Motion sensors have also been developed to aid those with acute disabilities. The group developed sensors that, said Livingston, were sensitive enough to detect very small muscle signals. For example, sensors could be attached to a headband of someone with spina bifida; trying to bite or wrinkle the forehead would, via wireless, signal yes and no via a green or red light on a console. This technology could also be used to change the channel on the television.

Livingston also hopes to one day be able to spread some of the group’s more popular products — like an umbrella-holder for walker users — wider by building a small manufacturing plant, which would be staffed with differently abled people.

Adding heft to this possibility — or that of potential corporate interest — is the uses of some of the devices beyond the differently abled sphere. CanAssist developed wireless position and motion sensor that could monitor the limbs of children with spinal muscular atrophy, the wakefulness of at-risk children at night, and the deliberateness of the movement of those with motion-related disabilities.

According to Livingston, these sensors could have other applications, including monitoring those going through drug treatment, or athlete performance. CanAssist is also working with a major PDA manufacturer towards making their navigation and typing technology available on PDAs.

Whatever the future of these current projects, Livingston has no shortage of ideas on which to spend its hefty grant. He said that he receives six or seven requests per week, like the person who wants a way to translate arm movements into sound so that they can play the piano again. “Who knows what’s coming tomorrow?” Livingston said. “That’s the exciting part!”

Also visit our blog pages to read and respond to: iPhone apps – taking care of business?

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