University of Victoria's CanAssist came to my attention in May. I was intrigued by the concept of an organization functioning within a university in order to enhance the lives of persons with disabilities.
CanAssist evolved in order to “fill a gap” in technological devices for assisting individual living with disabilities. CanAssist's Executive Director Robin Syme says, “CanAssist's mandate is to develop new technologies where no effective commercial solution exists.”
The organization consists of a core team of about 20 professionals, who include software developers, engineers and program coordinators. As of May 2015, CanAssist was moved to a strategically located space at the entrance of UVic's new Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) building. This space provides a venue for the organization's key areas of focus: technological development, academic engagement and a TeenWork program.
Product Manager Paul Green guided me through the facility and demonstrated many of the technological items developed at the site.
Immediately inside the entrance, I saw the Interactive Technology Zone, where Green discussed and demonstrated the “Single-Hand Chopper,” the “Waveband” App for iPod, the “Switch-Accessible Camera,” the “CanPlan” App, the “Wandering Redirect System,” and the “Motivational Gaming Bicycle” devices.
With a growing concern of my dominant right hand's tremor and lack of dexterity, especially in the thumb and index finger, I was particularly intrigued by the food-chopping tool. I tend to avoid vegetable chopping (and cooking in general) thanks to my physical malady, so I felt a sincere appreciation for this invention.
Imagine the comfort to a caregiver equipped with the “Wandering Redirect” device. Green explained that it was meant for someone with dementia as an “early intervention” device and developed for use in a home. A message on a screen, accompanied by the voice of “someone they recognized” would redirect the person back to the room or space he/she had wandered away from. This type of service, wherein persons are able to remain at home as they age, is a priority for UVic's Institution on Aging and Lifelong Health.
Green explained the “Motivational Gaming Bicycle” had been developed originally for a disabled person who needed exercise but had no motivation on his/her own. This device, along with several other technologies, can apply to a wide range of people and, as such, can be made available to various individuals within the community.
The Teen-Work program “helps youth with disabilities find and retain meaningful, part-time paid employment while attending high school.” Its aim is filling a gap in the employment field for youth with disabilities as they near transition to adulthood.
Meanwhile, in the machine shop, Dennis Tuncbilek, a mechanical design co-op student, and Keir Maguire, a Mechanical/Electrical Design Specialist, were actively working on a project, but were happy to have their photos taken as they demonstrated the “hand cycle” device. In yet another area of the lab, Green strummed a guitar with the “foot-operated guitar strummer.”
The story of how this organization came to be goes back to the University of Victoria Assistive Technology Team (UVATT), established by Dr. Nigel Livingston in 1999 after his daughter had been diagnosed with Angelman syndrome. Dr. Livingston came to recognize “the great need for assistive technologies that could be customized to meet the sometimes highly specific challenges of individuals.” Due to the costs and complexity of producing such devices, UVATT was formed to address this need by making use of the outstanding resources at the University of Victoria. By 2008, UVATT had become CanAssist and was recognized as a unique organization of the university.
Being within the university setting also allowed for the Academic Engagement Program portion of CanAssist's focus areas. The organization had, by 2014, engaged almost 6,000 students through co-op, graduate and work study placements, presentations, course instruction, overseas study programs and volunteer opportunities. UVic faculty members also had access to be engaged in the academic program.
Since CanAssist's raison d'etre is to address the need for assistive technologies that could be customized to meet sometimes highly specific challenges, individuals can submit a “community request” via the organization’s website.
In other cases, professionals, such as occupational therapists, can make a request on their patient’s behalf, which could be billed to a third party. “While it is possible for individuals to pay for their own projects, this rarely happens,” says Syme. “Instead, CanAssist typically finds philanthropic funding that aligns with an individual’s technology request.”
Dr. Helen Martindale, a good friend of mine, came with me for a brief meeting in the Interactive Technology Zone with Green. She was thrilled for the opportunity as she has two friends who have received technologies.
Gordon Jones, 62, formerly an optician for many years, was cycling home from work one day in 2010 when an encounter with traffic resulted in his being catapulted “over his handlebars.” After major surgery and hospitalization in Vancouver for 10 months, Gordon was re-located to Victoria's Aberdeen Hospital, where he and the hospital were asked by CanAssist if they could help. Indeed, two specific areas of assistance for Gordon's quadriplegic condition were identified and addressed.
Through the use of a “mouth stick,” Gordon can operate the touch screen of an iPad2, supplied by CanAssist, in order to read. Additionally, a “zero gravity” arm attached to his wheelchair allows Gordon to “feed himself” and use it for “strength training” for his left arm.
Karen March is another recipient of technology from CanAssist. Her story begins in 1988 with a car accident that left her a quadriplegic. Although not in high-level competition, at the time, Karen was always on sport teams and loved getting outdoors. She refers to herself as “stubborn” and wanted to get her independence back following her recovery.
Karen became involved in wheelchair sports and, by the time she went to CanAssist for help in 2010, she was already a highly accomplished athlete who had competed in wheelchair sports all over the world, including the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
Paracycling (the use of a three-wheel recumbent bicycle powered by one’s arms) was her sport of competition and CanAssist's “Hand Cycle Modifications” allowed her to use a “sip-n-puff” device to change gears rather than using her hands, which did not have adequate dexterity.
Karen's technology was delivered in 2011, after which she won a major race in Montreal and two Gold Cup medals at the UCI World Cup in Segovia, Spain in June 2011. “I will say it over and over – if not for the system CanAssist made for me, this would have never happened,” says Karen on the organizations website.
Karen retired from competitive paracycling in 2012 after choosing not to compete in the London Paralympics. She still cycles and is active in the community, finding ways to “balance life” after the routines of high-level competition.
For more information about CanAssist, including videos, client stories and listings of technologies currently available, as well as explanations of the association with University of Victoria and opportunities to donate, visit www.canassist.ca
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