Making the Readily Accessible Accessible Again


A computer is a useful tool to a scientist, and it's just one of a wide range of common technologies regularly used by researchers and students studying science. But for the scientist, student, or individual with a disability, many of these technologies are simply not readily accessible.

Scientists and engineers at the Neil Squire Foundation ( NSF) have worked hard over the past 16 years to reduce this technology gap. "Technology is an amazing sort of thing," says Harry Lew, manager of research and development at NSF. "The foundation itself started with the idea of using technology to help people with disabilities." With two R&D facilities, a services branch, and a bunch of hard-working individuals, NSF is doing just that by developing and adapting technology to make it more accessible to the disabled.

And behind all the people at NSF is an inspiring story.

Twenty-two years ago, Neil Squire was a medical student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia when a car accident left him paralysed from the neck down. Laurie Jones, a childhood friend of Neil's, recalls on the NSF Web site how "he didn't care that he still had all of his mental faculties. He didn't want to live if he couldn't walk." It was a trying time for everyone; with little else for Neil to do but lie in the hospital, most family members and friends were unsure what to do. Bill Cameron, a relative of Neil and a research engineer, decided that something had to be done for Neil.

What Cameron engineered was low-tech but magnificent: He bought a small computer, attached an input tube that allowed to computer to sense "puffs" and "sips," and then taught Neil Morse code. This gave Neil the ability to communicate and thus a new desire to live. Soon, others in the long-term care unit were benefiting in the same way.

Sadly, Neil Squire died 3 years later. A $2000 donation in his memory started the foundation that runs to this day. With the support of a few volunteers at the time that Neil died, Cameron took on the challenge of creating what NSF says was a vision of "a time when technology would allow people who just happened to be in wheelchairs to have the same choices, opportunities, and quality of life as any other person." Over the years, the NSF endowments alone have grown to the $100,000 mark, and its research grants and business partnerships have continued to accelerate.

"Back then, when the NSF was created," says Lew (pictured at left), "I joined the foundation as a summer job." It was his last year of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, and Lew started working on robotic systems with Cameron. Inspired by the challenge, Lew joined NSF full-time after graduation. Sixteen years later he is still there, having observed the development of the foundation's research first-hand, starting with robotics and then moving on to focus on computers. "We have grown along [with computers], entering in the early '80s when computers were beginning to get a little bit cheaper and a bit more mainstream," says Lew, adding that "computers have actually been quite a liberating thing for people with disabilities." NSF, for example, has produced a steady flow of innovative products including a Windows-based version of Cameron's original puff-and-sip Morse code communication device.

"The focus has been to get people into mainstream life, helping them deal with the ongoing issues they face day to day," states Lew. In fact, the current scope of the NSF R&D endeavour is impressive, with activities involving both the development of technology and the study of usability.

Dan Leland (pictured at right), a prototype specialist at NSF, reiterates that close contact with disabled individuals is an important point in the study of the technologies' usability; "unless you're out there in a wheelchair, it's pretty hard to figure it out." Leland is also an old shoe at Neil Squire Lab (one of the two components of NSF's R&D section), having been there for the past 16 years. The lab is located at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and housed in the Centre for Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology That Enables ( CREATE). As a prototype specialist, Leland "covers a lot of things mechanical and electrical," working mainly "on human-machine interface challenges and various types of input devices for computer control."

One factor in the ongoing success of the Neil Squire Lab is its close connection with the Dr. Tong Louie Living Laboratory, which is also located at BCIT. "The Living Lab is a facility where we go and set things up," explains Leland. But it's more than just a normal test lab, as the "living" designation signifies. The high-tech lab is wired with a motion analysis system that allows Leland and the others at NSF to monitor in detail how their technology is received.

The contribution Lew and Leland are making can be seen in some of their designs, including "Classmate"--a computer-based, speech-assisted reading and writing program that students can use for taking notes in the classroom--and an accessible Palm PC prototype. In the latter case, they are adapting existing commercial technology, "so your costs drop dramatically, from $1000 to a couple of hundred, and it's mobile," relates Leland, explaining how the Palm PC is filling a gap in accessible technology.

But why only have one first-rate laboratory when you can have two?

Not only is NSF designing technology, it is also pushing the boundaries of research into how electrical signals are converted into body movements. Gary Birch, executive director of the foundation, also runs the Brain Computer-Interface ( BCI) program located at the G. F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver.

Birch, a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident when he was 17, is an adjunct professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC. He received his Ph.D. in biomedical signal processing from UBC and is using this training to develop a direct brain-computer interface. The concept involves converting brain activity, which is commonly recorded as electro-encephalographic (EEG) data, into computer control signals, with the goal of allowing a disabled person to control a computer by merely measuring his or her brain activity.

Birch believes that this interface is needed before the full potential of computers to help the disabled can be realised; he comments on the NSF Web site that "it is the ability of someone with a disability to be able to control the technology that is the limiting factor, not the technology itself." He has been working on this concept for the past 10 years. Over that time, the BCI program has seen four graduate students earn degrees from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC, with four more currently still studying.

"It is a fantastic experience to research in this area," says Yu Zhou, a master's student working to improve the BCI systems performance in Birch's lab. Zhou recalls that it was both the opportunity to help the disabled and an interest in the unknown functions of the brain that drew him into working with the program. He comments that the BCI "has great potential. In the future, [we] may end up with variant BCI devices, such as an intelligent wheelchair, air-conditioner controller, or BCI mouse, all of them controlled by signals detected directly from scalp." Zhou fully expects his training on the BCI program to prepare him for a bright future as well. "I have many choices after graduation," says Zhou, stating that he may continue research at university or company, while also feeling comfortable that he could easily go on to other jobs in any engineering industry.

Taken as a whole, NSF's labs are the pushing the boundaries, not only to adapt and create technology, but also to train the next generation of researchers, in their drive to enhance the technology available to the disabled. Birch's vision of this effort is eloquently stated on the NSF Web site: "It's pretty simple really; we wake up in the morning knowing that we're working to make the world a better place for people with disabilities."

Lew echoes the thought, saying that he is quite convinced that technology derived from NSF will help convince people that despite a disability, "you can still do something very constructive with your life."

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers