Texting abilities returned to people with paralysis

A device that helps quadrapalegic people text took centre stage in Kelowna this week.

By Mark Dreger

Volunteers and student engineers gathered at UBCO campus Saturday to help build LipSync, an affordable mouth-operated controller designed to help quadriplegic men and women navigate computers and smartphones.

“It really means a lot to me and the community,” said Ean Price, an Okanagan resident that has been using the device on his wheelchair for the last few months. “These devices are going to help a lot of people around here.”

Price has suffered since birth from muscular dystrophy , a degenerative disorder that slowly weakens muscles over time. Diagnosed at 10 months old, Price sat in his first wheelchair at three or four-years-old and now after 30 years has been upgrading chairs as the ability to move has gotten increasingly worse.

“We do have a fairly large disabled community and a lot of people, even that I know in wheelchairs that could use this, don’t know about it. They haven’t heard about it,” said Price.

“This is really good to open people’s minds and show people that there is a device out there that will allow them to continue on in life and it’s great for me to watch somebody use the device for the first time and go, ‘holy crap, now I can text again.’”

Over a dozen students and volunteers took part at UBCO to learn how to solder and assemble the device. Once ready, participants started building devices to be given to those in need.

Prashi, a second-year engineering student at UBCO, took part in the volunteer build to help make life easier for those that will use the LipSync.

“Personally, I’m happy to know that I’m helping someone’s life be much more easy on them, to say the least,” Prashi said. “I understand that there’s a lot of people who do not have the opportunity to live out basic lifestyles like we can and knowing that I can contribute to their lifestyle and make it a lot better for them and make it a lot easier for them just makes me know that this effort is worth doing.”

When you gain a small amount back, it’s like climbing Mt. Everest, said one volunteer.

“And it is so fulfilling and so joyful to a person who’s had so much lost that it’s just a very important thing to help people get this independence back,” said Lynne Taylor, who took part in the event after her son became a quadriplegic after a car accident.

The Neil Squire Society, the non-profit releasing the LipSync, helped Taylor’s son use head control technology so he could operate keyboards and TVs again to get back in touch with the world.

“When you’re injured, you lose so much and it’s really wonderful to do something normal again,” Taylor said. “So because Neil Squire had helped us, I wanted to give back to the society by coming and doing this.”

Technology has allowed Price to stay one step ahead of his disorder, but moving on to new technologies has been a common occurrence, from using a mouse to voice recognition.

“I woke up one day and wasn’t able to use a track ball,” Price said, “which I’ve been using for probably seven or eight years, and so immediately I had to find a way to adapt and luckily there’s a lot of technology out there so I was able to find a touchpad, but over the years it has become harder for me to move my thumbs and so now this [LipSync] is the next step.”

According to the Neil Squire Society website, an estimated 1,000,000 people in Canada and the United States have limited or no use of their arms. Devices similar to the LipSync are so expensive that the average person who needs one wouldn’t be able to afford it, but LipSync has created their open source project to allow quadriplegics to use the new technology for less than $300.

The Neil Squire Society has a list of 300 people who require LipSyncs internationally.

“To be able to operate a computer again is mind blowing; it really opens your world up,” Price said. “And not just the computer but even a tablet or a smartphone, so you can type, you can text, you can do everything that I used to be able to do.”

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