CanAssist’s podWiz rocks their world

- Anne Tolson

The first time Ashley Cook played music on an iPod by herself was a moment of pure magic. The 17-year-old girl’s eyes widened, she looked up at her dad in astonishment, then she pressed the red button on her arm again, thrilled to be in control of a Miley Cyrus album.

“Ashley loved her iPod from the moment she received it,” says her dad, Rodney Cook, who was at his daughter’s high school in Mission, BC, on the day a new adapter for the iPod was unveiled. “She gets very excited about operating the iPod and shows us she is proud when she activates the switch.”

Developed by CanAssist engineers at the University of Victoria, the podWiz is a unique device that enables people with severe disabilities to perform many functions on an iPod independently—simply by pressing a large button. Ashley, who has cerebral palsy, was among 11 youngsters to receive the adapter during the Dec. 9 unveiling in Mission.

Ashley also happens to be indirectly responsible for the genesis of this remarkable project, which today is opening a new world to 200 young people with very challenging disabilities across British Columbia.

The ‘Aha!’ moment

The inspiration for the iPod project can be traced to the corridors of Ashley’s school almost two years earlier.

Chris Jenkins, a teacher-consultant, had arrived at Heritage Park Secondary and was preparing to meet with Ashley and her teachers to create a special curriculum for the girl. He is one of a small team called the Provincial Integration Support Program. Part of the Ministry of Education, PISP has a caseload of more than 100 kids who have been deemed the most severely disabled in BC’s school system.

Like many kids with challenging disabilities, Ashley has a curriculum that includes learning to hit a large single button—called an accessibility switch—that turns on a tape deck or other device, a crucial step in learning cause and effect as well as a means of controlling one’s environment. For years the PISP team used tape decks, since CD players didn’t work well with accessibility switches.

“I was sitting in the hallway, transferring a High School Musical CD onto a cassette tape for Ashley,” Jenkins recalls. “There were all these kids walking by, staring at what I was doing because they didn’t understand the technology I was using.”

Not surprisingly, many of the teens were carrying Apple’s ubiquitous iPod and wearing earphones. At that moment, Jenkins realized that the way he and his team were using music to teach the kids with disabilities was antiquated, cumbersome and tended to isolate them from their peers.

“I remember thinking ‘We’ve got to do something to update this,’” says Jenkins. “It’s got to be current, portable and something that their peers can identify with.” Of course, given his role with PISP, there was one more fundamental requirement. “It’s also got to have the capability to be a teaching tool,” he added.

CanAssist gets involved

Jenkins had already heard about CanAssist at the University of Victoria, which for the past 10 years had been developing customized technologies and innovative programs for people with special needs. So he contacted CanAssist on behalf of PISP.

Typically, a project undertaken by CanAssist is the result of a request from an individual or their caregiver. If the device requested doesn’t already exist and the idea is technically feasible, an engineer or programmer will be assigned to create a one-of-a-kind technology. Sometimes, a particular device becomes popular and is requested by several clients. But the iPod project represented new territory for CanAssist.

In this case, the request came from an organization rather than an individual. Instead of developing a device for a single client, CanAssist was asked to provide units to more than 100 severely disabled children attending schools in BC.

Before the engineers began working, CanAssist administrators went looking for funding. In April 2009, the team was thrilled when Variety—The Children’s Charity—generously offered to cover the cost of building 125 adapters, the iPod nanos to go with them, and each child’s choice of speakers or earphones.

Developing the podWiz

With funding secure, Carl Spani, an electrical engineer at CanAssist, began working in earnest on a prototype for the iPod adapter.

The adapter was built to connect to an iPod and an accessibility switch or button. Operating the iPod involves repeatedly pressing this button, which activates a series of voice prompts built into the adapter. These prompts guide the user to control functions such as Play, Pause, Skip and Volume adjustment. (Voice prompts are especially important for the children with vision impairments.)

In addition to ensuring that the device was small and portable, Spani programmed five levels of complexity from which each user could choose. The simplest level requires children to use a single switch and teaches them how to turn their music off and on. The most complex enables a person to use two switches to scan through music and menus more quickly. Several other ingenious settings were included, each supporting the requirements of a range of abilities.

Following weeks of testing by Spani and other CanAssist engineers, a second design was sent to three disabled children in Victoria who provided them with valuable feedback. Not long before the December unveiling, a contest was held to name the new device. The winning submission came from 18-year-old Jesse Hoffman of Sooke, who called CanAssist’s invention the podWiz.

“Delivering the iPods and watching the kids use them for the first time was amazing,” recalls Spani, one of several CanAssist employees who lent their support during that first delivery at Ashley’s school.

“Seeing them smile when they realized they were controlling their music was fantastic. It was like magic for these kids.”

Interest spreads

Since the delivery of the first 125 iPod systems, several other organizations have provided funding to CanAssist to build additional units, bringing the total number of deliveries so far to about 200.

In the meantime, CanAssist is exploring the possibility of patenting the podWiz. Such a move would help make the device more widely available and, ideally, generate revenue for CanAssist, as part of its goal to be self-sustaining.

CanAssist is also scheduling meetings with Apple representatives to determine if there might be opportunities for collaboration in the future.

Today, Jenkins and his colleagues at PISP are using the iPod systems as part of the curriculum for all the kids in their program. He says the iPods are proving a versatile teaching tool in the classroom. Importantly, the device is also a means of socialization and inclusion for kids with disabilities.

“If you’re using the same device that everyone else is using, you can be more involved in life,” he explains. “You can be out in the common area in your high school and you’ve got speakers on the back of your wheelchair. People can come up to you and say, ‘Hey what have you got on your iPod? Play us something.’”

Elijah, an eight-year-old from Courtenay, provides an example of how the adapted iPod system offers this greater sense of inclusion.

“When we first got the iPod, Elijah took it to school for sharing in his class. Everybody thought it was so cool,” says his mom, Joanne Lund.

As for Ashley, despite ongoing health problems that have kept her away from school in recent months, the podWiz that sits on her wheelchair tray has been a source of daily happiness and respite from her discomfort.

“When we brought it home, her brother took the liberty to fill it with all kinds of music,” says her dad. “She has a permanent smile and often laughs out loud while listening to her iPod.”

CanAssist benefits enormously from the generosity of partners, donors and volunteers and deeply appreciates the critical role they play in helping provide programs and technologies to those with special needs. For more information on CanAssist, visit www.canassist.ca. To make a donation, call Barbara Toller, CanAssist Development Officer, at 250-853-3948.

In this story

Keywords: podWiz, CanAssist

People: Ashley Cook


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