WOLFVILLE, NS – Acadia University hosted a buildathon which saw many lend a hand to aid in building smartphone accessibility devices for people with limited or no use of theirs.
The LipSync Buildathon event happened Feb. 1 at Fountain Learning Commons. The LipSync device, designed to allow users to use their mouth to control smartphone functions, saw a huge turnout of engineering students, and some special local guests.
Twenty-five Wolfville School students showed up to get involved, despite their classes being cancelled for the day.
“It means so much to be here helping those who aren’t able to use their hands very well,” said Sophie Duncan, a grade seven student at the school.
A unique learning opportunity
The LipSync is a device created by the Neil Squire Society, an organization based out of British Columbia that runs assisted technology services to help those with a disability with day-to-day tasks, like opening a water bottle or using a smartphone.
The event was hosted by the university as part of its first Accessibility Week, which was also the first such week in the province.
Engineering students were on site to lead people in the building of the devices, which fit in the palm of a hand. Since they are small, there are several tiny tech bits that fit within the plastic exterior, which is 3D-printed.
The groups were made up of community members and the Wolfville students, who were chaperoned by teachers Tina Dale and Jeff Moore.
“I have goosebumps right now. It’s so special to see them get exposure to something like this, and for them to choose to be here,” said Dale.
Students worked on small microchip pieces and threads of metal, taking turns trying to melt the thin bits onto designated spots on the chip, measuring just a few centimetres on each side.
“This is a lot harder than it looks,” said grade eight student Nathan Biro.
Grade seven student Hannah Williams said she and others were beyond happy to be participating in the event.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s really interesting, and really cool that we’re helping people by doing this,” she said.
‘Made by people who listened to others’
This event was the society’s first project east of Quebec. With an estimated 500 people currently using the device across the country, they are eager to see how it takes off here, according to society coordinator Courtney Cameron.
“Using meetup events to build devices is how we keep costs low, and how we bring awareness to people who’d use these devices,” she said.
“Whatever is made here today will be given to someone in need for free.”
Another key component to bringing together those who can make the devices and those who need them is the society’s soon to be launched website, according to Zee Kesler, a project manager with the society.
The website, Makers Making Change, identifies ‘makers,’ or those who are interested in building the devices, with people with disabilities who are interested in using one.
“This is how we identify who is in need of a device, and who can help us make that happen,” said Kesler.
The devices themselves are also low-cost when compared to similar instruments.
With many technical parts inside, similar devices can cost up to $1,800, when this device costs its buyer $250. This is thanks largely to the 3D-printing model used by the society.
The device was also tested with three rounds of feedback by users with limited hand mobility to ensure its users themselves determined it worked.
“This step was really important to us,” said Cameron.
“Why bother building something that isn’t going to work? We know it works because its users themselves told us.”
Kentville resident Shane Lynch attended the event to see the device for himself. Lynch, who uses a wheelchair and has limited hand mobility, said he was impressed by its functionality, and its price.
“I have something similar to this, and let’s just say it cost me well over $250. That’s a really affordable price, and this was made by people who listened to others who said what worked and what didn’t,” he said.
SIDEBAR: Promoting accessibility at Acadia and in Valley region
Sarah Phillips-Smith and Dr. Abu Kamara organized the week to promote accessibility awareness on campus, and in the wider community, and are both involved with Acadia’s Accessibility Learning Services.
When they heard about the society and its meetup-type events where such devices are constructed, they immediately got in touch.
“There’s a bigger message, which is to be inclusive, and it’s something [Neil Squire] epitomizes,” said Kamara.
The Acadia Students’ Union issued a statement in January calling upon the school to continue supporting marginalized students, including those who use accessibility services.
The statement included four directives for the university, including the creation of a long-term strategic plan for accessibility at Acadia.
“We’d like to see the university come up with a strategic plan to make this better. There’s always more that we can be doing,” said ASU president Grace Hamilton-Burge.
“There’s no one solution. It’s creating a culture where we need to ensure we’re doing every next step to make sure everyone in the community feels as supported as possible.”