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Interview with Chad Leaman of Makers Making Change: The Access Makeathon – building your own rules

How do you ensure that the device you’re building for someone with a disability is going to be genuinely useful for that person, and that it meets their individual needs? Simple: put that person at the centre of the design process and find out exactly what they want.

This thinking is at the root of Makers Making Change (MMC), a new project that connects ‘makers’ (skilled individuals or small teams building things on a DIY-style basis) with people with disabilities. The person with a disability explains a piece of equipment they need built or a problem they want solved, and the makers design and build something that meets those needs – with the disabled person involved at all stages.

MMC was launched by Chad Leaman and Harry Lew of the Neil Squire Society, a Canadian not-for-profit that focuses on giving Canadians with disabilities access to assistive technologies.

In January, Leaman and MMC organised the Access Makeathon in Vancouver. Ten teams of makers were paired an individual with a disability. Over one weekend, the teams then built an ‘access solution’ tailored to that individual. The results were innovative, inspiring and genuinely useful for the individuals at the centre of the team.

e-Access Bulletin spoke to Chad Leaman to learn more about the Makeathon and MMC.

- How did the idea for the Access Makeathon come about?

“It started about a year ago with the grant we got from Google for our LipSync project. This is a mouth-controlled input device that allows people with limited or no hand movement to control a touchscreen device. As we worked on making it open source – so that other people could make it as well – we learned that a lot of people were doing similar work around creating open source assistive technology projects.

“But our concern was that a lot of them had people making things for people with disabilities without talking to the people with disabilities. So our idea was to make the person with the disability the captain of the team. They’re the people that know what they need, so it put those people in the centre of things.”

- Please give an overview of exactly what happens at Access Makeathon:

“Over 48 hours, a person with a disability connects with a team of makers who will build open source assistive technology that directly addresses a need the person has. The goal is for each team to help a person leave the event with a working prototype that improves their quality of life.”

- Tell us about some of the projects that were built:

“Team Ashley created a 3D-printed, self-levelling cup attachment for the clutch on her wheelchair. Team Timothy built a customised Wii joystick for a young person who couldn’t use a standard controller.

“One of the simpler projects was from Team Steve. Steve wanted a way to hold popcorn on the side of his wheelchair, because when he goes to see a movie and buys popcorn, it gets spilled because he’s trying to wheel across the thick carpet that movie theatres have. The team built a popcorn holder, but they also made it into a fold-out lap tray that can be used to hold any meal. Some of the teams really went above and beyond.”

- ‘Team Jim’ was the winning team. What was their project?

“Jim broke his neck and has very little lung capacity due to a breathing issue, and his wife, Isabelle, is hearing-impaired. So Jim is unable to wake Isabelle if something happens to him in the night. The ‘ask’ from Jim to his team of makers was: ‘Make a sip-and-puff-triggered vibrating alarm system that can call Isabelle even is she is in a different room.’ The team built a modified bed-shaker alarm system which can be triggered by a LipSync sip-and-puff device or a phone app.

“What struck me about the Makeathon was that a lot of makers involved talked about how profound the impact on them was. Some were bio-medical students or engineers, and some of them said they didn’t normally have the opportunity to use their skills in a way that would have a real impact.

“For the makers to see the person they were making for was really powerful. There’s something really magical when you put those pieces together, the people who are designing the solution together with the people who need the solution.”

- What are the next steps for MMC?

“The goal is for MMC to have two major parts. The first is to put these projects up on the MMC website for others to build, and release plans documentation all open source, so it doesn’t get lost in that one event.

“The second part is that we want to connect makers to people with disabilities. If you need a LipSync, you’ll be able to search for it or for makers in your area who will make one. We want viable solutions that really solve a need.

“The AT industry can be quite expensive, so we want to really try and provide a new way of getting AT to people who need it – especially people who don’t have things like a government programme or insurance provider, so that we can make sure that people aren’t slipping through the cracks.”

- When will people be able to get a LipSync?

“We have about eight with people now and the plan is to get 150 out to those who can benefit from them. If there’s someone out there that needs a LipSync due to disability constraints, I’m paying for the parts for the first 150 builds, so it won’t cost people anything. They can also tell me what they like or don’t like about it, and what they want changed.”

- Will there be more makeathons or other events?

“We recently finished a Lipsync-specific makeathon at BC Tech Summit, where we got 12 built. The next one is in April and we’re hoping to get 30 more Lipsyncs built.

“Then the plan is to do Access Makeathon three or four more times in Canada over the next 12-18 months. We’re also planning to do events in other parts of North America, and we’d eventually like to look at hosting events in the UK and Europe.

“There’s a willingness in the field right now to look at new solutions and delivery models. We’re trying to position makeathons as an opportunity for people – a chance to make an impact, to use the tech skills you might have to really serve a need within your community.”

Read more about Makers Making Change and the Access Makeathon at the MMC website:
http://eab.li/5i .

Find out more about the Neil Squire Society:
http://eab.li/5j .

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