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Inclusive mobile technology will increase job opportunities for those with disabilities

Mauricio Meza and Jorge Silva of Komodo OpenLab.

Jorge Silva and Software Developer, Eric Wan

Meza, demonstrating the devices at work.

Simple button pad controlling an Android device.

Komodo OpenLab's workspace is straight out of the pages of a technology magazine. It has the token line of silver iMacs running through the centre of the room, the incessant buzz of overhead fluorescent lighting and the archetypal tech developers -- eyes glued to the screen.
But it's the innovators behind the Toronto-based not-just-for-profit--and their shared excitement surrounding the life changing scope of their work with inclusive technology--that makes Komodo unique. Every innovation that comes out of Komodo's lab is rooted in the team's collective ethos to create ability for people with disabilities.
Take Eric Wan, software developer at Komodo, for example. 
At the age of 18, an unexpected reaction to a routine measles vaccination paralyzed Wan from the shoulders down, making even breathing a challenge. But through his own path to learning to live with his disability, Wan developed a drive to help others like him.
Wan, who has a Master's in biomedical engineering, helped create the software side of Komodo's most recent accessibility tool, the Tecla Shield, in the form of a free accessibility app available on Android and iOS operating systems. The device allows the user to operate their smartphone with the controls of their wheelchair. 
Wan's unique position both as a person with disabilities and a developer gives him a heightened understanding surrounding the device's importance.
"Phone and internet usage has been restricted to homes and workplaces with the aids of adaptive technology and environmental control," he says, adding that Tecla is the first product that opens him up the use of mobile phones. "Its effect on the quality of life for people with disabilities is far more positive than anyone can imagine."
But for people with disabilities, accessing a smartphone goes beyond perusing the news, checking emails and killing time trying to beat Tetris high scores. It opens up a completely new range of possibilities.
"Disability unemployment (a staggering 50 per cent of the disability population) has also been a challenge, partly due to the failure in delivering readily available accessible technology to these individuals," says Wan. "Accessible technology enhances their ability to work and increase their employability."
Changing lives is seemingly Komodo's modus operandi.
Much like Wan, Jorge Silva, Komodo's co-founder and Technical Lead, has spent a decade developing inclusive technology to help people with disabilities utilize the swath of tools being churned out by the changing technological landscape.
He's a paradox--borderline obsessive with his work yet acutely aware of the world surrounding him--as exhibited by a TEDx talk he gave two years ago in Montreal. When asked about why he does the kind of work he does, he answers modestly saying it's equal parts altruism and curiosity. 
"When I went to university, I was very curious about disabilities and accessibility. It seemed to be a field that presents a lot of problems that needed to be solved," says Silva who has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from University of Toronto. "Those solutions have the potential to quickly change the way people do things."
The use of the Tecla Shield is spreading.
Since Silva and the team at Komodo released the first version of the Tecla Shield last February, the device has garnered 450 users in 19 different countries. And why shouldn't it considering at $289, it is the cheapest adaptive device of its kind.
In keeping with Komodo's philosophy of accessibility and open source development, the tech is fully customizable according to the user's mobility impairment or disability.
"I don’t think we have found a user that we can't accommodate," says Mauricio Meza, Komodo's charismatic co-founder and head of Business Development. He points to one tester who suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her movement below her shoulders. Since head switches operate her wheelchair, the Tecla Shield can make it so those same switches operate her iPhone.
"For a lot of people with disabilities the wheelchair has become a part of them. We wanted to integrate into what they already have," says Meza.
On the software side, the technology is always in development to keep up with the constantly updated iOS and Android operating systems.
The company has received grants from Google and the Ontario Centres of Excellence. FedDev Ontario and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada also contributed funding, through partnerships with OCAD's Inclusive Design Research Centre, George Brown College and MyVoice AAC, a talking keyboard. 
In fact, two students at George Brown’s School of Mechanical Engineering Technologies -- Esteban Saldarriaga and Arizona Dixon -- helped to develop the casing and print the circuit board for both versions of Tecla. Komodo plans to release the second, more compact version at the end of May.
Scott Carruthers, project manager at George Brown, points out that what the students came up with--a clear box roughly the size of two smartphones stacked on top of one another--was a lot different then what Komodo might have gotten if they'd have gone the more branded, hyper-professional route for the device's design. 
"Komodo wanted it to be in the spirit of the DIY look and feel, having all the parts obvious and visible," Carruthers says. "They wanted to emphasis that it was open source."
The team at George Brown also developed a wheelchair mount for the device. 
Komodo's connection runs deep with George Brown, the faculty's Principal Investigator on the project, Paul O'Brien, had worked at University of Toronto's Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, where both Wan and Silva had also worked. O'Brien was involved in rehab engineering there and had done work on wheelchair systems.
"It's important to have a perspective on disability and accessibility," says O’Brien. "Accessibility is more about facilitating independence -- if you come from that background you kind of understand what they're trying to achieve here."
O'Brien is proud of his involvement in the project, likening it to other innovations that have had unexpected benefits for people with disabilities.
"Just think about the kind of revolution the T.V. remote created in the capacity of an alternate access to commercial consumer devices," adds O’Brien. "That's kind of what's going on here now, these alternate access devices can be leveraged for people with disabilities."

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto Star, The Vancouver Sun, The Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journal among other places. His last piece for Yonge Street looked at cutting-edge healthcare surveillance technology coming out of Toronto. 
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