Sound overly ambitious? Not for someone with Bill’s inventive spark and astounding track record. His recent very personal experiences are now driving him to find communications solutions on a global scale.
Almost three years ago, at the age of 90, Bill became a volunteer at Bruyère Saint-Vincent Hospital in Ottawa. As a member of the assistive devices team, he is helping develop a series of devices allowing patients with many physical, cognitive, and vocal problems to communicate.
He speaks with great compassion of “the cruelty of solitary confinement as horrible as anyone can imagine” when describing a patient paralyzed for 10 years, unable to communicate, unable to breathe or swallow. With the help of a $15,000 computer, the ingenuity of Bill Dawson, and the technical expertise of the team, this particular patient was able to go on the internet, reconnect with family and friends through emails, access library resources. She accomplished all of this, limited to the use of her thumbs -the right for the call button. With her left thumb she could laboriously trigger the spelling of words, selecting letters from an alphabet constantly scrolling across computer screen in front of her. When her thumb became too weak to press the spring to select letters, Bill and the team modified the device so that she just had to cross a beam of light with her thumb, freeing her to write volumes of poetry. “She wrote the most beautiful poem on the miracle of giving voice to someone in her situation” says Bill.
Another isolated, chronically ill patient uses a small portable computer Bill bought her and her nose to create and edit photo albums of her grandchildren. Only able to move her head, she has learned to align her nose with the crosshairs of a camera installed on the computer in order to make selections on a keyboard onscreen. “She is now very efficient with it and spends hours rearranging photos. Her day is full.” says Bill and smiles. “When she first got this set up two and a half years ago, she had problems with the hospital, because she wouldn’t go to sleep.”
And now Bill, students from Carleton University, and the team from Bruyère Saint Vincent Hospital are working on a prototype of an assistive device that will allow other ill and isolated individuals to connect to the outside world by connecting a flat screen tv and as many as nine inputs. Accessibility, adaptability and affordability are top priorities for this tool which Bill and the team from Bruyère and Carleton expect to showcase at the August conference of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) to be held in Toronto. ISAAC is an organization working to improve the lives of children and adults with complex communication needs. The Ottawa team is currently creating the demonstration model to be tested in August from motherboards and 3D printed boxes. Their aim is nothing less than “give communication of different kinds, mostly through computers, to people with the most devastating deficiencies in their body -physical, visual auditory – and to have the world the world at their fingertips at a very affordable price.”