In 1980, Neil Squire’s car hit a patch of black ice. Neil woke up in a hospital paralyzed from the neck down, without the ability to speak, and reliant on a respirator. Neil’s cousin and innovator Bill Cameron resolved to find a way to help Neil cope with his new disability. After trial and error, Bill came up with a machine that Neil could use Morse Code by puffing and blowing into a straw connected to a computer. Sadly, Neil passed away from kidney failure in 1984, but his cousin and the dedicated hospital staff that worked with him established the Neil Squire Foundation to continue helping people with disabilities throughout Canada.
For almost 40 years, the Neil Squire Foundation has been providing Canadians with disabilities technology to live productive and fulfilling lives. Don Danbrook is one of the individuals whose life has been changed for the better by the Neil Squire Foundation. When Don was 25, he too had an accident that left him paralyzed, unable to speak, and on a respirator. At one point, he and Neil were roommates at Shaughnessy Hospital in Vancouver. Don had the opportunity to be one of the first patients to test out Bill’s communication computer. Since then, Don has been an active member of the Neil Squire Foundation, advocating for individuals like himself who need access to the best technology in the world.
Today, with the help of the foundation, Don works in real estate. Upon seeing how influential drones have become in the sales of commercial and residential properties, Don wanted to take advantage of this technology. However, without the ability to use his hands, Don had no way to independently fly a drone. So, he approached the Neil Squire Foundation to see what kind of magic they could come up with. To find the best candidates for designing a drone that could be operated by someone with limited mobility, the foundation presented the challenge at the 2019 Health & Regenerative Medicine Hackathon- a competition that invites innovators to think outside the box, like Bill Cameron.
A team of engineering students from the University of McGill in Montreal, led by Shawn He, won the competition and immediately set to work on a prototype. It only took Shawn and his team 2 weeks to present the Neil Squire Foundation with a drone that Don would be able to fly on his own. They programmed the drone to use the foundation’s existing technology, LipSync, the modern itineration of Bill’s original sip and puff communication computer. Shawn said he and his team believed in their model, but was still really nervous. “The task was challenging,” Shawn said, “but when [Don] flew the drone for the first time and praised our work, we were really happy.”
Today the drone prototype is being developed for commercial use by a team of undergraduate students that work on actualizing technology for people with disabilities. There are still a few kinks to work out, namely safety parameters, but the team and everyone at the foundation is very optimistic. As Gary Birch, Executive Director of the Neil Squire Foundation once said, “It doesn’t need to be rocket science to ensure that people with disabilities needs are being met as they design new services and products.” Sometimes, you just need to make a few adjustments, and you have a drone that can be flown by someone of any ability.