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Corinne Eisenstein,17, who has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic, listens to her ipod music player through mini speakers as Carl Spani, the designer of the CanPlay podWiz device by CanAssist , watches over her shoulder, at the University of Victoria Thursday. (Deddeda Stemler)
Corinne Eisenstein,17, who has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic, listens to her ipod music player through mini speakers as Carl Spani, the designer of the CanPlay podWiz device by CanAssist , watches over her shoulder, at the University of Victoria Thursday. (Deddeda Stemler)

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Dressed in their candy-bright colours, truckloads of those ubiquitous iPods will appear under Christmas trees this year. Just 125 of them will come with a new adapter that will make the digital music players accessible to severely disabled young Canadians.

In a research laboratory at the University of Victoria, tester Corinne Eisenstein has been helping develop the CanPlay podWiz, an accessory for an off-the-shelf Apple iPod nano. Her hair is pulled back - all the better to show off her coveted "Chick Pink" Skullcandy headphones, which happen to match her hoodie and the accents on her black sneakers. Ms. Eisenstein is 17.

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Her hands are folded over by cerebral palsy. With an effort she can extend a single finger, or just use her knuckles, to click on large yellow and blue buttons that allow her to operate the tiny device with its finicky little control wheel.

Her ability to manipulate anything using her hands is almost non-existent. And she is one of the upper end of users in terms of mobility that the podWiz is designed for. The options include a headband that allows users to send commands to the player by clenching their jaw muscles.

UVic biologist Nigel Livingston is the director of CanAssist, which develops innovative technology, programs and services for people with special needs. The agency invites the public to request projects, which is where the iPod challenge came from.

Dr. Livingston called in engineer Carl Spani, whom he met as one of his co-op students in biology. "We said to Carl, 'solve the problem.'"

Mr. Spani's job title scarcely fits on a business card: "Electrical engineering - electronic specialization with mechatronics and embedded systems options."

Whatever that is, it meant that in nine months, he produced a rechargeable little gizmo that puts Ms. Eisenstein in control of her music.

The podWiz is a black box containing a microcomputer that acts as a switcher for external commands that are delivered through a range of devices like the buttons Ms. Eisenstein can use. She loves the album art that the nano displays, and wants her unit mounted on her wheelchair at eye height, but the podWiz also generates voice prompts so that the visually impaired can use it as well.

Many of the projects CanAssist takes on are highly specialized, but Mr. Livingston sees commercial potential with this one. His vision is to have people with disabilities handle the production, marketing and sales.

He's talking to Apple about a partnership to use its incredible distribution machine to reach people who would otherwise consider the iPod out of reach. (In the three months leading up to last Christmas, Apple sold almost 23 million iPods. It would be a pretty nice marketing partner to have.)

Ms. Eisenstein has enjoyed her role in helping debug the podWiz. As she navigated the menu during a demonstration, she deftly skipped over the Mary Poppins soundtrack to find some pop. When one of the engineers tried offering a tip, she smiled. "Yeah, I figured that out."

Without the adapter kit, she would have to ask for help to play, pause, skip songs and turn up the volume. "It gives us more ability to do stuff," she said.

It's the whole point of CanAssist, which often seeks solutions to very specific obstacles. There was the modified electric chisel that allows a quadriplegic artist to carve his stone sculptures. And an adult trike that was adapted for a young man with cerebral palsy, allowing him to sit safely and pedal while a caregiver steers from behind him.

But one of its most popular devices to date is a ball launcher for dogs. Using a compressed carbon dioxide tank for power, the launcher attaches to a wheelchair and allows users to play fetch with their dogs.

Ms. Eisenstein's work at the lab is almost finished. The product and training manuals are ready to ship, it's hoped that the first batch of units will all be distributed in time for Christmas.

But she already has another project in mind for Mr. Livingston's crew, an adapter that would allow people with limited dexterity and mobility to use another coveted gadget - the Nintendo Wii game console.

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

 

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