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change maker

Alex Deans, 17,has won awards and recognition for his device to guide the visually impaired. ‘I started working on this as a hobby and never realized I could make a change,’ he says.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

When he was 12, Alex Deans stopped to help a visually impaired woman he saw struggling to cross the street in his hometown of Windsor, Ont. She told him there were no devices to help her navigate with independence and Alex, who had a keen interest in science and inventing, was inspired by that encounter to try to invent one.

"I've always loved science and I like to work with cool technology, but the best part is to apply it to a real world problem and hopefully find a solution," he says.

When he saw a TV program about robotics, he believed that robotics could be used to create such a device. Through Internet forums, he was able to consult with other inventors from around the world to create the iAid, a device that mounts on a belt and uses four ultrasonic sensors, integrated to a joystick and Bluetooth to help direct people with visually impairments.

With the iAid, Alex won the platinum award at Canada's national science fair and second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles as a member of Canada's team.

"I started working on this as a hobby and never realized I could make a change, but once I had a prototype, I went to the local CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind] to have volunteers test it," says Alex, 17, who will be a speaker at We Day.

The volunteers reacted so positively and said the device improved their confidence and independence when they were navigating in public. Alex says the feedback he's gained from his CNIB contacts allowed him to understand how they view the world "and to make a good solution, you have to experience being in the other person's shoes and learn what works and what doesn't."

"You never realize the effect you can have and at the CNIB, I met a whole new group of people who opened my eyes," he adds. "I don't think inventing the device is the most important part of my journey. It's been meeting these people who have changed my life."

When he's not attending classes at Académie Ste. Cécile International School, Alex continues to work on improving the device. He's also a musician (piano and guitar), artist and athlete who sails, plays tennis and skis downhill. He's planning to study engineering in university and, eventually, go to medical school.

He volunteers for his local chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society with fundraising events such as Relay for Life and Grapes of Wrath obstacle run and is a member of the mayor's youth advisory committee. Through his work on the committee, he started a youth volunteerism campaign, Project Impact, to encourage youth to be active in the community. He's working to organize a winter conference that will bring local business leaders and young people together. Alex's passion for volunteering was fostered by his parents, who would take him with them to the downtown mission to help distribute food.

He has been recognized as one of "Canada's Future Leaders under 25" by Maclean's magazine, profiled as a "Top 50 Emerging Leader" by Gen Y Inc., and was featured in Governor-General David Johnston's speech at the Milken Institute's Global Conference Canadian CEO dinner in Los Angeles.

"Young people are often told we are too young to make a difference in the community and world," Alex says. "I think young people are really creative and they have the technology to offer different perspective. I think people underestimate youth. If we set our minds to it, we can do amazing things."

He's excited to take part in We Day and to spend the day with other young change makers who are working to make their communities better.

"I'm lucky to be able to share my story. We have to lead by example. We have problems but we have to show we can persevere and make a difference."

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