Milad in a wheelchair using a LipSync and a switch to play a video game at an event

Recently, Milad Hajihassan celebrated an important milestone — 10 years since he was first hired by Neil Squire through the SFU Co-op program.

At the time he was a fourth year engineering student at SFU, and in order to earn his Bachelor’s degree, he needed to finish three co-op terms. While he found an opportunity as a research assistant in his first term, he initially had troubles finding his next placement.

“Most companies lacked the culture and the infrastructure in terms of accessibility to allow someone with a disability to gain work experience as a student,” he shares. “Initially I wasn’t successful finding any placement even though I applied to more than 100 co-op placements offered by local companies and went to many interviews.”

After expanding his search to include computer science options, he found a co-op placement with Neil Squire. Over the summer of 2012, Milad worked on developing accessibility features for the Moodle online learning management system, including implementing text-to-speech plug-ins. These features helped people with disabilities all across Canada learn valuable computer skills through programs like Distance Computer Comfort.

“I learned how to apply the knowledge I gained at school to solve problems and potentially improve quality of lives,” Milad explains.

“The support from the team and everyone at the Neil Squire impressed me the most and especially how they gave me a chance to settle and adapt to the new co-op placement.”

Making Change

After his co-op placement ended with Neil Squire, Milad came back for his third and final placement. Shortly after graduating, Milad co-founded a start-up in 2014 focused on improving the parking experience.

Once that opportunity ended, Milad wanted to circle back to a passion of his — assistive technology. At that same time, Neil Squire was beginning work on an open-source version of the LipSync that could be built by volunteer makers instead of being produced commercially. The timing was just right, he re-joined the team in February 2016 and hasn’t looked back since.

He played an important role in the development of the LipSync, updating the software and developing different versions, including one that could connect wirelessly via Bluetooth. It was a great experience for Milad, learning about developing for open-source — making it so other makers could replicate it when building the devices and modify it.

The LipSync was, however, part of a bigger picture. The LipSync team would become the initial members of the Makers Making Change initiative, with the idea of developing not just one device, but creating and curating a library of open-source assistive devices that could be made and customized by anyone. Instead of commercial options that were one-size-fits-all and costly, these could be adapted for an individual’s needs and made just for the cost of parts. It would provide a platform for connecting makers with people with disabilities.

an FAIO Multiplexer connected to a joystick

In the years since, Milad’s been a driving force with Makers Making Change. He’s designed circuit boards for many of the devices in the library, including the Light Proximity Switch, the Resistive Touch Switch, and the Analog Sip and Puff Switch. He’s added some personal projects to the library including switch interface systems like the Enabled Controller and the FAIO Multiplexer.

And he’s continued working on the LipSync, continually working on improving the firmware. He played a big part in the LipSync Gaming software that is compatible with the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Milad is currently hard at work on the next iteration of the LipSync.

“Working together with the engineering team to create devices that can improve quality of lives is what I am most proud of,” he says. “I am also proud of being able to expand my knowledge and keep learning new skills.”

Passion for Access

For Milad, his passion for assistive technology is personal. He has Muscular Dystrophy, and uses assistive devices himself to increase his independence.

He uses adaptive switches to operate his electric wheelchair and on-screen keyboard for writing text, and has programmed scripts that allow him to work more effectively. He has also developed a device that allows him to use a computer as a gamepad joystick.

Milad in a wheelchair using a LipSync to play a video game against another person at an event

“Improving lives and helping others to reach their potential is what makes me passionate to work with Neil Squire and Makers Making Change. At the end of the day, a lack of assistive technology is what makes a lot of people with a disability dependent on the help of others, and knowing that creating low cost assistive technology would make them more independent is what makes me passionate to work with Neil Squire and Makers Making Change,” he says.

“It has been 10 years since I joined Neil Squire and everyone has been very supportive from day one. I have been working with many great co-workers through the years and they all have given me the opportunity to grow and expand my skills. I hope I can be involved for many more years to come.”

For persons with disabilities looking for work in a field they’re passionate about, he says, “Focus on your abilities and keep trying your best until you find the right place and right team which allows you to grow.

“I advise employers to give people with disabilities a chance to prove themselves and allow them to adapt to the new environment as we are as productive as anyone with the right assistive technology and setup.”