Q&A with Jesse Leaman

Jesse creates new assistive technology using SketchUp / by Regina Revazova

Jesse creates new assistive technology using SketchUp / by Regina Revazova

Writing By Brad Rassler

Because he’s a scientist, inventor, and early adopter of high-tech assistive technology (AT) solutions, we thought we’d ask Jesse Leaman about his relationship with AT through the years, including giving us a glimpse of what might be around the corner.

EN: Tell us about AT you’ve used through the years.

JL: I’ve been using AT for 16 years now. A lot of them have come a long way. Voice recognition in particular. It used to be very inaccurate, and it used to take a very long time to train, and most people stopped using it because they got frustrated.

These days you can learn it in half an hour, and it’s very accurate. It’s much better. The great thing about voice recognition is that it learns. I can do anything on the computer that any other person can do. So it really levels the playing field. And one of my most recent endeavors has been to make sketches with 3D computer aided design – a program called SketchUp — and it allows me to make pictures that I wouldn’t be able to do with my hands. And even more so, it allows me to make 3D models. Have you heard the expression, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words?’ Well, a model is worth a thousand pictures. I have all these ideas for technological advancements that would make my life easier. Without the software, I wouldn’t be able to communicate these ideas. So we live in a great day and age.

EN: Who pays for the AT that you use, and how do you go about requesting it?

JL: All of this AT gets expensive after awhile. I have a lot of pieces here. I certainly can’t afford any of this stuff out of pocket. Luckily there are services and organizations that help with this process. Medicare helps with the chair. That’s the big expense. After that, you can sometimes get help from the Center for Independent Living, or if you’re without employment, there’s Vocational Rehabilitation through the Department of Education and the state [you live in] – and they will provide the technology that you need to get and keep employment. So that includes computers.

Problem is, if you’re not paying for these things out of pocket, and you ask agencies and organizations to help you out, usually that results in a lot of delay and bureaucracy. There has to be a person who recommends the right technology, like a therapist, then there has to be the counselor who approves the purchase, and then sometimes there are further delays like how to install the technology — so you have to hire an outside contractor.

So it’s a process. You’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops, but ultimately, it’s certainly worth it. And you have to show up for the first few meetings with counselors and therapists in person, but after that they’re usually pretty considerate about using email. Email is the best way for me to communicate. I can’t make phone calls on my own right now.

EN: You’ve invented your own AT, the Gryphon Shield (a desktop accessory to a motorized wheelchair). Can you tell us how that came about?

JL: They say necessity is the mother of all invention, and that’s what happened with me. I had all these challenges, that I had to overcome, and I had a desire to get an education, and do work, and remain productive, and maximize my potential, and I needed certain things to be able to do that.

When I was first faced with being in a motorized wheelchair, it was a little bit scary. I couldn’t turn around to see what’s behind me. So when I would go out on the street, I wouldn’t always know whether there was traffic or people behind me. Or if I go into an elevator, and couldn’t turn around, I’d have to reverse blind. Or if I would be visiting a scientist or a professor, and I would visit their office, when I would reverse, sometimes I would hit furniture, or people, and that’s not good.

So I came up with a way to use my wheelchair the way modern luxury cars have rear view cameras built into them. Well this was back in 1998, so nobody was using this in their cars yet. The only application was in RVs. I wanted to apply that technology to my wheelchair. So we started with a little black and white camera, a 2” screen – just enough for me to be able to make out outlines. But then, over the years, when technology was getting better, I could include a better camera, a bigger screen, and it became more and more useful because I was able to see details of what was behind me. Maybe a skateboarder is coming from behind, and I don’t want to turn into his path.

And then laptops came along – and I put a laptop in my backpack and attached it to my screen, and all of a sudden I could do work from my chair. Unfortunately there was no Mount’n Mover (a wheelchair laptop computer mount) at the time, so I had to invent something to put my screen onto. And then I started adding features like lights, and speakers. I had it like a little car and like a mobile office. It was big and bulky.

If you take a look at the front of my chair right now – this Mount’n Mover arm – that’s one of the latest advancements. It’s not mine, but a lot of my previous efforts were in order to achieve something similar to what this technology achieves right now. It’s meant to hold a laptop or LCD screen in front of you so you can work while you’re on the move. This technology hasn’t been around for very long, but I’ve been using the computer on my lap for a long time.

EN: Can you tell us about any low-tech AT that you use?

JLI’m excited that the technology has come this far. But there are lots of technologies that you might not think about that are very useful in my day to day life. For example, the Hoyer Lift, a hydraulic lift that lifts me from my bed into my chair, or from one chair into another chair, and that takes a lot of the work away from an attendant, and less chance of injury for them. The shower chair is a really useful one. Because I can be safe in a shower and not have to be content with a sponge bath.

Diana Leaman hoists Jesse in the Hoyer Lift / by Regina Revazova

Jesse transferring between bed and wheelchair in the Hoyer Lift / by Regina Revazova

EN: What do you see in the future with respect to AT?

JL: One of the frontiers that I’m looking into personally is the use of voice commands to let robots do things for you. And also the use of lasers to target objects. So say for example that I have a robotic arm attached to my chair — and I wish it to grab a can of soda for me  — I would use a laser attached to my glasses, look at the target, and then tell the computer to reach for the target and retrieve it. So that’s something I’m looking into myself – both software and hardware sides.