Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Got a kid with a disability? App makes finding services easy

By Louise Kinross

When your child has a disability, how do you find the best therapies, adapted sports programs, or accessible playgrounds and restaurants?

It often involves a lot of trial and error, and, in the case of private therapies, wasted dollars when the fit isn’t right.

That’s why researchers at Holland Bloorview are developing a crowdsourcing app to help parents and kids find nearby Toronto services that meet their specific needs. The app will include a user quality rating system of one to five stars.

“We need this application because information about services is scattered on the Internet, and it’s time-consuming for families to find what they need,” says Eric Wan, the Holland Bloorview software developer leading the project. Eric is beginning his PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.

“With this app, we’ll have clients sign up for accounts and specify their needs, diagnosis and location,” Eric says. “Then, each time they use a service, they will rate it on a five-star system. The app will help families find quality services more efficiently.”

Eric says his team already has a prototype, and hopes to begin six months of beta testing with about 100 users in September. The app will include public and private services and can be used on a phone, desktop computer or tablet.

The initial idea came from Julia Hanigsberg, president and CEO at Holland Bloorview, who has a daughter with a disability. “What I constantly hear from parents is that it’s hard to know what’s out there in terms of services, and the best source of information is often other families,” Julia says. “Clinicians say it’s hard to keep up with available services and have accurate, up-to-date information to give to families. I believe in the power of harnessing the knowledge and experience of the crowd.”

Eric says he began computer programming as an eight year old, and loves it because “there’s always something new to learn. It never bores me.”

Years ago, his first assignment at Holland Bloorview was to classify swallowing data on the aspirometer—a sensor worn on a child’s neck to alert families when a child was about to aspirate. “That was the very first time I used software development for something practical,” he says.

Eric says he often uses Yelp, a restaurant rating, to find out whether venues will accommodate his wheelchair. Eric is himself paralyzed from the shoulders down due a reaction to a measles shot at the age of 18.

His PhD will be supervised by Holland Bloorview scientist Azadeh Kushki. “She’s very open to new ideas and gives me a lot of flexibility in how exactly to develop the software,” he says.