An Interview with Neil Squire, 1982

When Neil Squire (new window), a 21-year-old university student and basketball star at the University of Victoria hit black ice in 1980 and crashed, he awoke in a new world. He had become a brain-stem tetraplegic (new window), unable to move his legs or arms and unable to speak.

Bill Cameron, a relative, was overcome with the limited ‘new world’ surrounding Neil and other young adults and began dedicating himself to ‘opening doors’ for people who have significant physical disabilities. It struck Bill there was no device for Neil to communicate so he put his engineering background to use.

Bill wheeled a tele-type machine into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Shaughnessey Hospital and designed and installed a machine to register sips and puffs through a straw. These sips and puffs were translated to dots and dashes. Dots and dashes were translated to Morse Code and Neil was taught Morse code. He was able to find his ‘voice’ again.

Neil literally spoke through a “sip-and-puff (new window)” machine using Morse code and this code appeared as letters on a computer screen. These letters formed Neil’s words and sentences and thus began the link to technology for people with disabilities.

In no time the tele-type was replaced with a home computer and a bevy of volunteers, including electrical engineers and occupational therapists, began working with Neil on a regular basis. They envisioned a time when technology would allow “people who just happen to be in wheelchairs” to have the same choices, opportunities and quality of life as any other person.

In 1984, as this enthusiastic group around Neil was looking for an appropriate name for their activities, he died unexpectedly and the Neil Squire Society (new window) was born.

Bill, and the dedicated workers and volunteers at the newly formed Society, had the vision and foresight to understand that computers were a key to independence. They understood the power of this “new” device and the Society set its sights to linking people with disabilities to technology.

The world of computers became the flagship of the Society and they developed a program called Computer Comfort.  People with significant physical disabilities were able to communicate, some of them for the first time since the onset of their disability.

The Society team was continually developing innovative mechanisms – devices that gave people with limited movement full access to activities.  The Research and Development arm of the Society had established itself as a leader in innovative technology, inventing, among other items, a Jouse – a mouth activated mouse to move the cursor on the computer screen.

Then another program was implemented: Consultation and Assessment Services. Made up of professionals who assessed applicant’s abilities, this group continues to analyze work stations for people with disabilities who are working, and who want to work, to ensure their workstation is suitable to their needs.

The federal government has been a program funder and in 1987, Human Resources Development Canada supported setting up three offices in Vancouver, Regina, and Ottawa. New Brunswick, not to be ignored, was given a presence as well.

In 2019, the Neil Squire Society celebrated its 35th anniversary. We are more committed than ever to continue our work to improve the lives and opportunities of people with disabilities. We encourage you to join us in our goal.