Eye gaze technology gives teen 'one bit of independence'

Eva von Flotow uses eye gaze technology. The camera tracks her eye movements so her eyes act like a mouse on the tablet.  

'It gives me a sense of pride,' says Eva von Flotow of Whitehorse

Eva von Flotow uses the eye gaze technology on the tablet in front of her while her mother, Lynne, and occupational therapist, Melissa Croskery, look on. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Eva von Flotow won't take no for an answer. 

The 19-year-old Whitehorse woman is fighting for more accessibility.

It's a cause close to her heart; von Flotow uses a wheelchair. She has quadriplegic cerebral palsy with dystonia, which means she has difficulty controlling how she moves.

Von Flotow is already making change. The Vancouver International Airport is working on an accessible washroom with a lift after she wrote a letter saying none of the washrooms had a lift for people in wheelchairs.

Now she is throwing down a challenge to Yukon politicians — specifically to the territory's member of parliament, Larry Bagnell — to spend a day in wheelchair, blindfolded or with earmuffs on, to see what it's like getting around the Yukon.

Von Flotow can now spread her message wider thanks to a special camera and a tablet.

It's called eye gaze technology. The camera tracks von Flotow's eye movements so her eyes act like a mouse on the tablet.  

At school, she can write emails and surf the web. 

While at home, von Flotow can look up music videos for her favourite musicians, The Beatles and Elton John, and listen to music on Spotify. 

And just like any other teenager, she can take selfies.

Eva von Flotow takes a selfie with CBC's Jane Sponagle and Wayne Vallevand. Von Flotow can take selfies using the eye gaze technology. (Submitted by Eva von Flotow)

"It gives me a sense of pride to have one bit of independence because I can't use any other parts except my mouth," said von Flotow.

More independence for everyone

Von Flotow is sitting in what her mother, Lynne von Flotow, describes as her comfy chair: a tall-backed padded chair in her bedroom. 

The room looks like a lot of teenage girls' bedrooms. Its purple walls are covered with memorabilia and display von Flotow's passions. An Anne of Green Gables doll sits on the top shelf of a bookcase lined with Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea DVDs. 

The eye gaze gives von Flotow's mom some independence too. 

"When I set it up on a weekend, she'll say, 'and shut the door on your way out,'" said Lynne.

"I keep checking on her and she'll spend hours in here alone and love it. I hear music and laughing coming from the room. It's just really nice. 

"It's a real teenage thing to do on her own that she's never been able to do."

How it works 

Here's how the eye gaze technology works: a tablet is set up on an arm that extends around von Flotow's wheelchair and sits about two feet from her face. Below the tablet is the camera. It's a long, narrow black bar that tracks her eye movements.

The camera is programmed to tell if von Flotow is left or right clicking, said Melissa Croskery, a student support services occupational therapist.

Croskery said while the eye gaze does give von Flotow more freedom, there are still kinks to work out, especially with so many programs running together on the tablet. 

"This technology requires you to be patient. It can be very frustrating at times," said von Flotow.

Eva von Flotow has worked with her occupational therapist Melissa Croskery over the last two years to slowly master the eye gaze technology. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Von Flotow isn't the only Yukon student to use eye gaze technology. 

Another high school student and two elementary school students also use it, said Croskery.

She said it can take two years to master the technology, and all the students are at different levels. 

Croskery said the hope is that students who are non-verbal can use the eye gaze to speak. 

The whole set-up isn't cheap — it costs $5,000 to $7,000. Von Flotow received hers through Yukon's Department of Education.

More than just eye gaze

The eye gaze isn't the only technology affording von Flotow more freedom. The Google Home Mini helps too.

Von Flotow asks the device for the weather, to play music or even to tell her a joke. It can also be connected to the lights so she can turn them on and off with her voice.

"I want the North aware that technology that exists is out there for other people who might be interested, but don't know that it's out there," she said.

Eva von Flotow poses with her mother, Lynne von Flotow, and occupational therapist, Melissa Croskery, in her bedroom. Von Flotow is challenging Yukon politicians, like MP Larry Bagnell, to use a wheelchair for a day to see what it's like for her to get around. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

A poster of Malala Yousafzi hangs high up on von Flotow's bedroom wall, watching over all. At age 15, Yousafzi, who is from Pakistan, was shot for fighting for girls' right to education. She is also the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

"I'm a big fan of hers! Huge fan!" von Flotow said.

"That one quote of hers that she says, one child, pen, book and teacher can save the world, is like unbelievable!"

The sentiment is present in Von Flotow's own activism.

"No matter who you are or where you live," she said, "you can make a change for the better."


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