TORONTO - Eric Wan sways his head from side to side and the sound of tinkling ivories radiates throughout the room.

The pace of the melody accelerates in tandem with the rhythm of his movements, as colourful shapes twirl in sync on a monitor.

With each bob of the head, the computer engineering graduate is crafting his own little music composition through a specialized software program he played a role in helping to develop.

The Virtual Music Instrument is among several projects he's been involved with aimed at helping children living with disabilities. The work is being done at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, the largest facility of its kind in Canada.

"There's a lot of kids that are not able to play music just because they're not able to hold the musical instrument," said the 32-year-old Wan. "I think that there's a lot of children who would like to play music through some kind of way, so this is one of the reasons that I'm interested in this project."

Unlike many of his peers, he has a true understanding of the importance and need for such technologies to assist youngsters with disabilities.

At age 18, Wan was diagnosed with transverse myelitis — a condition resulting from inflammation of the spinal cord — four days after getting a measles vaccination.

"The doctors actually didn't know what the prognosis would be," Wan recalled in an interview at his workstation. "The best case would be that I would be able to walk within months, but it didn't happen."

Wan was paralyzed from the shoulders down, forever transforming the life of young man who grew up with a love of computers and playing classical music on his violin.

Wan was initially unable to breathe at all, dependent on life support 24 hours a day. Months afterwards, he was able to breathe on his own, but said otherwise there wasn't much improvement. After about two years, he was breathing on his own during the day, but he still needs to be connected to a ventilator at night.

Wan admits that early on, there was a period when he was very depressed. But he credits school for keeping him busy and helping him navigate through some of his toughest times.

In the midst of his studies at the University of Toronto, he met Tom Chau, senior scientist with Bloorview Research Institute located on-site at Holland Bloorview. The pair was connected through a respiratory therapist Wan had worked with while in long-term rehab.

After learning about Chau's research, Wan said he started volunteering at the hospital in the summer of 2005, and returned the following year in the fall as an intern. He has been part of the team ever since.

Wan was brought on board as an undergrad to work with the Paediatric Rehabilitation Intelligent Systems Multidisciplinary lab, or PRISM for short, which focuses its efforts on children and youth with disabilities and special needs, and their families, by drawing on applied science and engineering.

"It was really interesting applying my skills in making software or electronic gadgets that enabled people to be able to do more, and so to improve their quality of life," said Wan, who had a long-held interest in computer programing, learning the basic type of programming languages at age eight.

Wan operates his wheelchair using a sip and puff straw system to control the direction, while a tiny, reflective sticker affixed to the bridge of his glasses helps him to use the computer.

A camera at the top of the screen detects the motion of his head using the sticker, which reflects light back into the camera, allowing him to move the mouse cursor and operate an on-screen keyboard using his head.

In addition to helping to advance programming on the Virtual Music Instrument, Chau said Wan has brought "tremendous software expertise" and "ingenuity" to the lab, in particular the iPod localization project. The iPod-based system allows an individual who requires use of a ventilator to wander throughout the hospital independently.

Wan also contributed to a device called the Aspirometer for detecting swallowing safety, Chau said.

"I think Eric is absolutely phenomenal as a person and as an inspiration for the lab, and this is aside from all the technical capabilities that he also brings," said Chau, Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Rehabilitation Engineering.

"As a person, he's very patient, he has a very congenial personality, very easy to get along with. The other team members, they always go to Eric as a resource in terms of software issues, computer issues, computer engineering issues, and technically Eric brings a wealth of skills to the table. He is a phenomenal software developer."

Wan is heading back to the books this fall for graduate school, as he pursues a two-year master's degree at U of T.

He seems keen to continue on his current path, expressing interest in developing software to help children with disabilities gain more control of their environments.

"In particular, there are many children with high level of disability who are not able to communicate with people and they're not able to do anything to enjoy their environment, for example, turn on a TV or pick up a telephone," he said. "This is something that I hope that the children will be able to do so that it will improve their quality of life."

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Online:

Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital:www.hollandbloorview.ca

PRISM lab:www.prismlab.org