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Holland Bloorview scientific team given award by Governor General

TORONTO – An inter-professional team of Toronto-based scientists, including a biomedical engineer and music therapist, has been recognized with one of Canada’s highest honours – the Meritorious Service Cross (Civil Division), presented by the Governor General of Canada. The decoration recognizes Canadians for exceptional deeds that bring honour to the country.

The team, from Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, started developing the Virtual Music Instrument (VMI) software in 2003 to help individuals with complex disabilities express themselves and experience the benefits of music therapy – including an increased self-esteem and sense of personal accomplishment. To date, the VMI has impacted the lives of kids and families in over seven countries worldwide.

“We are deeply honoured by this recognition, and humbled that our work has impacted the lives of people with disabilities across the world,” said Dr. Tom Chau, Holland Bloorview’s vice president of research. “Our work in driving research discoveries into action means that technologies such as the VMI are accessible to the very people who would benefit most from them.”

Dr. Chau, alongside Andrea Lamont, music therapist and educator; Pierre Duez, software engineer; and Eric Wan, engineer, began developing the VMI to create the opportunity for kids with disabilities to play music – without having to hold or manipulate an instrument.

“Whether it’s making music through dance, finger movements, or even an eye blink, the VMI gives a meaningful musical experience for children in recreation, education, and therapy settings,” said Lamont.

One of the VMI’s most unique features is that in contrast to current technologies and apps, it adapts to a child’s abilities and physical commands by acting as an extension of their body. For children and their families, this is often a life-changing experience. The VMI has been adopted by rehabilitation institutes worldwide with kids, youth and adults both with and without a disability.

To use the VMI, a computer and webcam are required. The individual’s image gets projected onto the screen with large coloured shapes superimposed on the space around them; representing different notes, chords, and even bars of music. When a child moves a part of their body, the camera captures the movement over the shapes and translates it into musical sounds.

“What began as an exploration of the potential of technology in music therapy has become an instrument that has allowed kids with disabilities to engage more fully with music, even to the point of performing in concerts,” said Duez.

The VMI also has the potential to address goals in the physical, cognitive, communication, sensory, and social domains. It gives children and youth with disabilities access to a leisure activity, encourages exploration, and offers a channel for emotional expression.

“It is incredibly rewarding to see this innovative technology have a positive impact on the lives of kids with disabilities and enable them to do what they haven’t previously been able to. It makes kids feel special and challenges the perceptions of what a person with a disability can and cannot do. The Governor General’s recognition of our work is a triumph for Holland Bloorview and kids with communication and mobility challenges across the world,” said Wan.

The Meritorious Service Decorations (Civil Division) are an important part of the Canadian Honours System. They recognize individuals who have performed an exceptional and often innovative deed or activity that sets an example for others to follow, or improves the quality of life in a community at a local, provincial, national, or international level.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, presented the decoration to the team during a ceremony on December 12 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. To learn more visit www.hollandbloorview.ca.

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