Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Steering through Obstacles: Shaan Lail

By Naina Grewal, 19 Nov, 2019

    Shaan is the first person in Canada to drive using the state-of-the-art electronic Swiss driving system, which allows people with minimal muscle strength to control a vehicle with a single joystick.

    From as long as he can remember, 22-year old UBC Sauder School of Business student, Shaan Lail, has had a fascination with cars. Seeing his cousins’ classic Mustangs and parents’ Mercedes, he often longed for the day that he would be able to take on the steering wheel. Unlike others who share a similar passion for automobiles, Shaan’s journey to the road came with many twists, turns and challenges to overcome.

    At age six, Shaan Lail was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a neuro-muscular condition that results in progressive weakening and breakdown of muscles over time. DMD affects about one in 3,500 boys. The disease is present from birth, but its effects manifest later and gradually. Despite Shaan’s parents’ best efforts – his mom is a medical doctor – and seeking treatments and participating in clinical trials at various universities all over the world, Shaan’s disease progressed slowly over the years. He could walk and do all daily activities, but at the age of 17, his muscles had weakened to the point where he transitioned from walking to being in a power wheelchair. Despite the disease, he still excelled at everything he did. Shaan was the top academic student in his high school graduation class and very active in school events. He was accepted into UBC, his parents’ alma mater; his mother graduated in Medicine and father in Engineering. With this change of being in a wheelchair, Shaan noticed a shift in people’s perception and reluctance to interact normally, “Some people aren’t used to having someone different around them. I intentionally made an effort to make myself approachable.”

    Shaan still wanted to pursue his passion for cars, but given the available options, the prospect of driving looked bleak. He was left wondering if he would ever be able to drive. With determination and optimism, Shaan did not give up. He researched and got in touch with rehabilitation driving specialist Dean Robertson, who worked with Shaan and followed with a new development called Joysteer, a new Swiss electronic driving system for those with physical disabilities. This development could potentially allow him to fulfill his dream of driving. He persevered and there was no looking back, as Shaan then went on to become the first person in Canada to drive using the state-of-the-art electronic Swiss driving system, which allows people with minimal muscle strength to control a vehicle with a single joystick!

    For Shaan, the main attraction point of Joysteer is its suitability for people with various disabilities; it is easily adjusted as abilities change. From start to finish, it took more than two years for the system installation and software testing. The project was an international effort: the vehicle was purchased in Canada, the ramp system was installed in the US, the Joysteer system is from Switzerland, software was developed and supported from Israel, and finally, the system installation was completed in Canada by Alliance Mobility.

    Living a dream come true with being able to drive, Shaan has gained greater independence, “I like being independent with driving as it expands the possibilities of what I can do in life. I am no longer relying on my family for rides. At a certain age, you do not want your parents to be waiting while you go out with friends or having to pick you up from school and back home. Driving gives me more flexibility – and I love driving for others too!” That said, while he values the independence, Shaan adds that strong unwavering support from his family was key in shaping him into the individual he is today.

    Shaan also appreciates the support that he has gotten from the health care system, but adds that existing regulations and facilities do not fully consider individuals driving from their wheelchair. Because driving is considered not “medically necessary,” there is not enough awareness and support for people with physical disabilities who do want to drive. With little monetary support available from governmental and health care sources, Shaan is thankful that his family could afford to pay a total of almost $200,000 out-of-pocket to enable him to drive his own specialized vehicle. “The healthcare system and social support system did not fail; it just isn’t prepared,” adds Shaan.

    Regardless, this is just the beginning for Shaan. Currently on the cusp of graduation from UBC’s Sauder School of Business, Shaan doubles as a fourth-year student and Teaching Assistant for a Business Communication course, through which he assists other students in learning how to be better communicators. After receiving his Bachelor of Commerce degree, his plan is to work for a year and then go to Law School with an interest in Corporate Law.

    Shaan’s story serves as an inspiration to not only take on life’s challenges with determination and positivity, but also to drive through with full speed in utilizing them to become strengths rather than setbacks. Shining light on his message to other disabled individuals and youth, Shaan shares, “I would say give everything a chance and never give up on your dreams. Don’t think you can’t do it until you actually try.”

    Photos: Vee Lail

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