Home Automation for the Physically Challenged

As our aging and physically challenged population swells, more and more people are being faced with the question of how to care for ailing relatives, or even in some cases, how long they can live alone in their own homes. “Assistive technology” is any system, device or service that helps those who face physical challenges to increase, maintain or improve their functional capabilities. This can be anything from walking sticks to doors and windows that open electronically.

Jeffrey Jerome, vice president of product marketing of Home Systems Plus, says, “The PC has changed the world for people with disabilities in dozens of ways – from voice recognition to Internet access, to large font displays for the visually impaired, to programs that allow people to communicate by moving their eyes.”

Almost all assistive technology is tied to the computer in some way. Even if the control doesn’t come directly from a desktop, behind-the-scenes computers are running the show. Four types of technology that can greatly improve life at home for the physically challenged are voice-activated systems, home control keypads, telephones and surveillance cameras.

Voice-Activated Systems
Imagine the convenience for a disabled person if he is able to simply tell his house to turn off all the lights or lock the doors. With voice-activated technology, you can control your house with the sound of your own voice.
HAL2000, a product from Home Automated Living (Laurel, Maryland), uses the power of your existing PC or PC device to control your home. This technology sends instructions to all systems in your house over standard electrical cabling. “No new wires” makes the installation of HAL easy and inexpensive. Furthermore, since HAL is controlled through a voice interface, users just pick up any phone in the home, press the “#” key and tell HAL what to do. HAL verbally confirms that the command was carried out.

More sophisticated installations of the HAL system have included open-air microphones. These devices, installed professionally in every room, allow homeowners with serious mobility restrictions to simply speak their commands into the air. The basic retrofit for a three-bedroom house costs approximately $2,000.

Keypads can control lighting, music and other household systems with the touch of a button. They can be wall-mounted or wireless for more flexibility.

Crestron (Rockleigh, New Jersey) is a cutting-edge keypad manufacturer. Offering both wall-mounted and wireless devices, Crestron keypads provide large, backlit engrave-able buttons, which are easy to read from any angle. Backlighting makes them a snap to locate in the dark. These sculpted, elegant keypads can be customized with a variety of inlays and finishes. The newest designs announced by the company this year include large buttons that are easier for users with limited vision and dexterity to operate.

Crestron keypads and touchpanels are always custom installed and can be specially outfitted for the disabled. In fact, one Crestron dealer, Gideon Elfassy of Sound Specialists, had a wheelchair-bound engineer create a design with a Crestron Isys LCD touchpanel mounted on a tray attached to the homeowner’s wheelchair. Now wheelchair-bound users can move around their homes with wireless control of home technology via the Crestron touchpanel.

Wireless headsets give wheelchair users the freedom to answer the phone anywhere in the home, and special phones enabled with Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD) allow hearing impaired users to communicate too. Some products from Panasonic Digital Phones even give users the option to control household devices – such as doors – by pressing a button on a phone. Although the flexibility is handy for anyone, this service is especially helpful for those with limited mobility.

Other communication technology options for the deaf or those with failing hearing include instant messaging and email. Two-way pagers and even desktop PCs have opened up a whole new world for the hearing impaired by allowing users to send messages instantly back and forth in a conversational fashion.

Surveillance Cameras
For caregivers needing to keep an eye on a homebound relative, the next best thing to being there for an aging parent or a disabled friend is a camera tied to the Internet. These cameras in the home can allow people who might ordinarily need round-the-clock in-home assistance to live a freer, more independent life. Those who care about them can still watch out for slips and falls or cries for help.

One company that has taken home surveillance cameras to a new level is iRobot (Somerville, Massachusetts). iRobot-LE gives its owners on-demand remote eyes and ears into a home. Owners can remotely drive iRobots around a home to make sure doors are locked, see if the stove is turned off or just check up on elderly or housebound loved ones.

These days technology is meeting more and more physical challenges with an electronic “helping hand.” With the assistance of a caring family and a network of professionals, technology can be installed to power a house and empower a person.

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