Hal to the Rescue

By Debbie Carlson | March 20th, 2018

Smart-home products especially empowering to users with disabilities

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo

Smart-home products are often marketed for their convenience, but the technology also can help people with disabilities become more independent.

Smart-home products are objects connected via Wi-Fi or a different technology to other things in the home; they can be controlled remotely by a touch panel or an app on a device. Smart-home technology remains a nascent category, but some consumer products include functions that previously were found in assistive devices.

Smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi-connected homes made the overlap possible, said Stephen Ewell, executive director of the Consumer Technology Association Foundation. Apps use smartphone accessibility features, like voice commands or touchscreens, opening interaction with various home technologies. The consumer market’s economies of scale can make smart-home products cheaper and with better technology than assistive devices, he said.

Attractively designed smart-home products also remove the stigma some disabled feel when using a clinical-looking device, Ewell said.

“What I hear more and more from the disabled community is that they really are looking for the same devices that the general consumer market is looking for,” he said.

Both the people with disabilities and product manufacturers are just starting to realize the empowering potential in these products, said Cristen Reat, co-founder of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

One of the top smart-home devices is Amazon’s Echo line, which use Amazon’s Alexa voice service, said both Reat and Alexander Glazebrook, director of training and technology for Older Adults Technology Services in New York.

Amazon Echo Dot
Amazon Echo Dot

The Echo Dot ($49.99) is Amazon’s voice-activated speaker, and the newest product is the Echo Show ($229.99), which has video-call integration. Reat said Echo can be used for audiobooks and voice shopping, and it even picks up communication devices used by nonverbal people.

“Voice shopping is tremendous for people with disabilities. Someone with a cognitive impairment can be taught to order things,” she said.

Ring smart doorbell
Ring smart doorbell

Reat said she was very impressed that Echo recognized robotic voice commands. “That’s a huge impact for people who cannot speak for themselves and rely on technology to speak for them,” she said.

Glazebrook said senior citizens his group works with enjoy interacting with Echo, and he sees a lot of promise that the Echo Show’s video capability could reduce the feeling of isolation in the elderly.

August Smart Lock
August Smart Lock

Smart locks and smart doorbells offer convenience and safety for people with disabilities and their caregivers. Popular lock brands include August Smart Lock (starting at $149) and Schlage (starting at $199), while a top smart doorbell is Ring (starting at $179).

“Smart doorbells are good for all ages. Ring has a video camera on the doorbell, and you can see on your computer (or phone) who it is and communicate through the doorbell, even if you’re not at home,” Glazebrook said.

Reat said smart locks make it easier for people with disabilities to enter and exit the home, and caregivers don’t have to run home to let someone in or give out permanent keys, since they can control entry from their phone. Some higher-end smart locks have video cameras.

Reat said smart ceiling fans, like the Signal line from Hunter Fan ($349), combine safety and comfort. Especially in hot areas, ceiling fans help with circulation, but manual fans can be difficult for people with disabilities if they require standing on a chair to switch speeds or direction.

Amazon Echo Show
Amazon Echo Show

Money can be an issue for people with disabilities, as many cannot work, Reat said. An inexpensive way to add smart technology is with smart switches, like those from iDevices (starting at $29.95) or Belkin’s WeMo (starting at $34.99). Users plug manual objects into the smart switch, and the object can be controlled from their smartphone.

Smart light bulbs, like Philips Hue ($99.99 for a starter kit), are energy efficient and come in color palates, said Glazebrook. Not only can users control them remotely, they can change the colors if they’re sensitive to lights.

“I love that product. I’ve had it close to four to five years, and they’ve not gone out,” he said.

© 2017 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

More from Boomer

Stylish Sleep Sanctuaries

By Katie Laughridge | July 19, 2024

Transformation of a Dusty Basement

By Nancy Ngo, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | June 10, 2024

Pollinator-Friendly Yard Tips

By Melinda Myers, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | March 27, 2024