Many people with disabilities dream of living in their own house. They crave the independence and privacy. They want to be able to cook what they like and sleep when they like. They want to be able to invite friends over, and maybe even have them stay the night. Like everyone else, people with disabilities want somewhere safe they can retreat to from the world and all its hassles. But independence is hard to obtain when most houses are not built with disabilities in mind. This makes them inaccessible for many people with disabilities.
There are many home design features that can make a place more accessible for people with disabilities. In 2010, the federal government and building industry groups developed the Liveable Housing Design Guidelines. Recommendations include that properties have a step-free path from a street to at least one entrance and that bathrooms have a step-free shower recess. Fortunately, the latter seems to be a trendy design feature. Light switches and doorhandles that are about a metre from the floor can leave them in easy reach of someone who uses a wheelchair. And power points no lower than 30 centimetres can allow people who have trouble bending to easily reach them.
Vision Australia also publishes design recommendations. They suggest placing skylights in corridors, kitchens and bathrooms so as to provide natural light for people with low vision. Each room in a house should have many power points as people with a vision impairment often use appliances like lamps and magnifiers.
Many housing design websites say houses should be built so they can easily be changed to suit people with different disabilities. For example, installing cupboards that slid up and down walls so they can be positioned lower for people whose reach is limited.
Smart houses are homes with a lot of inbuilt technology that are controlled by a computer network. A number of smart houses have been built in Australia for the specific needs of people with disabilities. An example is Lyn Rowe’s home in Melbourne’s east that has gained media and public attention. The house is featured on webpages as the Lyn Rowe Project. Another example is smart units in Abbotsford Melbourne built by The Summer Foundation.
Lyn Rowe’s home is purpose built for her and her parents. Lyn has no arms or legs and uses an electric wheelchair. The house is designed with her wheelchair use in mind. It has larger doorways than normal for easy wheelchair access, and its floor coverings are wheelchair durable.
Lyn has difficulty controlling her body temperature so the house is divided into different environmental zones to meet her needs. Another feature of the house is a hoist that runs along a ceiling rail and can carry Lyn from her bed to the bathroom. She can use a house-wide intercom system from her bed and an automation system allows her to control a television, computer, lighting and blinds.
The technology in a smart house can start at the front door. Closed-circuit TV can show who is at the door and an intercom used to ask what the person wants. This set-up is ideal for someone who is immobile or who could take a long time to get to the door. If they decide to let a visitor in, a person confined to a bed could touch an icon on their phone that automatically opens the door.
A smart house can also have a Leave Home function, which is accessed on their smart phone. With a touch of the phone icon a person can close all doors and blinds, turn off all lights and heating or cooling, lock the front door on exit, and turn on the security system.
Sensors that detect movement can be installed throughout a house and automatically turn on lighting and heating when a room is entered. There is also carpet underlay that is full of sensors and detects movement. The underlay can tell if a person is standing or lying on the floor, so it can detect when a person has fallen and needs assistance. The house’s computer system can also be programmed to then alert family or a 24-hour care centre.
Sensors can detect legs being pulled out of bed at night and automatically turn on the lights. When a person enters the ensuite its lights will automatically come on. Perhaps future technology will even put the toilet seat down when a person is finished.
Data collected from sensors and appliances could enable the house to know the routine of a resident. It their routine changes drastically, like someone with dementia leaves the front door open at 2 am, the smart house could contact their family or a 24-hour care service.
Control of smart house technology
All of these smart home features can be controlled by a tablet, computer or phone. For people with a vision impairment or limited motor skills, voice recognition technology can control the tablet’s functions. Lyn Rowe uses a mouth stylus to control features of her home. A British engineer, Kevin Warrick, has used a computer chip embedded in his body to control doors, lights, heaters and other computer-controlled devices in his proximity. In the near future, glasses with computers in them such as Google Glass may be used to control smart house technology.
Potential problems with smart houses
Many people are suspicious of technology, especially those who find it difficult to use. With sensors and cameras potentially collecting a lot of data about a house’s occupants, privacy concerns arise. There is the potential for a house to be hacked like the controls of a Jeep Cherokee were most recently in the US. Smart home technology can also cost a lot, even up to $30,000 to $40,000 for an existing home. In some cases, that cost may be offset by the smart house enabling a person with a disability to live outside expensive nursing home accommodation.
While a lot of the technology is expensive, a person can pick and choose what suits them and their budget. The technology might be as simple as a wifi power point that allows a person to operate appliances like lamps, fans and heaters through an app on their smart phone. The wifi power point is plugged into an existing power point and the app can be downloaded for free.
The exploration of smart house technology has only just begun. Such technology should enable more people with disabilities to live independently in their own homes. In the near future, nursing homes and other forms of mass accommodation for people with disabilities may only exist in virtual reality documentaries.