For many disabled individuals, daily tasks as trivial as getting out of bed or turning on the lights can be difficult or outright impossible, requiring the help of a healthcare worker. For one quadriplegic living in Minnesota, ELAN automation technology has provided a new lease on home life, giving him the ability to control his motorized bed, motorized apartment door, lights, TV and phone from a touchscreen laptop, tongue-driven mouse or Dragon-enabled voice control. According to Greg Elsner of J. Becher & Associates, the integration firm that installed the automation technology, combining this tech with healthcare products is the next step in home care.
“Technology is the great equalizer,” Elsner said, “and today’s touchscreen devices and home automation systems are raising the standard of living for people with disabilities. For this client, it had been years since he had been able to control his own home. Once his health worker left for the day, everything in the apartment basically stayed as it was until they returned. He needed assistance repositioning his bed, operating the TV, answering the phone and even turning off the lights.”
In effect, the client had little control over his own environment due to his disability. With only one semi-functioning hand, using traditional touchscreen devices or remotes was impossible. This meant that if his aid worker left for the night with the TV on and the lights off, that’s how it stayed until they returned in the morning. He couldn’t adjust volume, change channels or turn off the lights.
Through clever use of automation technology and novel integration with his medical devices, J. Becher & Associates and Cybermation Inc., a healthcare technology firm, collaborated to build a system that allows full control of the apartment through large touchscreen buttons or a tongue-driven mouse. Mobility was of the utmost importance, so the tech experts worked together to figure out ways to connect the Invacare motorized bed and the Stanley motorized door with the ELAN system.
“Sometimes we have to get creative,” said Thomas Ardolf of Cybermation Inc. “My work with medical devices used to be focused on health monitoring and emergency response, but today we are providing solutions that drastically improve daily life and even help disabled people find employment. With a little creativity, we were able to connect the Invacare bed and the Stanley motorized apartment door to the ELAN system, which he accesses through a large touchscreen laptop. We then custom-built an extra-large user interface with bigger buttons so his dexterity and vision is not an issue.”
Now the one-bedroom apartment works like this: when the client wakes up in the morning, he can use the ELAN app on his laptop to adjust his bed. From there, he can control four loads of Lutron lighting, his two TVs, and open his apartment door to exit the apartment. Once he moves outside the building, other features become important.
“One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to provide full use of the phone and intercom system, because he can’t use a standard keypad and that’s how people enter the building,” Ardolf added. “We came up with a novel solution using Google voice – when he’s outside, the client can use the intercom to dial his apartment phone. After four rings it redirects to Google Voice, which rings on his laptop, allowing him to accept the intercom buzz and open the door. The process for answering a phone call is similar, routing through Google voice so it rings on the computer.”
In addition to the automation features, Ardolf made sure the client has as much use of the computer as possible. This meant creating easy-to-use mounts for the bed and wheelchair, so he can take the laptop with him wherever he goes. When it’s mounted on the wheelchair, he uses his tongue to control a special 3D-printed dual-joystick “mouse” mounted on the wheelchair that allows him to move the cursor and click, which he cannot do with his hand. For typing, he uses Dragon dictation software that allows him to surf the internet, and create documents that may even help him find a job.
This project was completed for a modest budget of about $17,000 including all research, labor and equipment. New hardware included three Lutron dimmer switches, an ELAN system controller, a new Wireless-N router, a Panamax MR400 power conditioner to protect the system controller and router, plus a Xantech IR emitter to assist system connectivity.
“In our case it’s local governments, such as county governments, financing these projects and leading the way forward for disabled citizens,” Elsner said. “It’s a win-win solution, providing citizens with greater freedom and self-sufficiency, while helping reduce expensive in-home health care costs over the long term. Giving someone the ability the potentially work when they otherwise couldn’t is a life-changing experience, for the technology recipient but also for us working on the project. As technology continues to advance we expect more local governments and disability advocacy organizations to pursue automation and dictation technologies to improve lives across the country.”