See How High-Tech Gadgets Can Boost Independence

/ August 5, 2019

By Cara Kumari

About the Author

Cara Kumari is assistant commissioner for communications and external affairs at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Cara has been with the department for six years and oversees internal and external communications efforts, legislative efforts and the department’s five planning and policy councils.  She came to DIDD after more than a decade of television reporting focused on state government in Nashville, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri.

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A doorbell rings.

Inside the home, an Amazon Alexa device announces that a person is at the door. The lights inside the home immediately turn green, in case the resident is hearing impaired and will be aided by a visual cue.  The person inside picks up his iPad and checks the camera on the doorbell.  It’s a visitor he knows.  He uses the talkback feature to acknowledge the visitor, presses a button on his iPad to trigger the door unlock feature, and invites the visitor inside.  The resident inside has never left his seat.

The Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ Enabling Technology Initiative has already assisted several people across Tennessee in fulfilling their independence goals.  Dozens more are in the process of embarking on their own residential or employment journey with enabling technology.  However, one of the biggest barriers to embracing the technology has been that people have had difficulty envisioning how technology could positively support them or their loved one.

Oftentimes, technology support seems “pie in the sky,” and we know that it takes hands-on experience with the options to really understand how they can support a person with a disability.  So, instead of asking people to imagine the possibilities, DIDD is inviting people to experience the possibilities for themselves.

Enter DIDD’s Enabling Technology Model Homes.  The department turned two previous residences on its former developmental center campuses (Greene Valley in East Tennessee and Clover Bottom in Middle Tennessee) into technology-filled homes for people to get hands-on experience with the various technology options.  A third home has also been developed as a collaborative effort between Madison Haywood Developmental Center and Intunity and is available for tour in West Tennessee. Some of the enabling technology options are specific to the support needs of a person with a disability or a person who is aging, like remote supports, sensors, and an automatic medicine dispenser.  Other items are the same technology items that many of us use in our own homes—such as induction stoves (which have cooktops that only heat special cookware, but otherwise stay fairly cool to the touch), smart appliances and an Amazon Alexa.  However, the technology homes show how these more common household items can be programmed together to aid people with hearing impairments, people who might have difficulty reading or writing, or those who have mobility issues.

We invited Janet Shouse, the host of this blog, to tour the Nashville home and give us her impressions.

“We are fairly low-tech at our house, so just seeing some of the things that ‘Alexa,’ Amazon’s voice-activated assistant for its Echo products, can do, was exciting,” Janet said. “Alexa can tell you what your schedule looks like for the day, turn on your coffee pot, turn on your lights, and lots more.”

She was also impressed by the voice-activated door opener for those who cannot easily manipulate opening a heavy door. This feature only requires a person to say, “Open, Sesame” and the door is opened immediately.

“The ‘smart’ refrigerator was amazing! Paired with a video doorbell, you can see on a screen on the fridge who is at your door,” she said. “You can also access recipes from the Internet, see inside your fridge from your phone to check if you need milk or see if you have mayonnaise for that recipe you’re planning to make. It will allow you make a shopping list on your fridge or phone or tablet. And you can personalize it with photos or a visual schedule. Very cool!”

Two other types of technology that Janet thought were extremely useful were the battery-operated Phillips brand Hue motion sensors that turn on the lights as soon you walk into a room and the medication dispenser. Both of those seem very useful not only for people with disabilities trying to live more independently and more safely, but for older adults who are wanting to stay in their own homes rather than move into assisted living or a nursing home.

The most important thing DIDD wants people with disabilities and their families to see at the homes are the possibilities that exist. Every person has a different outcome.  For some it’s living more independently.  For others it can be having access to control their environment.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” model with enabling technology, it can be customized to a person’s wants, needs, and also adjusted as they make progress towards their personal goals. The interest and traffic in the homes has been very high, and it has already inspired people as well as assisted in overcoming trepidations.

We want to invite readers of this blog to take a tour of one of our homes.  Tours for either of the homes can be scheduled through the DIDD website at this link.  Also, if you are unable to take a tour, we have developed a short video series (see link above) about some of the different types of technology in our Greeneville model home.  DIDD’s Technology Champion Milton Neuenschwander demonstrates some of the different ways the technology can support people in their homes and communities.

In addition, DIDD will be holding its third annual Enabling Technology Summit in Nashville from September 25-26, 2019.  This year’s presentations focus on the landscape for Enabling Technology not only here in Tennessee, but also across the nation and world. The summit is free to attend, but space is limited. Registration is now open at this link, and more information including a detailed agenda can be found here on the DIDD website.

Thanks, Cara, for sharing this information and for inviting me to tour the Middle Tennessee home. I thought it was fascinating to see all the things that technology can do. Obviously, for some of our loved ones, this technology could never take the place of staff, but for many individuals and their families, these devices could reduce the need for staff or simply enhance lives by allowing people to do more for themselves. I would encourage anyone who can tour one of the houses to do so.

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