Pitfalls of Caregivers, Technology and Smart Homes

For people who have a disability that severely limits their independence, caregivers serve a very vital role.  A caregiver can be a friend, a relative, or a paid attendant assigned by an agency who attends to the needs of a child or dependent adult.  Attendants may or may not be trained and, if paid, may be full or part time and may even live in the household or sleep over several nights during the week.

The Family Caregiver Alliance states:

“Approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.]

Approximately 39.8 million caregivers provide care to adults (aged 18+) with a disability or illness or 16.6% of Americans. [Coughlin, J. (2010). Estimating the Impact of Caregiving and Employment on Well-Being: Outcomes & Insights in Health Management.]

About 15.7 million adult family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. [Alzheimer’s Association. (2015). 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.]

Along with performing household chores, providing transportation, doing the shopping, and performing personal care, many caregivers are also involved in administering injections and medications, as well as other medical treatments.  Providing this care can be stressful and especially, for friends and family, can contribute to depression and serious illness.

If the person receiving care has medical or other equipment, the caregiver’s role is expanded as they learn how to operate, maintain, and even repair the equipment.  With the advent of mobile devices, apps, mobile services (such as mobile banking), web services, and computer accounts, caregivers have been forced to adopt another role…that of tech support.

The Family Caregiver Alliance described the following:

70% of working caregivers suffer work-related difficulties due to their dual roles. Many caregivers feel they have no choice about taking on caregiving responsibilities (49%). This sense of obligation is even higher in caregivers that provide 21 or more hours of care per week (59%) and live-in caregivers (64%). 60% of caregivers in 2015 were employed at one point while also caregiving. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.]

The lower the income and education a person has, the more likely he or she is a caregiver. Similarly, those with a high school education or less (20%) take on a caregiver role versus 15% of college graduates and 16% of postgraduates. [Gallup-Healthways. (2011). Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Survey: More Than One in Six American Workers Also Act as Caregivers.]

In short, caring for a person’s physical well being and health is already difficult enough before adding the challenge of providing technical support with no formal training.

These devices include things such as smart thermostats, cameras, door locks, and doorbells that allows a person to turn the lights off, see outside their house, answer the front door, unlock the door, or even control the television just by using their voice, smart pad, smart phone, or other devices adapted to their disability. Given that these devices are relatively inexpensive, widely available, and easy to use, they are being adopted at a fast pace. A person may not own a smart speaker, but they may recognize an Amazon Echo (with the Alexa voice assistant) or the Google home smart speakers.

Smart phones, tablets, and speakers can allow a person with a disability to perform tasks from their home by using just their voice or text to speech. However, depending on the capabilities of the person, the caregiver may now have to assist a person with their technology.  The caregiver tech support falls into 4 areas: Online Security, Device Networking, Installation and Troubleshooting.  This creates new challenges in the following ways:

  • Online Security:  For those whose disability prevents them from using their hands to write or type, they often must share their passwords to have the caregiver log them into their service or device.
    • Scenario: The caregiver sets up a new smart phone for the person they assist.  The person with the disability is intimidated by the technology, and the caregiver takes it upon themselves to create the new online account (choosing from one of the 4 email accounts belonging to the person with the disability). The caregiver creates the password and does not write it down.  The person with the disability care doesn’t ask for the password to be recorded.  To setup the apps, which may include online banking, email, Amazon account and Comcast, the caregiver was given the login for everything.  Seven months later, the caregiver has a falling out with the family.  The caregiver walks away with complete control and access to the banking, Comcast account, Amazon account (for purchasing) and even the phone account.  A few months later, the person with a disability purchases a new phone and gives their old phone to a friend, who wipes it.  The person tells the new caregiver to setup the new phone for them.  Not understanding how iPhone are linked to an iCloud account, they both discover that they had no access to email accounts, backups (to setup the new phone) or even the banking and credit card accounts.  When the bank and credit card companies are contacted, the care recipient does not know the answer to security challenge questions or logins.
  • Networking: To maintain the connection to the Internet, some people receiving care are dependent on their care givers to ensure that the router in their house is functioning properly. Tasks could include interfacing with the provider (such as Comcast), rebooting the router, checking the connectivity of devices attached to hubs, and ensuring that the devices have not been changed or tampered with in such a way that the smart devices no longer functions.
    • Scenario: The person with the disability receives an Echo (Alexa), four smart light bulbs and a hub to connect the lights.  With smart light bulbs, the power (switch) must always be left on and the bulb can only be turned off using the app or by issuing a voice command.  A nurse comes over during a regular visit, physically switches off the lamp (with the smart light bulb), and unplugs it when using medical equipment.  The night shift caregiver returns after the nurse’s visit.  While in bed, the person with the disability attempts to tell Alexa to turn on the lamp and discovers the light doesn’t work.  The night caregiver does not understand the technology, so she changes the bulb (throwing out the smart bulb), tries to turn on the lamp and finds out it still is not working.  She checks the plug, plugs the lamp in and the light comes on.  Everyone thinks the light is working.  When the person falls asleep the caregiver turns the light off using the switch on the lamp.  As part of her morning routine, the night caregiver takes out the trash and the morning shift caregiver arrives.  When the person with the disability tries to command the light to turn on, it doesn’t work.  They become distraught that the light is not working and, to assist, the caregiver begins changing setting in the app to the point that the other lights no longer work.  Eventually, the original installer must be contracted to fix the system and a new smart bulb must be purchased and setup.
  • Installation: The person receiving care may purchase or receive a new device with no professional or experienced installer to set it up.  They will depend on their caregiver to follow the instructions which can include: unpackaging the device, attaching the device on WiFi (or a hub), creating a cloud account and login for the device, activation of services, setting of specifications and training the person receiving the care how they can use the device. Finally, they must ensure the device is placed where it will perform optimally (for example the Amazon Echo must be placed where it can be seen and is in earshot to hear the commands).
    • Scenario: While the family has a paid caregiver during the morning and afternoon, various family members provide the care at night depending on availability.  As devices are added, each family member uses their own email and login account.  When there is a problem with the system, it is impossible for the paid caregiver to assist and the next day, many calls must be made to figure out the login accounts before the actual problem can be solved.
  • Troubleshooting: A device may fail, someone may unintentionally turn off a device, a device may lose connection to its hub, or the Internet connection may go down.  The caregiver may be called on to test the device and figure out how to reactivate it.  If customer support is contacted on the phone the caregiver may be the person making the call, rebooting the router, communicating what the notifications lights are showing or moving a device to a better position for reception.
    • Scenario: The person with the disability is very comfortable with technology and understands how everything work.  Unfortunately, the person’s wife had the router installed on the second floor. The caregiver is very uncomfortable with technology and English is not their first language.  When Wi-Fi goes down, the person receiving the care makes the call to Verizon.  The technician on the call askes that the router be rebooted and wants to know when certain lights blink.  The caregiver is sent upstairs, and frustration ensues as the caregiver does not understand what he is being asked to do as the care receiver is yelling at him from downstairs.

These scenarios are just some of the situations that can occur when caregivers are asked to provide technical support.  While some are very comfortable doing so, most are finding a job that can already be stressful to be even more complicated.  And while their responsibilities have grown, if they are paid, their pay has not increased.

While it is impossible to prepare for every situation, the following recommendations should be considered if technology is a part of or is going to be introduced into the general environment of a person living with a severe disability.

  • It takes a team: Many people with a disability have their own unique human resources and one cannot generalize the knowledge base of the person (attendant, family member, friend) who is providing assistance.  For example, a young adult who was injured and paralyzed may have his father or an attendant handling the primary care, while the mother focuses on accessing services and the finances (state programs and grants/medical bills/etc.). The older brother is better with technology and takes care of the phone and devices that his brother uses.  In order for a person with a serious disability to live independently, family members, friends, or paid attendant must be willing to take on varying roles to support that person.
    • Someone is managing the personal information – This may be the person with the disability, a family member, a friend or even a paid support person who is trusted.  This person should, if possible, form a plan of how to manage the personal information. Besides information such as a birth certificate, Social Security card, medical records, and other legal/financial information, technology related information should also be managed with equal importance.  Accounts, Login ID’s and other Internet cloud information should be kept in a secured journal (whether it is an online journal such as “Notes” on an iPhone or Windows computer or a spiral notebook). This journal should be backed up every so often, depending on resources.  Sometimes one cannot get around giving a caregiver their login information if the ability to enter it personally is not possible.  However, keeping control of this information will make it easier to protect, fix or adjust a data breach.  If the caregiver is trusted the information can be written on a paper and tacked to a wall so that another caregiver can quickly access the information.  Also, schedule regular dates to access apps and devices and the accounts being used.  Often people are excited about new services or devices and fly through creating the accounts.  Later, when asked what password is used, no one remembers, and the service can end up being locked, unusable and lost.
    • Someone handled the procurement – In the case of durable medical equipment, smart-home/home automation, a new cell phone or tablet, Internet service or other technology, someone handled the selection and purchase.  In the same journal/information sheet mentioned before, the name and contact info. of the primary purchaser along with the name and contact number of the services should be kept together.  Everyone providing care, including the person with the disability should know how to contact customer/technical support for all the technology.  If possible, a family member or friend should more actively take control of being the main technical support person who understands at least some of how everything works. That same person should be present when new technology is introduced.  Many young people, since they are growing up with these technologies, are a great resource to use.
    • When the caregiver is being paid – It is highly likely a paid caregiver will, at some point, move on.  Further, unless technical support was part of their job description, it is not fair or prudent to rely on them technically, to the point where the person receiving care has their lifestyle, online security, independence or tools imperiled by the loss of an employee. Smart home devices can have a dramatic impact on the life on someone who want to maintain independence.  This technology can be a vital part of a person’s life and must be guarded and wisely supported.

Webinar: Smart Homes Made Simple

This presentation focuses on defining and learning about “smart home” technology and how these devices can be integrated into home and work environments to enhance independence, safety and quality of life. Funding resources for the acquisition of smart home devices are also discussed.


  • Learn about the wide array of affordable technology
  • Discover how widely available technology can support individuals with disabilities
  • Identify ways that Smart Home technology can help in transition


Kirby Smith, founder and President of SunKirb Ideas, LLC. In July of 2014, his wife, Suria, was injured and became a quadriplegic. He found the technology being offered to improve her life was outdated, expensive, and very limited due to customizations. Suddenly, simple everyday things were challenging. They solved those issues and July 2015 formed a company to bring these solutions to an underserved population. SunKirb Ideas, LLC offers affordable off-the-shelf consumer based solutions through technology to give those with disabilities and unique challenges the ability to be more independent and have more control of their environment. This enabled people to control the lights, temperature, turn on and off alarms, control their doors, control music and entertainment, see and communicate remotely, and control the televisions (including the cable box, TiVo, Netflix and Hulu) using voice commands.

Susan Tachau, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the non-profit, Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF), Pennsylvania’s Alternative Financing Program as designated by the federal Assistive Technology Act. PATF is also a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). PATF helps individuals with disabilities and seniors acquire the assistive technology – including smart home devices – they want in order to live a more independent and satisfying life. PATF has helped more than 3,300 individuals with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians finance assistive technology with loans worth more than $37 million.

Beyond Step Counters: Smart Tech for your Health

shutterstock_253752736 (1)

Imagine using your smart phone to take an EKG (echocardiogram) in seconds and having that information instantly sent to your doctor to track your cardiac conditions. Sounds futuristic, right? That future is happening right now.

Smart technology for your health, also called health tech, is evolving at a rapid pace. The healthcare industry and tech industry are merging ideas to design wearable devices, mobile devices and apps that can help manage your health. These devices can assist with self-care, preventative care, aid caregivers by monitoring loved ones and also enable doctors to diagnose their patients quickly.

The possibilities are seemingly endless. Health-tech devices, apps and
wearables can measure and track vital signs, glucose and insulin levels, heart conditions, asthma, allergies, skin conditions, UV exposure, contractions during pregnancy, sleep patterns, and even tremors in Parkinson’s disease.

Sportsman with Artifitial Leg Sitting on Stadium

Self Care

There are many ways your phone can help you care for yourself. If you are feeling blue, there are mood elevating apps, and even apps where you can speak to a therapist. To care for your mind and body, there are meditation apps, brainteaser apps, fitness tracker and weight loss apps. Here are some examples of self-care apps.

For patients that have difficulty leaving home, there are mobile apps that can directly connect you by video to a board certified doctor. There is even an app to help locate a local restaurant nearby that serves meals to meet your specific dietary needs! food allergy apps

Helping Caregivers

Devices can lend a hand to caregivers by remotely notifying them if a loved one forgets to take their medicine pill drill. Also, wearable devices with GPS capability can help caregivers track a loved one’s safety in case of a fall or wandering away from home watchu.

Timing can be Everything

Health data can be collected in real-time through wearables to track activity levels for patients recovering from an illness or to show if a new treatment plan is effective. Doctors can use medical apps to quickly and effectively share test results and images with other specialists to better treat a patient. In some cases, this information can be captured through the device and sent to the doctor electronically without requiring the patient to come into the office.

Preventative Care

Corporations are starting to use smart-tech wellness programs to promote and support healthy lifestyles of their employees, sometimes offering cash incentives to stay on track.  Perhaps this will lead to lower healthcare costs in the future.

For more information, here are some articles with the latest health-tech trends:



How Smart Home Technology fits in with Aging in Place

Living where you want to live can be the difference between feeling vulnerable or feeling safe; feeling isolated or feeling part of a community. As Jane Austen once wrote, “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” Aging in place is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” Most people prefer to do so for as long as possible. But, loneliness, isolation and safety concerns are common experiences for older adults, especially those living alone. Smart home technology—devices that let you communicate with others, provide information and entertainment, and let you control your lighting, thermostat, or even your Crock-Pot using your voice or smartphone—is a rapidly growing industry seeing increasing introduction to homes. Generic smart home technology can increase independence for people of all ages, specifically those aging in place. In fact, the two are so compatible, that the trend toward aging in place may be one of the biggest catalysts of some of this technology.
Devices such as smart locks, door openers and cameras can all serve as simple solutions to increase home accessibility and security, and to take visitability to the next level. Regarding aging in place, visitability is an important growing design approach for new homes, with the main principle that a resident or non-resident with mobility difficulties, who perhaps uses a wheelchair or other mobility device, should be able to visit or live in the home. While the base requirements for visitability are widened doorways and hallways, 0-step entry, and a half bath on the first floor, there is even more than can be done to make hosting easier for the resident. For example, an older adult with mobility issues may have a difficult time making it to their front door quickly after they hear their doorbell or a knock. With an automated door opener, they can unlock and open their door from anywhere in the house using a smart device and/or voice command.
Various devices with cameras can increase an older adult’s safety when located both inside and outside of their home. Smart doorbells on the exterior of the home, such as Ring, allow you to see who is at your door without having to physically go to the door, which can be especially helpful when mobility is limited. Amazon Echo Showallows for video calls with family that are as simple as saying the words, “Alexa, call my grandkids.” In-home cameras, like those available through Nest, can ensure your loved one is being well-cared for by in-home care providers and that they are safe inside their home when no one is with them. However, it is important to note that there is a fine line to balance between respecting your loved one’s privacy and being able to see at-will into your loved one’s home. Cameras can cause privacy concerns and warrant a discussion with the elder adult before installation. Review the implications of adding cameras inside, and make sure the individual understands and has given permission.
Falls are always a major safety concern associated with aging, especially for those living alone. Smart home technology includes the ability to use one’s voice to also turn lights on and off. Being able to turn a light on with your voice can eliminate the need to walk to the switch in the dark if it is not nearby, ultimately helping to prevent falls by having a well-lit room before moving about. Smart hallway lights with motion sensors turn on when the individual gets up to use the bathroom in the night. If someone does fall and cannot get back up, they can call for help using a smart automated assistant such as Amazon Alexa, Google assistant or Apple Siri. Once someone arrives, the person needing help can use their voice to open the door and let the person in to assist them.
Smart home technology also allows for many types of automation that, after set-up, take little or no effort on the part of the resident. For instance, wearable fall sensors automatically send an alert to a loved one’s smartphone when they detect that the user has fallen. Door sensors can send alerts when the older adult leaves the home, in case there are concerns for wandering. Smart lights can be programmed to turn on in the front hall and on the porch when the resident pulls in the driveway with their smartphone.
For older adults becoming forgetful, there are smart home devices that can provide reminders. Smart appliances can track items in the refrigerator, pantry and pill cabinet when there are concerns about the older adult not eating enough and/or forgetting to take medications. These appliances provide notification and warnings depending on conditions they are set to monitor, such as using the sending an alert to a smartphone if pills are not taken on schedule (see PillDrill for an example). In addition, if an older adult has someone shop for them, they can tell the automated assistant in a smart device to add items to their shopping list via voice command, and the shared list will be instantly updated in the shared app.
Smart home technology can be intimidating, and change can be uncomfortable. Older adults grew up with less technology than today’s youth and often feel apprehensive, lacking confidence when using automated devices. However, with the growing market of smart home technology that is activated by a simple voice command or set up to be completely automated, older adults are being asked to step less out of their comfort zone in order to reap the benefits. Once someone gets comfortable speaking to a device, there is little training and few changes necessary to the person’s habits and lifestyle. There are also friendly instructive videos and apps to support those less comfortable with technology as they increase their tech confidence and savvy. Ultimately, generic smart home devices are costing less and less, and are becoming more and more user-friendly. For those aging in place, these devices help them improve their independence and quality of life, no matter their age or ability.
Want to learn more about aging in place with technology? Check out the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog.And, of course, you can learn more about smart home technology and how it’s being used as assistive technology for both older adults as well as people with disabilities at our website: SmartHomesMadeSimple.org.

Interested in smart home technology but not sure how you can afford it? Give us a call. We have extensive experience with available funding resources and can help you find what you need and afford it, too.


Will Alexa Understand Him?

proloquo and echo

It’s first thing in the morning and Kyle just woke up. He enters the kitchen and walks towards the Echo Show. He selects a pre-programmed question from his phone. “Echo, did the Phillies win last night?” Echo replies, and Kyle is pleased.

video of Echo Show and AAC

If you thought Alexa or Google Home devices couldn’t work with alternative communicators, you are mistaken! This was me. As a mom always looking for ways to help her son maximize his independence, I thought anything that requires voice activation would only cause him frustration. I was dismissing intelligent personal assistant devices because of my son’s limited verbal communication skills. What I am discovering is with a little creativity, it’s not only possible, but also empowering.

My son Kyle is 19 years old and a typical teen in so many ways. He loves sports, music, friends, his dogs, and is never without his iPhone. He uses many ways to communicate, including pictures on his phone, informal gestures, some ASL sign language and some limited verbal speech. We have always encouraged a total communication approach or any alternative way to help him get his point across, including AAC.  I didn’t know if an intelligent personal assistant would be able to understand him, but I wanted to try.

Since Kyle is a visual learner, we chose the Echo Show over the other products on the market . Not only can he hear Echo’s answers, but a visual appears on the screen, like the weather report or Phillies score.

At first, Kyle was curious and watched us talk to Echo, but wasn’t confident to try it himself.  We used “Echo” as our wake up word instead of Alexa, Amazon or computer because Echo was the easiest for Kyle to verbally say. On our first attempt with the Echo, I tried to ask for a reminder to drop off my son’s Toyota at the service station for inspection. This seemed simple enough. Echo repeated to me, “Ok, you have a reminder for 3pm to drop off the toilet!” Toilet?? (Clearly, there is going to be a learning curve here!) I explained to Kyle that Echo was having trouble understanding me. I think watching my failed attempt gave Kyle permission to try it himself; he had nothing to lose. He tried it. “Echo, drop off Toy…Toyota”. With Kyle’s slight speech stutter, Echo interpreted, “OK, drop off the torah torah”. This wasn’t right either. I was ready to give up, thinking this is only going to cause frustration. I mentioned this experience at Kyle’s SETT meeting at school to our Assistive Technology Consultant and she suggested getting Kyle’s communication app to talk to Echo.

Kyle uses the Proloquo2go picture-based communication app on his iPhone. We set up a simple grid in Proloquo2go with some of Kyle’s favorite things. With this accommodation, Kyle can use his phone to ask Echo to play music, stop the music, and tell us the weather in our area and the places his dad travels to work. Kyle can also ask if the Phillies or Sixers won their games last night. We can set up reminders like what time to leave for school or work, or even not forgetting to brush his teeth! Smart home technology and intelligent personal assistants are becoming a valuable resource to help anyone gain independence. Limitations in verbal communication skills do not need to be a barrier.

During my search for the best approach for Kyle, I came across some other helpful tools. Check out these links as well as our Smart Homes Made Simple Resources.

Think Smart Box– a pre-programmed communication grid that works with Alexa

Ask My Buddy– a free service that allows users to have Alexa or Google Home contact their personal alert network of friends, family or personal care professional

Alexa things to try– useful phrases to help you get started with Alexa

Alexa drop in feature– allows you to connect with friends and family, even if you aren’t in the room

Smart Home Tech with Your Smart Phone

two women, one using a power wheelchair and fish tank.

When you visit Alexa Brill’s house, you enter a cheerfully colorful home that is filled with smart home technology. Alexa lives in Camp Hill, PA along with her loyal pup Chloe, and her fish. She is a graduate of Edinboro University in Erie, PA and is currently working for The ARC of Pennsylvania as Social Media and Website Manager. Like many of us these days, Alexa can’t live without her smart phone. With her phone, Alexa has access to many household items that maximizes her independence. Alexa has tried many types of smartphones and the one that works best for her is an Android Samsung smartphone. Through Bluetooth connectivity, Alexa can use her joystick to control Samsung’s assistant menu accessibility features to point with an arrow cursor and click on which feature she wishes to activate. Alexa samsung phone pic

Alexa has been a power wheelchair user for most of her life. When she decided to move to her own home, Alexa’s family helped her find the best smart home products so that she could control everyday household items right from her wheelchair.

As you approach Alexa’s front door you’ll notice the barrier-free entranceway with a fully automatic door lock and opener manufactured by Schlage. This door lock is Bluetooth compatible and connects to Alexa’s phone. Alexa can lock, unlock and open the door giving her complete control of who enters her home. Also thanks to Bluetooth, she has control of her TV, computer, light switches by Lutron, window blinds and thermostat. The solid flooring throughout her home make is possible for her to maneuver easily.

Watch this video of Alexa demonstrating her smart home technology.

Living independently is important to Alexa. These smart home features make it possible for her. She received funding through PA’s Home & Community Based Waiver for the accessibility adaptations to her home, and from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) for adaptations to her vehicle. Alexa and her family (who live nearby) are always researching the latest technology and devices (even if they have to make it themselves). Next on her list is to check out Amazon Echo devices to see what else is possible!

Getting Started with Smart Home Technology

Smart Home advertisements are everywhere now. Robotic vacuums! Smart toilets!  Faucets that know how much water to add to the sink! Refrigerators that keep your daily schedule! To complicate things more, there are ‘Smart speakers’ that speak to you (for example,  Alexa or Google Home), which are different from Smart speakers that improve the sound of your music that comes out of the ‘speaking speakers’.  And did you know that your speaking speakers can actually hold a conversation with each other? Confused yet?

More and more Smart Home devices are becoming available every day, which means more decisions to be made and more confusion as to the what, how and why of Smart Home technology. There are many many articles about ‘How to Get Started With Smart Home Technology’ that you can read. Check out the Resources section here on this website for a list.

There’s just one thing.  Although these articles are basic and simple to read, they don’t really start at the very beginning, the true beginning… the place where many of us are jumping into Smart Home Technology. For instance, they don’t tell you the first thing:


Why? Because the ‘Smart’ in Smart Homes and Phones means internet.


What is a Smart Home? This article explains it simply. It is a home where Wifi is used to connect and automate devices such as lights and appliances, security and climate control. The Wifi in your house can then be used to access the devices through your SmartPhone remotely. Your SmartPhone also connects to a voice assistant such as Amazon Echo (Alexa) or Google Home etc. (remember, this is also called a Smart speaker).  The voice assistant allows your devices to communicate with each other.

The Smart Phone connects directly to the thermostat and the TV. It also connects to the voice assistant (like Alexa) and then Alexa connects to both the TV and thermostat as well!
Here the Smart Phone connects directly to the thermostat and the TV through your house WiFi. It also connects to the voice assistant (like Alexa) and then Alexa connects to both the TV and thermostat as well!

Now that you have a Smart Phone, there are three main things to figure out in order to get started.

1. What SPEAKER (voice assistant) to buy?
2. WHAT to add to your Smart Home system: music? lights?
3. HOW to USE it once it is set up!

~ Decide which speaker you want: Amazon Echo? Google Home? Apple HomeKit? As of this date (May, 2018) the voice assistant that has the most options for devices that benefit a person with a disability is still the Amazon Echo. There are several different Echos available now. Here is an article about your options.

~Plug in your speaker (voice assistant), download the voice assistant app onto your phone, and learn how to navigate it. For the Alexa app, the ellipsis (the three horizontal  parallel lines) in the top right corner accesses all of your options.  Try ‘settings‘ first!  Set up the basics, which are very straightforward (connecting to your WiFi, accessibility options, wake word).

~Pick ONE thing at a time to add, and then use it. Music is often first. The three main voice assistants (Echo, Google and Apple) have different options. Figure out how to ask for what you want, it is not always straightforward (for example, with Alexa in order to get a station on Pandora radio, you have to ask for Pandora first in the sentence, not the artist. Simple things like that, which are easy to forget!) Sometimes you feel like Dave in the video below….


Your default news station, daily alarms and timers, and adding reminders, appointments or shopping lists are also basic. Just ask your voice assistant and it will usually guide you through it.

Say ‘Alexa, I need a reminder’.  That’s all!  Here is a list of things you can ask.

~Read about SKILLS for your voice assistant. There are many many of them! They are basically quick ‘apps’ to specific things that you can enable the speaker to do for you. News stations, ambient music to sleep by, travel apps, food delivery apps. Pick one or two and enable them. Here is an article about ‘Skills’.

~PRACTICE asking for what you want for awhile. Wording is important! Become acquainted with what you can ask for and especially what you can NOT ask for on your speaker (no, Amazon Echo does not have Google search engine and does not have YouTube. Things like that!)

~Once you are comfortable talking to a machine, try to add a Smart Lightbulb, or get a Smart Switch and set it up to turn something in your home on or off. Here are some suggestions.

Here again, the articles that guide you with device set up may neglect a few important details, assuming that the reader already knows the basics.  It truly is NOT quite as easy as just screwing in a lightbulb.

Here is a tip that will save you a good 45 minutes of frustration:

The Smart Home devices that you buy (light bulbs, switches, plugs, the HUB) have a specific app for that specific brand.  You need to find the app on your phone and download it first before any connections can take place. In addition, you have to set up an account with them with a password.

YOU WILL HAVE TO DO THIS FOR EVERY DEVICE THAT YOU WANT TO CONNECT! Only then can you move on to connecting it with your voice assistant (ie.Alexa), or your hub.

This article has the clearest instructions on connecting a light bulb

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Wait a minute, there is another new word.  What’s a HUB?  Read about them here.

If you’ve mastered the information in this blog post so far, you are ready to move on to the the more complex subject of home automation. When you start to add more devices to your Smart Home, you will need a way to connect the devices to each other.  A hub manages the interactions between your devices so that that you can set up a series of actions to automate your home.  Thinking about setting the mood after dinner to relax after a long day? You will be able to just ask your voice assistant to ‘Set the after dinner mood’ .

With a pre-programmed ‘Scene’ (or group of actions), your thermostat will turn the heat up, the lights will dim, the shades will lower, and your favorite calming ambient sounds will play softly from your speaker.  Someday soon there might even be a set of robot arms that can do the dishes!

You are on your way with Smart Home Technology!



Life in a Smart Home: From dawn ’til dusk with Suria

The gentle sounds of the Orcas setting on the Amazon Echo Dot alarm wakes Suria from sleep. ‘Alexa, Start my Day‘ , Suria requests. ‘Good morning!’ greets Alexa. ‘In Philadelphia you can expect a sunny day with a high of 55 degrees and a low of 47 with a chance of rain in the afternoon’. A quick run through of the morning’s top news stories and local traffic conditions completes Alexa’s pre-programmed ‘Start my Day’ routine.

After Suria sustained a spinal cord injury in 2015, she and her husband, Kirby,  realized that changes needed to be made in their Philadelphia home so that Suria could continue to actively engage in everyday life. Using standard consumer technology together with Kirby’s technological expertise, they began to transform their home.  Today,  Suria and Kirby live in a state of the art ‘Smart Home‘ that has been adapted to meet Suria’s needs.

It’s early and the overnight caregiver has not yet started her morning shift. Suria commands the X-Box to turn on the morning news, and as she listens to the latest developments from bed, she goes over her day’s to-do list.  ‘Alexa, add “meeting notes” to my to-do list’ she requests. She continues, using the Echo Show to delete the items completed the day before without having to repeat the wake-word.  The new Follow-Up Mode feature allows you to string Alexa commands together without having to say ‘Alexa’ each time. Soon after, the caregiver enters to help her get ready for the day.

Suria often works from her office desk at home

As a Tax Senior Manager at Ernst and Young LLP in Philadelphia, Suria does most of her work from her home office.  Her office desk area has been customized to allow her to work as efficiently as possible. A button adjusts the table height for the wheelchair. Both her laptop’s and her desktop computer’s screens are open to allow her to look at two documents at the same time so that she does not have to flip between pages.  Her iPad sits on the desk to her right, always within reach for a third screen or to record conference calls with her HT Recorder, since she is not able to physically write notes.

SN DOwel keyboard-2Suria’s right hand controls a track ball, which is an adaptive mouse that allows her to
scroll using her palm and also to double click, press and drag. Her left hand controls a dowel that allows her to type on the keyboard. Phone calls can
be made from the computer as well as the office desk phone used on speaker, and a table microphone allows her to do dictation with Dragon.

Suria hears the front door open and looks up from her computer. ‘Alexa, show me the front door’ she asks, and the Nest cam shows that her caregiver is letting herself in with her own personal code that is programmed into the Smart door lock.  The caregiver, in turn, checks her IPhone to see where Suria is in the house.  It’s time for lunch, and they meet in the kitchen.  ‘Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights!’ and the Smart light bulbs illuminate the kitchen area. Suria remembers they are out of coffee, and she asks Alexa to show the shopping list. She deletes the items no longer needed, and adds coffee.  She knows that Kirby will check this list remotely on his Alexa app on his phone, and pick up the remaining items.

 Suria has already ordered Thai food through Uber Eats, an Alexa skill  enabled on her Echo that allows her to order prepared food. When the Smart doorbell rings, Suria can see on her IPad that it is the delivery person, and tells him to come in.  She commands the Echo to open the automatic door and lunch is served!

With her ‘Smart doorway’, Suria is able to come and go as she pleases

Suria speaks to Susan Tachau, executive director of the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Project, at the March 2018 Smart Home Made Simple advisory board meeting

Suria’s Amazon Echo devices, as well as her IPad, IPhone and Xbox, connect her to her home as well as the world outside. They give her independence and privacy,  keep her safe, manage her personal finances, entertain her, and allow her to perform at her job. She is an active member of the advisory board for the Smart Homes Made Simple project and participates in meetings both in person and from home.

On any given work day afternoon from home, Suria may be using her Amazon Show for setting up meetings,  for participating in conference calls or dictating past work meetings, scheduling appointments and for making phone calls to others who also have a Show. With her IPad  she checks emails and social media, records work meetings, schedules future transportation, does online research, and manages her finances. She can take a break from work and play a game like Words with Friends , also on the IPad.


‘Alexa, set a timer for ten minutes’.

(The chocolate chip cookies in the oven should be perfect by then, and just in time for movie night).  

Kirby and Suria are deciding what to watch on TV after dinner, and  Suria instructs Alexa to ‘Start Movie Night‘. The lights dim, the Nest thermostat turns the heat up, and the window shades close. Another example of an Alexa ‘routine’, this one sets the evening mood with three different actions using just one command.

New ways to streamline the Echo’s functions like this are evolving rapidly.  Using an applet with an IFTTT account also strings together several devices at a time, as does using a Wink hub to create ‘shortcuts’! The Flic button can activate a series of events with just the press of a button.  Flic has a pre-programmed ‘Ultimate Wake Up‘ button that makes your coffee, as well as an ‘Ultimate Go to Bed’ button that even warms up your bed! The possibilities seem endless, and yet still increase every day.


‘Alexa, Good Night’ Suria says softly. She’s finished listening to her audio book in bed with her IPad, and it’s time for sleep. With the Good Night command, Alexa turns out the lights and sets the alarm to wake up with the gentle sounds of the Orcas setting.

It’s been a long day, and a very productive one.  Smart Home Technology helped with that.



Smart Homes Made Simple

A group of people sit around a long wooden table. At the head of the table is a large screen showing two faces. Four of the people are using power wheelchairs, one woman stands and smiling at the group.

An explosion of new smart home devices in the last five years increasingly promises to enable individuals with disabilities to have greater control over their own lives, and to participate in and contribute more fully to activities at home, work, school and in the community. 

A group of people sit around a long wooden table. At the head of the table is a large screen showing two faces. Four of the people are using power wheelchairs, one woman stands and speaks to the group.

While mainstream use of Smart Home technology is gaining ground, the application of these devices in the disability community as Assistive Technology (AT) is lagging, with many people still dishing out thousands and tens of thousands of dollars for older, specialized AT.  While some of these devices are customized and a “specialty” item, many others are “generic,” which means that they can be purchased “off-the-shelf” and used “as is.”  This makes them more affordable and easier-to-use.

The goal of the Smart Homes Made Simple project is to learn about, define, and raise awareness of what this amazing and affordable tech can do for people of all abilities. The information that is gathered by the Advisory Committee and learned from the consulting partner’s installs of 20 new smart homes each year for individuals and from working with a smart technology innovator will be disseminated throughout the Commonwealth.

Smart Homes Made Simple logo

For this to occur effectively and systematically, and be duplicated elsewhere, answers to several questions are necessary, which we seek to answer in this project: How do people with disabilities learn about generic AT devices and how might these devices make a difference in their lives? What are the relationships between technology developers and people with disabilities? How do developers learn about the tweaks that could be made in their inventions so that more people could benefit from the new technology? And, are all of us speaking the same language, and using the same words with a common meaning so that we are able to successfully find a product that is able to do what we want it to do?

Thus, the goals for the Generic Technology Project will be to:

  • Learn more about generic technology, specifically smart home and smart devices;
  • Provide information about the devices, their uses and their availability to the disability community;
  • Foster collaboration between technology companies and individuals with disabilities and their advocates for new generic technology developments;
  • Expand opportunities for individuals with disabilities and their advocates to finance their generic technology needs;
  • Provide expanded information about and access to generic technology for an underserved community (individuals who have developmental disabilities who have significant support needs and are transitioning from institutions to the community in Southeastern Pennsylvania).

Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF), Pennsylvania’s Alternative Financing Program under the federal Assistive Technology Act, will be the lead on this project, working with a consumer-controlled Advisory Committee. PATF will collaborate with a technology consultant, Kirby Smith, to fulfill the required activities of the Generic Technology project. PATF is a consumer-directed, statewide organization that provides education and financing opportunities for people with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians, helping them to acquire assistive technology devices and services that improve the quality of their lives. PATF helps Pennsylvanians of all disabilities, health conditions, ages, and incomes.