Simple, easy-to-use smart home tools are available to help address the challenges facing Americans living with disabilities. While researching these products, there are five key things to look for to minimize the frustration and complexity of setting up an accessible smart home.
According to the CDC, more than 34 million Americans live with disabilities that impact their ability to walk or climb stairs. Meanwhile more than 61 million Americans live with significant challenges that affect their ability to care for themselves and interact with the world around them.
Imagine this: your grandmother sits in her favorite recliner as she reads one winter afternoon. As hours pass, the room grows darker until the sun sets. Because of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, or any of a number of significant conditions, she continues to sit in the dark. She’s waiting for someone to come home and turn on lights because it’s easier to wait than to walk with debilitating pain or to risk falling down. This scene plays out far too often among households across the U.S., and it doesn’t need to be that way.
Lighting is the most obvious and accessible opportunity to incorporate smart home automation tools. While many of us think in terms of energy savings or convenience, the ability to turn on lights through the use of a mobile phone, tablet, or voice assistant often gives an indescribable feeling of empowerment to someone who has spent hours sitting in the dark. Light equates to safety – not just from obstacles and falls, but from intrusion. When rarely used or poorly accessible parts of the home are lit in such a way as to suggest occupancy, that home is a less attractive target for criminal activity. The psychological benefits of lighting cannot be overstated in providing freedom for physical movement, safety, and comfort.
All too often, however, many who begin the process of investigating smart lighting options find themselves overwhelmed and confused as opposed to relieved with a simple solution. Unfortunately, there are manufacturers that release devices just to have a foothold in this market segment, rather than designing a thoughtful product that meets an actual need. These products are often complex and difficult to set up, without a unified approach that can help the average person create an adaptive and useful automation system for their home.
Many smart lighting products are switches, a permanent physical installation that may require specific electrical skills or even an electrical license to set up. Smart bulbs are portable products but require either the use of an expensive and often cryptic hub for control or a working internet connection. When walking from one room to another is a constant struggle, local control of lighting during internet outages is critical.
For average homeowners, the price tag on a turnkey smart home system can be prohibitive. For this level of technology, where a custom integration specialist takes care of physical installation, software set up, and programming the individual automation configurations, the monetary outlay can start in the tens of thousands of dollars. Even individual, self-installed components can seem prohibitively expensive, with hubs costing $100 or more, switches that control a single circuit as much as $75, and specialty products rising from there.
Less expensive products, of questionable hardware quality, tend to have poorly designed apps and often just don’t work. Even when the products do work, each manufacturer offers their own app, leading to a confusing glut of icons on the user’s mobile screen and an inability to quickly find the correct tool to configure or control these devices. Many consumers choose to use only one or two brands of lighting products, even at higher cost, just to simplify their use.
While researching products, there are five key things you can look for to minimize the frustration and complexity of setting up an accessible smart home for yourself or family members.
- Compatibility. Pay close attention to products that are widely compatible with other systems, as well as offering the ability to use APIs or protocols like MQTT and CoAP offer a much greater value than products that live in a closed ecosystem.
- Wi-Fi is Key. Zigbee, ZLL and Z-Wave based products need a special hub or bridge, which can require Internet access to work, have complex interfaces, or cost a lot of money. Odds are, you’ve already got Wi-Fi in your home. Whenever possible, insist on local control. Voice assistants need the Internet to work, but your lighting can work locally, with an app to use when the Internet is down.
- Back to Basics – If electrical installation is beyond your skill level or your ability to afford, focus on bulbs and plugs, some of which offer local control and wide compatibility with other products.
- Affordability – While product price points run the gamut, affordable options do exist and these lower cost options don’t mean poor quality. Do your due diligence – Facebook Groups and independent reviewers can help you uncover a number of cost-effective options that deliver the versatility your loved one may need to live a connected, comfortable and safe lifestyle.
- Make It Simple – Focus on products that offer the ability to control a single device or a group of them from a single app on a phone or tablet. This functionality is a great compliment (or replacement for) voice assistants and by making it a simple process, you will encourage usage by your (apprehensive) loved one.
Lighting is just one segment of the automation market that can improve life for people with disabilities. Blinds, shades, and curtains allow access to natural light during daylight hours while providing privacy in late afternoon and evening hours. Remotely operated garage door openers provide the ability to accept deliveries without physical contact, as well as giving the homeowner rapid access to the home.
Smart thermostats give instant access to climate controls, which can dramatically increase the comfort of people taking corticosteroids or other prescriptions that cause “hot flashes” or chills. Voice assistants, with the ability to interface with thousands of different smart home products, provide weather forecasts, and make calls to friends, family, or even emergency services, seem more a necessity than a tool.
Even with the roadblocks in implementing smart technology in the home, these devices offer life-changing improvement for people with accessibility challenges. Products available today are decades ahead of those released just five or 10 years ago, as manufacturers develop more versatile devices and allow them to connect to, communicate with, and control those made by other companies. As individual smart home technology becomes smarter, consumers will rely less on hubs and constant internet communication for critical systems, which will benefit everyone, but most especially those who live with disabilities.