ABILITY House — Behind The Scenes Of A Smart Home

Circa 2005

When I was seventeen, my friends were playing with a gun they didn’t know was loaded. The gun went off and the bullet hit me in the neck, paralyzing me from the neck down,” explains Derrick Daniels, the owner of the first ABILITY House to be built with smarthome technology. “The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it through the night, but I had one of the quickest recoveries they had ever seen.” Daniels spent 10 years following the incident living at his mom’s house, facing the frustration that comes with living in an inaccessible home. “I’d been ready to move out on my own for some time; [my mom’s] house wasn’t built for someone who uses a wheelchair, so a friend of mine who’s a real estate agent took me around to see places.” As his search progressed, it quickly became evident that nearly every home would require extensive modification to be wheelchair accessible.

“Then one day I realized I hadn’t prayed about it. So I did, and within two weeks I was in a gas station and I met a man named Chris Wright,” says Daniels. “I told him I was looking forward to moving out of my mother’s house, and he told me about the ABILITY House program.” Wright, who was the first person with paraplegia to own an ABILITY House, provided the necessary information, and three months later Daniels was approved for a house of his own.

The ABILITY House program works with ABILITY Magazine and Habitat for Humanity to construct accessible homes for low-income families with disabilities, while engaging people with disabilities in the community as volunteers to help build the homes. Every ABILITY House employs universal design elements and meets the criteria of visitability (i.e., people with disabilities who don’t live in the home can still visit it with ease). The basic features include a minimum of one no-step entrance, hallways at least 36” wide, and one bathroom on the first floor with a 32” doorway. In addition, each ABILITY House is built to accommodate the specific needs of the homeowner. “

The first ABILITY House for a person who has quadriplegia, Daniels’ home was constructed in collaboration with the Habitat for Humanity of Greater Birmingham and sponsored by BellSouth and ABILITY Magazine.

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A typical family home may be riddled with obstacles and barriers for a person who has little or no mobility. Without assistance, telephones can’t be answered, a light can’t be dimmed and a guest cannot be welcomed into the home. When ABILITY learned the nature of Daniels’ disability, the program looked for resources to make his home not only accessible, but also equipped with technology to help him live as independently as possible. It asked Hewlett Packard (HP) to help, and HP’s support allowed Daniels’ home to become a smart home, outfitted with extensive computer-assisted mechanics and environmental controls. Additionally, SureHands Lift and Care Systems contributed a lift mechanism to move Daniels from shower to bed on a rail system in the house.

Al Bates, HP district manager, and Larry Fruge, HP customer engineer, coordinated the technology and helped Daniels learn to use it. Says Bates, “When the PC for Derrick arrived, Larry quickly realized this was more than just an installation. He explained to me that the PC was designed to control the lights, doors, TV, radio and other appliances in Derrick’s home. Not only would he need to test the system, which required learning all the third-party software, but he would also need to teach Derrick how to use it. Although this would take considerably more time than we had anticipated, Larry didn’t hesitate.”

Fruge elaborates, “I spoke with Michael Takemura, the director of HP’s Accessibility Program, and he gave me some background information. I quickly realized this would involve more than an installation and demonstration. I needed to load the third-party software that had been selected to allow Derrick to control the devices in his home—the hardware itself was not going to solve any of his problems. More importantly, I needed to learn how to use this software so I could show Derrick what these tools were intended to do.”

Fruge took the system home and installed it in his own home to test it. “I started teaching it to control the devices in my house, such as the lights and appliances,” he explains. “I was able to control items in some rooms but not in others. All new houses, as a general rule, have two AC phases from the input boxes. Some rooms are on one phase and some are on the other. As long as I stayed on the first phase I could control all the devices, but if I moved over to the second there was no communication.” Fruge knew that resolution of the phase problem was critical because the PC must send signals over the existing AC wires to communicate with household devices. The manufacturer suggested installing a device to join the two phases in the house’s electrical box.

Fruge met Daniels the day he was installing the computer system in the ABILITY House. “I heard an automated wheelchair. I stopped what I was doing and went into the living room and said, ‘You must be Derrick.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Who’s Derrick?’ I replied, ‘Don’t mess with me, Man, I know it’s you,’ and he laughed. Derrick is quite a kidder. He has a real good sense of humor, and that’s the way he seems to live his life. He also has a very positive attitude, which I noticed right away; it spoke volumes to me about his character.”

Fruge showed Daniels how to control devices in his home with the PC and mouse, a reflective dot placed on Daniels’ forehead. A third-party device called a Tracker sat on top of the monitor and followed the movement of the dot to control the cursor and open programs. By moving the mouse over certain on-screen keys, Daniels could even type Word documents. He also received a professional voice-activated diction package, which was his favorite piece of software. By the next day, Daniels was able to control all the devices, including lights that had been installed outside to give him a sense of security.

Daniels and Fruge continued to work together. “I went back not as a representative of HP, but on my own,” Fruge states. “HP had already gone way beyond what we had been asked to do. I had come to like Derrick. He seems to have an instant friendship with everyone he meets, and we just clicked. But what I noticed the most about Derrick was that the first time I talked to him about what the computer was going to do, he lit up like a Christmas tree. I had not seen that in somebody’s face in a long time. To me, that is what makes life worth helping someone—when you see, for the first time, that ray of freedom: being able to do something without having to ask someone else to do it for you; being able to tune a radio on your computer for yourself, or control the volume, without asking somebody to turn the channels for you; being able to create a Word document by yourself. Seeing his face it was all worth it.”

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Daniels’ next goals are college enrollment and a degree in computer science. “Moving from my mother’s house to the ABILITY House has been just amazing,” he relates. “At my mother’s house, I always had to wait for a strong friend to come over and carry me to the bathroom. I never thought stuff [like this lift system] could be built. I’m still learning to use my PC, but as far as controlling the appliances and the lights, I’ve got that down pat.” Accessing the Internet, in particular, is a new excitement. “I’m still getting used to having a computer. Sometimes, I will call my mother to send an email for me and then I remember, I can do this for myself!

“I used to come by here every day while they were building my house. It just amazed me how people would come from all over to help someone they didn’t even know. I saw the foundation, and then four months later the house was built. Sometimes I sit outside on my porch and I am overwhelmed because I’m sitting at my very own house.”

Compiled from an article by Holly Higgins

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