Todd Stabelfeldt is a busy man these days. When not traveling all over the country delivering powerful speeches like “Convenience for You is Independence for Me” — at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose last June — he’s also CEO of C4 Database Management, a small business focused on maintaining digital records for hospitals all over the country from his home in Port Orchard, Washington.
We caught up with the entrepreneur and computing technology expert on a particularly frenetic day in August. C4 had just gone live with a new software portal being tested at a couple of hospitals before being released to the rest of his clients. In between taking phone calls on one of the two iPhones attached to his chair, he zips in and out of his office, a technological fortress with a very unique flavor to its design.
As he pulls up to his desk, the dual screens of his desktop are dwarfed by three 40-plus-inch TVs hanging on the wall to his left. The top two flash IP addresses and other hieroglyphs only programmers understand, while the bottom is a constant rotation of the security cameras in and around his home. You can hear the slight hum of server racks from inside their custom-designed, climate-controlled closet behind him. On his right, a contraption that vaguely resembles early PCs from the ’80s looks extremely out of place. “My keyboard emulator,” he says, biting the mouthstick and tapping away at the greenish screen.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of high and low tech, where he has learned to balance consistency and sustainability, while also testing the limits of emerging technologies on a regular basis. It speaks volumes for the measured approach that was developed over years of trial and error by a true pioneer of assistive technology.
No Stranger to the Cutting Edge
Paralyzed at the C4 level from an accidental gunshot in 1987, then-8-year-old Todd had an interesting form of therapy as an inpatient in Seattle Children’s Hospital — adaptive video gaming. Along with a few other patients at Children’s, he became part of Nintendo’s research and development for the NES Hands Free Controller, an adaptive controller that consisted of a chin-switch joystick and sip-and-puff that gave young quadriplegics the ability to play their favorite games just like their peers.
Within a couple of years, he became the face of the system and was flown all over the country modeling it and giving live demos. “My face was on the manual inside every box. It was a lot of fun.” Now three decades later, you see a man who took those initial seeds of innovation from his formative years and built his entire world around it. Today’s drive controls aren’t all that different from the Nintendo controller, but the functionality of it has been profoundly upgraded over time.
“I grew it as the technology changed,” says Stabelfeldt, recalling the relative dark ages of assistive technology. Long before we all had smart devices preloaded with maps, internet access, and flawless voice recognition permanently attached to our palms, he was teaching himself computer programming — one tapped out character at a time — and hacking into his drive controls to make his world a little more accessible. Garage door remotes were rewired to operate doors; infrared switches were drilled into the ball of his joystick.
At some point, he had more switches than he could make use of, though not for a lack of trying.
What was missing in both his personal and business life was the ability to communicate independently when not at his desktop. He’d tried dozens of phone modifications but never found the perfect solution to his problem. “I wanted to text to my wife or email a colleague without having to ask someone else to do it for me.”
Bridging the Gap with Switch Control
That all changed in late 2013 when a friend tipped him off to Switch Control, a feature buried deep within the accessibility settings of the iPhone iOS 7 update. Built directly into the iOS platform, it allowed access to nearly every feature in the iOS with as little as a single switch. Through automated scanning or the use of programmable switches, a blue box moves up and down the list of apps on the home screen and around every clickable link inside the majority of the apps themselves.
Paired with Bluetooth-enabled assistive devices like Komodo Labs’ Tecla Shield DOS, Permobil’s iDevice, and Komodo’s forthcoming tecla-e — each turns a wheelchair user’s existing drive controls into recognizable switches. Switch Control becomes an immersive portal into the 21st century for a section of the paralysis community to finally harness touchscreen functionality. Double-click your designated “Select” button and a menu comes up giving you the option to go to the home screen, scroll, and a whole slew of gestures like flick, hold and drag, and pinch.
It didn’t take long after his initial trial for Stabelfeldt to recognize the value it would bring to his and others’ lives. This was the solution he’d spent years looking for, so he took the idea to his nonprofit, The Todd Stabelfeldt Foundation.
A New Purpose — Spreading the Word
Originally formed in 2008 with vague aspirations to advocate for individuals with accessibility needs, TheTSF now had a much more specific and actionable focus. The foundation acted fast, securing a grant that allowed them to outfit nearly 20 high-level quadriplegics in and around Washington state within 18 months.
One of the first recipients was Ian Mackay, a C2 quadriplegic and good friend of Stabelfeldt’s living in Port Angeles. “It’s made my life more fun and opened up the world to me,” says the avid birdwatcher and all-around outdoorsman. Having a fully accessible phone gave Mackay the means to get back out in nature by himself for the first time since his injury. These days he spends hours out on trails all over Washington, logging up to 30 miles a day to raise awareness for accessible trails in the state.
With Mackay helping Stabelfeldt spread the word around the Pacific Northwest, a tightknit group of Switch Control users were able to work together and learn to master all of its features with the help of the manufacturers. Both Tecla and Apple were very proactive with technical assistance and soliciting feedback to help further the development of the technology. “I was blown away by their responsiveness,” says Stabelfeldt.
Four years later, the system has continued to grow with each iOS update. Features like Recipes — which lets users dedicate actions to your switches to use in specific apps — help users keep pace with the rest of the world’s digital progress. For example, you can create a recipe to turn pages in iBooks or control an action in a game. There is even a Facebook group called “Hands Optional,” where nearly 200 members swap tips and techniques for maximizing Switch Control’s skills.
“It was a huge game changer for me,” says Tyler Shrenk, also a C2 quadriplegic from Woodinville, Washington, who recently took over as executive director of Stabelfeldt’s foundation. Under Shrenk’s direction, the foundation has given out 25 phone system set-ups to wheelchair drivers from Chicago to Florida to Germany. “It’s allowed me to come full-circle,” says Shrenk. “I’ve gone from being helped to giving others help.”
The Quadthedral — Building a Home of (and for) the Future
Stabelfeldt’s mastery of technology is also apparent in his everyday living space. In 2014, he and his wife, Karen, broke ground on their dream home. Dubbed the Quadthedral, the approach to the design was as meticulous as Stabelfeldt’s attention to the syntax of his database codes. “We built the house with technology and the future in mind,” says Karen, who thoroughly enjoyed the process of planning a home from the ground up.
The first major hurdle was infrastructure, not just for an automated home, but for C4 Database Management as well, which was rapidly expanding at the time. Even in the age of wireless connectivity, they chose to run miles of cable before the sheetrock went up. “Whenever possible we ran wire for redundancy. It’s all about consistency,” says Karen.
In the case of a power outage, there is a propane-powered backup generator hardwired into the house that will automatically fire after it senses the loss of electricity. But seconds off-line can leave miles of digital wreckage to clean up after the fact in the IT business, which is why he made sure to protect all crucial circuits with uninterrupted power supplies.
When it came to picking home controls, the Stabelfeldts found themselves in the weird middle ground that comes with an industry trying to figure itself out. Similar to the Betamax versus VCR and Blu-ray versus HD DVD battles of decades past, the home automation industry was still in its relative infancy, so the landscape was flooded with options that weren’t always compatible. Multiple developers with matching proprietary apps made it hard to marry the systems early on.
Fortunately, tech giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google began to release their home automation platforms so that homeowners could group products together without having to overload their devices with endless single function apps. Todd and Karen naturally went with HomeKit because of its compatibility with Switch Control and Siri.
The options for grouping and customization can only be limited by your imagination as well as your pocketbook. You can get as detailed or as broad as you want, programming every individual light in the room, or designating all-encompassing scenarios like “Lights Out” (that locks the doors, closes the shades and turns the lights off) — all with a single voice command.
Even with their highly futuristic home as it is, the Stabelfeldts know that they have just scratched the surface of what their home will become. With that in mind, they decided to test door openers and automated blinds in a few areas instead of dropping a ton of money on tech that could be out of date by tomorrow. “We purposely left gaps where we believe technology will go,” says Karen.
Looking to the Future … What’s Next?
The future is difficult to prognosticate, especially since it almost feels like we are already outliving the science fiction of our childhoods week to week. Stabelfeldt points out that progress is inevitable and will be fast. As the population ages, a much larger cross-section of the populace will need further accessibility, and these technologies will become more and more universally used. “That, and lazy people are good for us, too,” he quips.
Asked what features he’d like to see come about in the future, he recalls a recent trip to Mount Rainier with Ian Mackay and a bunch of friends in wheelchairs and pointed out a tiny gap in his foresight. “I wish that Siri could have looked at my calendar and seen that I would be out of cell service, and would have given me a reminder to download my playlists and podcasts.” Basically, he wants to turn his phone into a full-fledged personal assistant.
Mackay, for one, has no doubt that Stabelfeldt will be able to make it happen. “His willingness to experiment and explore these things has really made him a trailblazer on behalf of the rest of us.”
Useful Switch Control Devices
Tecla Shield DOS: A second-generation device from Komodo Labs designed to turn up to six independent switches or a wheelchair user’s existing drive controls into Bluetooth switches that can be recognized by phones, tablets and computers.
Permobil iDevice: Sometime in 2014, the forward-thinking folks at Permobil recognized the power of Switch Control and developed a Bluetooth switch system of their own that plugs right into their newest lines of wheelchairs. Chairs purchased prior to 2014 only need an upgraded power module to harness Bluetooth capabilities.
tecla-e: The newest iteration of the Tecla now boasts the ability to connect to up to eight Bluetooth devices at once, which works well with Switch Control’s latest update feature Platform Switching that allows the user to seamlessly swap between each device while using the same switches. Stabelfeldt showed us just how easy it is to jump from his iPhone to an iPad to his Apple TV and back again.
HomeKit Compatibility: Apple’s always-expanding collaboration with third-party products make home controls much easier to group together for seamless home automation.
Lights: Combining Phillips Hue LED lightbulbs with Lutron Caséta switches and wall plugs makes for an infinitely customizable lighting package, allowing users to pre-program not just the brightness of their lights, but the colors as well.
Door locks: Schlage Connect and Sense deadbolts feature illuminated keypads that can store up to 30 different codes so family, friends and caregivers can each have their own. There is also the option for temporary codes that are only usable during a pre-scheduled timeslot, which is great for visitors coming in from out of town for the weekend.
Blinds: Lutron’s Serena Remote Controlled Shades work well with HomeKit. Just tell Siri what percentage you want the blinds opened to, and the motorized rollers respond right away!
RTI: At the time of the build, there were still a few gaps in HomeKit, so Todd and Karen Stabelfeldt reached out to Theater One, a local home automation company, to get a few extra controls like NABCO automatic doors and DSC Power Series. “We chose RTI because it was the most Switch Control-friendly of all the apps,” says Todd.
• The Quadfather (Apple video): www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PoE9tHg_P0Switch Control resources
• Switch Control: www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/physical-and-motor-skills/
• Tecla DOS: gettecla.com/products/tecla-shield
• Permobil iDevice: permobilus.com/product/bluetooth-idevice-module/
• tecla-e: gettecla.com/products/tecla-e-pre-order
• Hands optional FB page: www.facebook.com/groups/1331209543597872/
Home Automation Resources
• Apple HomeKit: www.apple.com/shop/accessories/all-accessories/homekit
• RTI Controller App: www.rticorp.com
• Theater One: theaterone.com
• Schlage Smart Locks: www.schlage.com/en/home/keyless-deadbolt-locks.html
• Serena Remote Control Shades: www.lutron.com/en-US/Products/Pages/ShadingSystems/SerenaShades/Overview.aspx
• DSC Power Series: www.dsc.com
• NABCO Automatic Doors: nabcoentrances.com