Michael Kelly has increased his independence and privacy with the autonoME environmental control unit.

Bill comes home, parks his car in the garage, gropes for the keys to the door, wheels into a dark home and fumbles to find the light switch. Ted also parks in the garage, but before rolling out of his van, he unlocks the door with his smart phone, then wheels across the threshold and turns on the kitchen lights and the bathroom heater with the same device. In the morning before getting out of bed, he uses the phone to turn the coffee maker and gas fireplace on, so he can be warm while reading the paper and drinking his cup of joe.

Environmental control units can be your friends, making life simpler and easier. The ultimate convenience for many, ECUs can be a godsend and lifesaver for people with disabilities, enhancing independence and widening their world. That increased independence can reduce the need for a paid attendant, cut down on demands of the family, and provide some much-needed privacy for all involved. That’s what one did for Michael Kelly.

After Kelly, of Spring Hill, Fla., was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the condition gradually began eating away at his independence. Now, autonoME, a custom ECU, is helping him get some of it back. The device is manufactured by Accessibility Services, Inc., of Homosassa, Fla.

Homescreen-3“Communicating was becoming extremely difficult for him, and even simple tasks such as changing a channel or making a phone call got to be problematic,” says Kelly’s daughter, Erin Shutt. “We were having to go in to change channels, do the lights and stuff, and he felt bad about constantly asking us to do all this. Now he’s able to use the ECU to control his television, the lights, his bed, the phone and the computer. He even began using Facebook to communicate with family and friends. It’s definitely helped everybody. He even can activate an alarm to call me for help at night when he needs me, as his hands are too weak to activate the call button he was using.”

Though Kelly doesn’t yet rely solely on the speech generation feature, he has recorded a number of common phrases for use when that time comes. “That way,” says his daughter, “he’ll be able to continue to talk with his own voice — with the blink of an eye.”

The speech generation program is a feature of the software installed on the autonoME called The Grid. Kelly operates it by scanning letters of the alphabet and using a sip-and-puff switch to select letters or pre-programmed phrases to type out what he wishes to say. The computer then generates the message into speech. The system is similar to that employed by Stephen Hawking.

The autonoME unit comes as either an 11-inch or 18-inch tablet computer and uses Windows 8 and Z Wave home automation to operate most any device or appliance that is activated with an infrared signal. In addition to controlling a TV, lights, a bed, phone and computer, the system can also control doors, thermostats, a Kindle, computer games, email and Skype.

Thanks to a customized autonoME environmental control unit (top right), Michael Kelly (above) is able to manage almost all of the electronics in his house and communicate with those around him despite the effects of his ALS. Photos courtesy of Brice Green.

Thanks to a customized autonoME environmental control unit (top right), Michael Kelly (above) is able to manage almost all of the electronics in his house and communicate with those around him despite the effects of his ALS. Photos courtesy of Brice Green.

When Kelly is up and on the go in his chair, he still has access to the unit, as it can be attached to his chair. Brice Green of ASI says the autonoME can be operated either by voice command, sip and puff, eye gaze, head mouse or touch. Kelly operates his 11-inch tablet primarily using either eye gaze or sip and puff. Outside the home, he can use the unit to surf the Web or for voice generation. Kelly often uses the unit in the back yard under the lanai for either the computer or speech generation.

A Vietnam War vet, Kelly had his unit, which cost about $10,000, funded through Veterans Affairs. ASI’s Green says that insurance funding is difficult and rare, though they have had success by going through various state programs, such as Florida’s Brain and Spinal Injury Program, Vocational Rehabilitation (if the computer is used for employment), and worker’s compensation programs. ASI offers a variety of ECU systems for home and hospitals and has installed systems in 10 VA hospitals across the country.

A World of Choices
Not all ECUs are as elaborate as Kelly’s. Most simply allow users to control one or more aspects of their environment that operate with electricity via remote control. ECUs can be simple or as sophisticated as a system that allows a person to control most everything in the home, from a home theater system to a phone to lights to automatic doors to computers to a variety of appliances, even adjustable beds.

In addition to controlling basic home devices, ECUs like autonoME (above) can even help users with media apps and games.

In addition to controlling basic home devices, ECUs like autonoME can even help users with media apps and games.

When I visited Craig Hospital’s new Assistive Technology Lab, Erin Muston-Firsch, one of the lab’s AT specialists, gave a tour. Just as I’d been reading, pretty much anything that operates with electricity can be operated remotely. Who knew we could all be living the life of the Jetsons?

As with Kelly’s ECU, many systems can be operated multiple ways. Though most usually are activated either by voice, finger touch or mouth stick, they are increasingly operated with a smart phone or tablet. When a command is sent to an ECU unit, that unit — say a plug wall socket or a switch for a fan or light dimmer — then tells the appliance to do as ordered, such as turning itself on or off. Any appliance, whether it be a TV, radio, lights, VCR, DVD, motorized drapes, door locks and deadbolts, sensors and security cameras or a motorized hospital bed, can be operated remotely with an ECU.

VOCCA light

VOCCA light

Consumers now have myriad choices of ECUs, ranging from simple light controls to whole house systems. Those light controls can be a simple as a $20 Clapper — a sound activated socket — a big off/on button switch or key fob-activated on/off switch outlet. For $45 there’s the VOCCA voice-activated light bulb adapter (say “go VOCCA light” to activate), or a $12 Zap remote control plug-in outlet (or $30 for a five-pack with a remote). If remotes for the TV/DVD are too small, big button remotes are readily available, as are phones. Don’t want to get back in your chair to turn on the lights? Try a screw-in light control adapter or the $70 Phillips Hue light bulb with the ECU built in. Either can be controlled remotely with a smart phone or tablet.

If you’re in the market for a very responsive, never complaining wait-person, the Amazon Echo might fit the bill. The system is voice controlled — sort of like Siri — to do your bidding. The unit is a 3-inch by 9-inch circular tower, equipped with multi-directional microphones to hear you from anywhere in a room, even with music playing. If you wish to control the Echo while not in the room with it, there’s a remote available. The Echo seems eerily sci-fi. It connects lights and switches through plug-in modules marketed by four manufacturers — Wink, WeMo, SmartThings, or Phillips Hue — and allows you to control whatever device is plugged into the module, whether it be lights, appliances like coffeemakers, fans or space heaters, etc.

The Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo

Echo connects to Alexa, a cloud-based voice service, which not only controls different appliances but also provides information, answers questions, plays music, reads the news, checks sports scores or the weather from local radio stations, National Public Radio and ESPN, and reads you audio books. Alexa will let you access Pandora, iHeartRadio, Wikipedia or do web searches while delivering remarkably good room-filling sound. Think of Alexa as Samantha’s (from the movie Her) benevolent and always obedient little sister, eager to comply and control your environment for you without ever complaining. It begins working as soon as it hears you say “Alexa,” followed by your request. Echo can also be controlled with a smart phone or tablet.

Control Your Entire Home With One Device
If you’re looking for something more elaborate and powerful, try Insteon, a home automation system that allows you to control lights, thermostats, appliances and security systems. You can manage your entire home with a handheld remote, a wall keypad, a computer or a Web-enabled device like a tablet or smart phone via radio frequency and your home’s Wi-Fi network. Set-up involves connecting the Insteon HUB to your existing home router and then adding devices. Available control units include a wall dimmer, a thermostat with humidity sensor, wall outlets, or controls for ceiling fan or lights, all of which require some simple hard-wiring. Other modules include plug-in lamp dimmers, on/off modules to control standard appliances such as a fan, fluorescent light, coffee maker or home entertainment center, none of which require hard-wiring. You can connect and control thermostats, security cameras, motion detectors or moisture sensors to your system and monitor your home while you’re there or away. Units will even send you email or text alerts with sensors monitoring motion, door and window status, water leaks or smoke.

Setting up an Insteon network involves determining which lamp or appliance to control and then deciding how to control it, often with a phone or tablet. Directions are included with all modules.

Although an Insteon system is potentially more robust, capable of controlling a broader range than Echo, Amazon is continually adding more capabilities. Either one will also control your TV with a special hub adapter, managed with a phone or tablet tap screen. Apple products’ (phone or tablet) accessibility feature includes touch, sip-and-puff or voice-switch scanning.

Sad to say that chances of Medicare funding for ECUs is slim to none. For help with funding, we’re left with following the advice of ASI’s Green to try to find funding through state agencies, Voc Rehab, worker’s comp or an independent funding source.

Want to go whole hog and buy a complete home system? They’re available, many with voice control, some with switch scanning, allowing you to control your entire environment, even adjustable beds and fireplaces. Most whole-house units come with a tablet computer remote. While whole house systems like Kelly’s are available, they also carry a hefty price — $6,000 to $10,000 —require professional installation, and often come with a monthly service fee. But with Insteon, Echo and other options offering whole house control for much less money, you may not need to break the bank.

Most of the systems outlined here operate via Wi-Fi, radio frequency, the home’s hard-wiring or some combination of the three. Many who go from room to room throughout the day prefer to mount their tablet or home system remote on their chair for easy access.

You might decide on a single ECU like the Clapper or Vocca light, an elaborate and highly sophisticated whole-house system either out of necessity — as Michael Kelly did — or simply because you can. Controlling your environment is a simple touch or voice command away.

• Amazon Echo, www.amazon.com/echo
• AutonoME, Accessibility Services, Inc., 800/933-8400; info@asi-autonome.com, asi-autonome.com.
• Clapper, chia.com/home-goods/the-clapper. This product is available via Amazon, Ace Hardware and many drug stores such as CVS or Rite Aid.
• Insteon, www.insteon.com. The starter kit is available at most places where electronics are bought.
• Philips Hue, www2.meethue.com/en-us. Available at Amazon, Best Buy, Staples, Walmart and similar outlets.
• SmartThings, support@smartthings.com, www.smartthings.com.
• VOCCA light, voccalight.com
• WeMo, www.wemo.com. Available at Amazon, Belkin, Best Buy, Home Depot and Verizon.
• Wink, 844/WINKAPP; questions@wink.com, www.wink.com
• Zap remote control plug-in, 657/500-1872 or 855/686-3835; www.etekcity.com/product/100053.html