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Health, Science & Tech

Aliquippa Home Encourages Residents' Independence With Adaptive, Tech-Savvy Solutions

Jennifer Szweda Jordan
90.5 WESA
Aliquippa smart home resident Michael Rankin can raise and lower the kitchen sink to meet his needs. The home is equipped with special features - induction stove tops, window blinds controlled by iPads and others - to accommodate a myriad of disabilities.

Smart home resident Michael Rankin loves his oven. 

“If you put your arm on it, you don’t get burned,” he said.

The induction stovetop, which works by heating only when certain types of pots or pans are on top, stays cool to the touch even when it’s being used. That technology is one of a myriad of clever features incorporated into a "smart home" in Aliquippa designed to cater to its four inhabitants all living with disabilities.

Non-profits NHS Human Services and the Allegheny Valley School, which operates 350 homes for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, opened Rankin's home last year as a demonstration project.

“They’ve been able to do so much more where they can help to prepare their food at night," said Dorothy Gordon, the school's chief development officer. "They can go into the kitchen and get a tea cup and then heat their water for tea. That’s something they had to get somebody to help do for them in the past.”

The home's opening just preceded the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This year, the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, spawned in 1966 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, characterized access to technology as “critical for people with intellectual disabilities to fully engage in the everyday life of our society.”

Gordon said the ranch-style NHS/AVS smart home features the kind of technology the president’s committee said the intellectually disabled need.

In the living room, resident Tony Brown swipes the home screen to his iPad, sending a remote command to a motorized device that opens the window shades. Brown uses a wheelchair, so maneuvering to a cord and manually pulling the blinds up and down is a tough task. The iPads are also connected to the lights and a home automation system that runs the heating and air conditioning system.

Electrical switches allow the men to lower and raise cabinet shelves and the kitchen sink to a level they can reach. Every feature has a purpose and simplicity designed to enhance their quality of life.

“We did that to help with energy savings as well,” said Shaleeah Shields, the home’s project manager. “Sometimes a window will be left open. Maybe the gentlemen will have left for the day. It actually sends an e-mail alert to the administrator of the home to let them know that the home is outside of the normal range of temperature -- and that could be if it’s cold or hot.”

Shields said the school is now evaluating what they’d do differently in other homes, like how to repair adaptive technologies when they break. They can be much more expensive to repair than a standard home, she said, so they're learning. 

The Allegheny Valley School is committed to technology playing a role in its services, Executive Vice President Terry McNelis said. The agency’s raised $100,000 from private donations to test these kinds of assistive technologies, including wearable devices that monitor temperature or blood pressure cuffs that send information to a computer via Bluetooth so that a nurse doesn’t have to come to a home. 

“It’s really the wave of the future that I think people have a right to access just as the rest of us,” McNelis said.

Implemented well, assistive technologies could help manage the cost of serving people with disabilities by decreasing their need for expensive medical care, he said. A few states are supporting these initiatives with funding; Pennsylvania is not among them.

“Other states, under their waiver programs, which is a federal program, have revised their waivers to allow for the payment of assistive technologies,” McNelis said. “Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has not gotten there yet. We’re hoping we can influence the Office of Developmental Programs to do that.”

In this week’s tech calendar:

  • Global Entrepreneurship Week At Carnegie Mellon University runs through Friday this week. Sessions around the campus include a Startup Job Fair and How to Build a Successful Hardware Startup.