Technology for Living has helped thousands of disabled British Columbians live independently
By Spencer van Vloten
Technology for Living provides free assistive technology services to British Columbians with mobility impairments. Once your application has been approved, they'll work directly with you to determine which equipment will improve your independence within your home.
Spencer van Vloten talked with Technology for Living's Taylor Danielson about the services they offer, and new developments in assistive technology.
Spencer: Tell us about Technology for Living, what you do, and how it makes a difference for people with disabilities
Taylor: Technology for Living is committed to helping people with severe disabilities who need assistive technologies, respiratory services and supports, to increase independence while living in the community. Our team consists of respiratory therapists, biomedical engineering technologists, technicians, and incredible office support staff.
Technology for Living consists of 3 programs:
The Provincial Respiratory Outreach Program (PROP) which supports members with their goal of living in the community with a respiratory condition by providing respiratory equipment, phone support and education for self-directed care.
The Technology for Independent Living (TIL) program provides environmental control systems which allow people with physical disabilities to live more independently in their homes. TIL works directly with members to provide one-on-one assessments and education to ensure we create a customized solution.
Peer Support facilitates a safe environment for Technology for Living members to listen to each other’s concerns, share information, respect opinions, and show compassion.
Technology for Independent Living has brought independence to thousands of British Columbians
Spencer: Going across the spectrum from a low level of disability to a high level, what are some examples of assistive devices people use?
Taylor: The centrepiece of most assistive technology setups is the voice assistant (Google Home, Alexa, or Siri).
Communication is a top priority for many Technology for Living members and voice assistants allow them to get the news, check the weather and keep in touch with their family. A voice assistant also returns independence within the home by allowing individuals with a physical disability to control their environment with simple voice commands.
While voice assistants can be wonderful for some, we understand that assistive technologies are not one-size-fits-all. We work directly with our members on a one-on-one basis to find a solution which works best for them.
Other examples of common control methods we support include switches (smoothie switches, sip n puff, etc.) or eye tracking which allow you to use your eyesight to interact with technology.
The sip-n-puff allows people with limited hand use to send signals to a device using air pressure by "sipping" or "puffing" on a straw, tube or wand
The environmental control systems provided by the Technology for Independent Living program vary widely. Meeting the needs of members is our specialty and our technicians create a solution specifically for each member based on what they would like to control in their home.
The most common systems we set up are TV controls, smart phone/tablet access, and lights but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Spencer: What are the main barriers which prevent British Columbians from getting the assistive technologies they need?
Taylor: The funding for assistive technologies and assistive devices is not always seen as an urgent issue; however, this is simply untrue.
The ability to live independently within the home improves the safety and quality of life for an individual. The devices that allow individuals to live independently can be commonly misunderstood as being for convenience rather than a critical necessity.
While a smart light bulb may be a fun aspect of the modern smart home for an able-bodied person, this same device could mean a world of difference for a mobility impaired person who can’t operate a traditional light switch.
Increased public awareness is needed to support the initiative of making community living accessible for all.
Spencer: How has assistive technology evolved over the last decade?
Taylor: Assistive technology has benefited from the explosion of consumer smart home products. Many of the devices Technology for Independent Living provides are not specifically assistive technology (AT) devices.
Smart light bulbs, for example, can be purchased at most retailers because many people enjoy having smart device in their homes. Thanks to this mainstream appeal individuals with a physical disability who have difficulty operating a traditional light switch can now access low-cost smart bulbs which can be operated in a way that is more accessible to them.
The recently introduced accessibility solutions Voice Control on Apple devices and Voice Access on Android make operating a smart phone exclusively using your voice a possibility. Using a smart phone can require a degree of dexterity that not everyone has – these technologies have unlocked a whole new level of accessibility for those with mobility impairments.
Often it's the little things which can make a huge difference
A Technology for Independent Living member who was recently introduced to Voice Control couldn’t be happier because he can now independently take pictures of his pets. Often, it’s the little things like that which can make a huge difference for an individual.
Voice accessibility features will also need to share the spotlight with switch access solutions. Devices like the Ablenet Hook+ makes integration of switches like a sip n puff or buttons simple for individuals who have difficulty using their voice.
Our experience at Technology for Independent Living is that many users who use switches to control their phones are extraordinarily adept with the technology and can navigate their devices at a speed on par with an able-bodied user. We believe that speaks volumes about human perseverance and adaptability.
Voice control technology has been invaluable for many persons with disabilities
Spencer: What are some recent developments in assistive technology that hold promise?
Taylor: It’s fantastic to see large corporations keep accessibility in mind. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft have dedicated programs for testing and collecting feedback from users who rely on accessible technology.
A particular device which holds a lot of promise is Amazon’s Fire TV Cube which solves one of the biggest shortcomings in assistive technology – voice control for TVs. While there are a few solutions for basic controls like turning on your TV and starting specific apps they are extremely limited in their implementation. They seem to be designed as a complement for a physical remote and not a standalone solution.
A hallmark of streaming platforms nowadays is browsing endlessly until you find something you want to watch – however this is impossible for many voice control implementations. They provide no options for navigating within apps and instead require you to state exactly what you want to watch.
This is where the Fire TV Cube comes in to save the day – it features full voice control without limitations. We hope to see other voice control solutions follow the Fire TV Cube’s lead and implement full-featured voice control.
Spencer: Are there any particular areas of assistive technology that you think deserve more attention?
Taylor: Smart phones are almost a necessity these days to fully participate in your community. Manufacturers have done extensive work to make their smart phones accessible for individuals with a disability.
The accessibility settings on your phone are a treasure trove of features and tweaks that make using a smart phone more manageable for those with sight, mobility, hearing, and other impairments.
Although not specific to AT, compatibility can be problematic. Apple, Google, and Amazon each have their own ecosystem and often devices only work in a specific one. This can lead to a lot of frustration for users when they’re hoping to connect a specific device for their home which would increase their independence but then they find out that it’s not compatible with the rest of the products they already have. This is an issue that plagues everyone with smart home products.
An ideal solution would see tech companies agree on a universal standard which would let smart home products work in all ecosystems. This would be a huge boon for consumers – regardless of AT needs.
To learn more about Technology for Living, including how to apply for their services, visit www.technologyforliving.org
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!