Technology has changed our lives in ways too numerous to count, and as much as some may hate to admit, it has become our best friend. We get frustrated with it when we don’t understand it, praise it when something brilliant happens, and replace it the minute it fails! Yes, technology is our friend, and no matter how you feel about it, at some point you will have to deal with it.
The same goes for accessibility. Whether it’s during parenthood, old age, or a disability, accessibility challenges will affect almost everyone. Creating barrier-free accessibility does not always have to be done through physical, architectural change; sometimes the use of technology to change how we interact with society and the built environment is equally important.
In the Home
For centuries, homes were not accessible to people with mobility issues. There was little knowledge on how to adjust to a lifestyle that was unfamiliar to many. It was not until time passed and technology evolved that society started to look at the built environment as a concern. In many ways it is still a problem. The need to make life easier is no different now than it was hundreds of years ago. It is human nature to want things in life effortlessly. Through new technology, society has learned to overcome many barriers.
The home is a difficult place to create barrier-free accessibility with only technology. To meet the functional needs of wheelchair users, it is essential to make the home wheelchair accessible with architectural modifications. In many cases, technology provides an added touch of neatness that illuminates accessible architectural features within the home.
Certain architectural features must be incorporated into the design to make a kitchen accessible for wheelchair users. According to the Paralyzed Veterans of America resource Accessible Home Design, an accessible kitchen needs a work area with knee space for food preparation. This can be provided as part of the countertop with an alcove below or by a suitable work table. Sinks for wheelchair users also should have sufficient clear floor space for access. These factors are architectural changes that need to happen in order for a wheelchair user to work within the space.
The space can be further enhanced with the use of technology. For example, a no-touch automatic sensor faucet in the sink is much easier to operate. The same can be said for cabinetry. Adjustable pulldown shelving within the cabinets provides wheelchair users better use of all shelf space.
Technology in appliances takes on a new level of convenience and accessibility. Major appliance companies are developing smart refrigerators, which include 15-inch HD-ready LCD screen and message centers. This screen provides the ability to search online, watch television, and take digital notes. Some models offer the ability to take voice notes instead of hand-written ones—a plus for people with little hand mobility.
One company has even gone as far as to develop an Internet-controlled refrigerator-oven. The refrigeration is built into the oven to store food that can be cooked later. It’s remote controlled via the Internet and telephone (voice and touch tone) and uses safe, nontoxic cleaning methods, making it possible for anyone to use.
If you think the refrigerator-oven is amazing, the microwave that claims to take the guesswork out of cooking times by including a UPC/barcode scanning wand is mind blowing. By just scanning the UPC on the food’s packaging, the microwave automatically programs the exact cooking time and power level based on its database of more than 4,000 codes. The microwave is also said to have a learning function, allowing it to accommodate new items not included in its database.
Electronics are simplifying the whole house, including the laundry room. Something as simple as moving wet washed clothes to the dryer is a challenge for many wheelchair users. With this in mind, home-appliance manufacturers have developed new, efficient, vent-less, front-loading combination washer/dryers. This technology enhances the quality of life and independence for wheelchair users while eliminating the need for another machine, hence providing valuable clear floor space.
“Smart” combination washers and dryers are just the beginning. Companies are further developing these appliances to do everything but fold the laundry. By connecting the washer and dryer to your household network, the machines will be able to text, instant message, or even display a note on your television screen notifying you when a cycle is finished. With the use of a computer or cell phone, you could start and stop the appliance, ultimately reducing the number of trips to the laundry room.
Cellular phones are quickly replacing home landlines. In this age of the “smart phone,” cell phones have evolved into devices that are nothing short of brilliant. With color, clarity, and now 3D enhancements, the phone experience has taken on an entire new meaning. It’s not only those capabilities that make these phones so amazing but also the additional software/applications (apps) that can be added. Smart phone apps are becoming more useful, especially for people with disabilities.
Nokia developers have created an application called “ThinkContacts.” By using their brainwaves and with the aid of a special headset, users can call people on their contact list. The users control the selection of the desired contact by controlling their level of attention. If the level of attention is higher than 70%, the software switches to the next contact in the list; if it is lower than 30%, the software switches to the previous. If the attention level is higher than 80%, the software makes a phone call to the contact located at the center of the screen. For someone who’s severely disabled, this is an astonishing development in allowing him or her to do what most of us take for granted: make a simple phone call.
The Forefront of Change
Technology continues to grow into something that is difficult to live without. Vastly due to the development of the Internet, science has transformed the way we interact with each other and the built environment. We’re now texting and sending instant messages through live chats, while receiving information from our laundry rooms, stoves, and refrigerators.
As communication software evolves, so do the devices that make it all possible. No matter if it’s mechanical, electrical, or architectural, technology will always be at the forefront of change, and as long as there is a need for improved accessibility, the two shall continue to meet in the middle.
From PN Magazine, September 2011
by Maryia A.Boykins, AIA, Paralyzed Veterans of America Architecture Department