How smart home technology made my home more accessible

When it comes to smart home technology, many reviewers and users may see it as convenience, while other people see it as accessibility. In other words, it may be convenient for you to use your phone or voice to flip a light switch because it means you don’t have to get up. For me and other disabled people this makes it accessible.

The best illustration of this concept is the AmazonBasics microwave. The Alexa-powered device (which, as far as can be determined, has been off sale for over a year) was admittedly a bit gimmicky. Why would you want to talk to your microwave to heat up your food? The controls are there. But while it’s true that the microwave is pretty mediocre (my partner constantly complains about how small and underpowered it is), she’s willing to tolerate it because she knows how accessible the thing is to me. Instead of standing at the microwave and squinting at the low-contrast keyboard (even with the good lighting in the kitchen, the numbers can be hard to make out for my low vision) I can stand across the room and using my voice to tell Alexa to heat up my leftovers.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The implications of this transcend convenience. Between the microwave, the Alexa-based Echo Wall Clock (which is useful for seeing timers), and an old Echo Dot connected to control both devices, our kitchen is perhaps the most accessible room in the house.

In many ways, smart home technology represents accessibility and assistive technology at its best. It’s not just pragmatic; it gives strength. It takes seemingly mundane objects like lamps, garage doors and microwaves and turns them into spectacular, magical wonders.

For many in the disability community, this transformation means the difference between inclusion and independence, or between exclusion and dependency. These are qualities that many people, especially those in tech media, don’t consider in their coverage of the smart home, but are critical if you want to understand technology in a more holistic way.

Take my household. My partner and I are pretty hardcore Apple users. We both have iPhones. We both wear an Apple Watch and AirPods. There are several iPads, HomePods and Apple TVs in our house. As a result, we mainly use HomeKit to control our various smart home devices, including those from Nest (more on that later).

The fact that we’re wading knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem is convenient, but more important to me is accessibility

The fact that we’re wading knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem is convenient, but more important to me is accessibility. With one exception (a MyQ garage door opener, which I’ll get into later), I can control all my smart home devices from the Home widget in Control Center.

Frankly, this says as much about the accessibility of Apple’s vertical integration as it does about smart home devices. The big win here is that if I need to turn off the living room lamp, I don’t have to figure out what to do. All I have to do is grab the device closest to me: my iPhone, my Apple Watch, an iPad, the Apple TV, or the HomePod.

Of course, sometimes you need to tweak your technology to make it work the way you want, especially if you don’t want to invest in a whole new set of devices. A disadvantage of using HomeKit is that the Nest products we have (a Nest Thermostat E, Nest Protect smoke detector, Nest x Yale smart lock, Nest Hello doorbell and two Nest Cam IQ outdoor cameras) do not support it as standard. These are all older products that predate the Matter standard that ostensibly promises interoperability between smart home platforms. But we don’t want or need to replace him. No matter how outdated our Nest equipment is, it all continues to work fine, especially in the original Nest app.

Still, I wanted everything to appear in the Home app, since we are primarily HomeKit users. For us, the solution came in the form of the Starling Home Hub. It’s a small box that you plug into your network and, when you plug in your Nest and HomeKit credentials, it turns your thermostat or other devices into ‘native’ HomeKit products. This allows me to ask Siri to lock the front door, adjust the thermostat, and control it with the aforementioned Home widget in the Control Center.

Perhaps the best smart home gadget we have is the MyQ garage door opener. I added this a few years ago when MyQ maker Chamberlain made the HomeKit version (unfortunately it was recently discontinued). I call it the best because for years our garage door opened with an exterior keypad that was completely inaccessible, with small faded marks that were hard to see and mushy buttons that were hard to press. The addition of the smart opener allows me to open and close the garage with one tap. (Unfortunately, the HomeKit integration is broken at the time of writing – showing a persistent ‘no answer’ status message – but it is still fully functional within the MyQ app on my phone and watch.)

However, it’s not all roses. The biggest frustration is maintenance. Especially with HomeKit, there are cases where devices show ‘no response’ for no explainable reason. When my network goes down or is being updated, the Starling Home Hub sometimes breaks. But while it’s annoying to play IT support technician for my devices, it doesn’t take away from the fundamental benefits of what all these smart home devices add to my daily life.

It goes back to what I wrote in the beginning about convenience and accessibility. From what I’ve read, the vast majority of reviewers and analysts believe that the smart home is made up of things that are you want to but don’t do it need to live. This assumes that everyone uses technology in (largely) the same way, and that’s simply not true.

The emotional benefits are just as important as the practical benefits

For a disabled person, including myself, being able to control light switches and garage doors with your devices means your home is more accessible. It creates a greater sense of freedom of choice and autonomy, because I don’t have to ask for help, for example turning on the lights. The emotional benefits are just as important as the practical benefits, and for this reason accessibility trumps convenience in this context. What is useful for you could be life-changing for me.

None of this is to say that smart home devices are perfect; the most striking point is that it is misleading to continually portray smart products as mere novelties which, in the case of the Alexa microwave, are technology for technology’s sake. It’s much more meaningful than that, but most people don’t have the foresight to consider other points of view.

Smart home technology has a much greater resonance than pure convenience. It can be accessible and empowering for everyone – in a big way.

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