Technology has made all our lives easier – from turning on the radio by voice control to controlling your home heating from your phone.
But for some people with a disability, technology is not just about convenience, it’s about living a normal life.
Helen Twomey has cerebral palsy and has severe mobility issues. Throughout her life, she has had to depend on family and support care workers for most of life’s simple functions like turning on lights, making a phone call or sending a text message. But now she has a new best friend who has changed all that – Alexa!
Jason Cooke is the Cork Supported Accommodation Service (CSAS) service manager with Cheshire Ireland, which provides a range of support services to people with both physical and neurological conditions.
He manages a number of people in the Cork area, including Helen, and has been using the new technology that we have been using in our homes to help give people with disabilities greater independence and ease of living.
“Two years ago when the Amazon Alexa app became available, I began looking at how we could use the technology to make people more independent. I contacted Amazon and they provided me with a lot of freebies to help the project along. For many of the people I work with, it has been completely transformative,” he said.
He gave an example of Helen’s typical day using the assistant technology.
Helen Twomey and Jason Cooke in Helen's Cork home where her simple Alexa device has transformed her life and given her so much independence.
“When she wakes up, she can tell Alexa to turn on the lamp, something she just isn’t able to do herself due to her limited mobility. She has some cognitive impairment and can’t read so she gets Alexa to tell her the time, read her the latest news and tell her the weather,” said Jason.
“Before this, she would have had to lie in the dark until one of the staff came on duty. She also has the staff roster saved digitally so Alexa can tell her exactly which staff member is rostered to work with her that day. She is completely informed.
“If she is chilly or warm, Alexa can link in with the smart thermostat to turn the heat on or off, up or down.”
Alexa has brought Helen a new level of independence she could hardly have imagined just over two years ago.
“Helen can now make phone calls and check her messages without needing a member of staff to do it for her. I don’t think we realise how important that is for somebody to have their privacy. I would have had to read out her personal emails and messages to her but now she has her privacy back, the privacy that everyone has a right to,” Jason explained.
“She can also input all of her appointments into her computer through Alexa so she is effectively managing her own diary. She can make shopping lists for when she goes out. She can put on the TV and change the channels, she can put on the radio, make a playlist of music for herself. And she can’t read books to herself but Alexa, through Audible, can read the books out to her.”
Jason said that Alexa can also play a role in helping somebody who is feeling isolated.
“Alexa can play games and interact with the person, which also makes it ideal for older people or people in the early stages of dementia to keep the exercising the brain.”
For Helen, making phone calls for herself without needing to involve staff members and turning on and off her own lights were the biggest breakthroughs for her.
“It has changed everything. I was always depending on staff to make phone calls for me or read my messages and emails. Now people can deal with me directly without having to go through the staff. I have privacy now,” she said.
She explained that she had used other technologies before to assist her but Alexa was by far the easiest to use.
“I like Alexa because she is cost-effective, a normal device that is for everybody, and does not look out of place and doesn’t make me self-conscious in my own home,” said Helen.
“I have wanted to murder Alexa on a few occasions and we have had some arguments – which she has always won!” she joked.
Jason said that the newer Alexa models even begin to recognise the person’s voice and understand it more the more they use it.
“The artificial intelligence in the machine gets used to Helen’s voice and understand her a lot easier,” he said.
Life has been transformed for Helen but she still has a couple of things on her wishlist.
“I would love to be able to one day open my own doors and windows. That would be great,” she said.