12 minute read

I define accessibility as a critical necessity to be inclusive to everyone. No matter how big or small the task, anyone should be able complete the task at hand regardless of the disability (e.g., vision, hearing, mobility, device access, language, etc).

You might be wondering what does this have to do with smart homes and why should I think or care about this? I think there are a few simple facts to consider:

  • You may already have a disability.
  • You can dramatically improve the quality of life, safety and happiness of those who have a disability when they are in your home.
  • You never know when yourself or a loved one may have a disability. You could one day wake up and not be able to walk, see or hear (I’m serious). You could have a stroke or get hit by a car dramatically changing your way of life only to realize how unaccessible the world really is.
  • We are aging every day and everyone will have some type of disability at some point in your life.
  • If all consumers think about this, it will be for the betterment of all while bringing down costs.

I hope this showcased a different perspective on life! Now, I’m not saying we should all get rid of our current smart devices or do major construction for ramps, handrails or low countertops. But it is something you should keep in mind when buying new products, buying a house or doing a remodel. Did you ever consider this could be a reason why a house with a first floor bedroom is worth more than a house with a second story bedroom?

Also we can use our existing smart products (e.g., smart bulbs) to make a home more accessible with a little bit of time. I’ll cover this below in the following sections.

Progressive Enhancement

Think of a single task or physical item that does something really well like a light switch with on and off actions. A progressive enhancement would be to add additional functionality without compromising the previous task/item. For example, a switch or light should always be able to be turned on like any other device, but it may be able to provide additional functionality like a night light, motion detection, or play multimedia.

Automations are a progress enhancement and can improve accessibility.

Think about the ways you can use these added enhancements in accessible ways but don’t compromise on the main functionality of the device!

Switches

TLDR: Find a switch that will work great as just a switch, supports multiple protocols if possible (e.g., API and HomeKit, Z-Wave) and has progressive enhancements (motion, light) that don’t take away from using the switch. Use These sensors to create automations that can improve accessibility.

The single responsibility of a switch is to turn on and off a device. This should continue to work unimpeded. A guest shouldn’t know they are interacting with a smart home, it should work like any other home to be accessible. Switches with motion detection and smart home control can greatly increase the quality and reduce the physical need to turn lights or devices on or off.

I’ve seen multiple products like wall switch guards and 3D printed guards which only add to the problems.

Light Switch Guard

These guards were put into place because turning off the switch would cause products like the Hue Smart Bulbs from working as smart bulbs need constant power. The real solution to this problem would be to use the official dimmer switch or even better, replace the switch with a smart switch that is designed to act like a normal switch but can also supply constant power to the smart bulb. One switch that fits this bill is the Inovelli Smart Switch. With this switch you can disable the internal relay so constant power is supplied to the bulb, while the on and off commands are forwarded to your hub. You can then write an automation to turn on or off the bulb when the switch is activated!

I have a few different switches in my house after months of research to what would have simple on/off controls, but give me the most flexibility with progressive enhancements. Here are some of the switches that I currently use and the enhancements I get from them:

  • ecobee Switch+: This switch provides many benefits like a light (path lighting and night light), speaker (voice announcements, music, home alarm), microphone (control devices), illuminance sensor (to conserve energy), motion detection (security, lighting control), and temperature sensor. I integrated this switch into Home Assistant with the HomeKit integration.
  • GE Z-Wave Motion Switch: This switch mainly provides motion detection and works with Z-Wave. I use it mainly for motion detection. I do wish it exposed it’s internal light sensor so I could get access to the rooms brightness for additional smartness. This switch has been pretty reliable but every smart switch has it’s baggage too.

I have purchased and but have not installed the Inovelli Smart Switch. I plan on replacing my GE Z-Wave switch in the house to control the garage lights. This will allow me to use the switch’s awesome LED lights on the side of the switch to tell me the current charging status of the Tesla Model 3.

Also, keep in mind that some switches may look nice and have full touch screens but these probably won’t last as long as a normal switch and many people might not be able to figure out how to use them. Will you have to explain how to turn on a light to your grandparents or parents?

Lastly, here is a list of some of the automations I’ve used to improve accessibility:

  • Use the switch’s motion sensors to automatically turn on the lights and off when there is no more activity. I’ve tried to be really smart about this, so one never even has to speak or touch a switch, it’s not perfect but getting closer.
  • Use the switch’s motion sensors and speaker (or nearby speaker) to announce switch state changes like (light turning on, motion detected, fireplace turning on). This is behind an automation accessibility mode flag and is useful to hear the state changes or what’s going on in the room (and debugging).
  • Automatically turn on lights in the case of emergency (path way lighting).

Audio

TLDR: Think about ways to use both microphones and speakers with natural language to augment the home. There’s more to it than just whole home audio. Your home can give context in scenarios where someone can’t see or touch.

When end users typically think about about about smart homes and audio devices, they think about whole home audio, but this is not the only use case as I’ll cover below.

Since whole home audio is all the rage and the biggest use case it’s worth addressing. I feel that it’s only possible for the large majority today within two ecosystems: Amazon via Echo (or third party speakers like the Sonos) and Apple via HomePod. Both of these allow you to use voice activation to play music and have deep application support. But they require an internet connection for streaming audio and cost some serious money. Smart switches like the ecobee Switch+ mentioned above can play music, but only on a single device at a time.

One accessibility item that people forget about is natural language commands. If you are interacting with your smart home using voice, than make sure various commands work like Turn on the office lights, Turn on the lights and Lumos. This second command is tricky, something I’ve yet to get working very good.

But you can do so much more with audio than just play music! Here is a sample list of automations I’m currently doing with audio:

  • Automatically mute devices based on time of day (privacy!).
  • Automatically normalize audio based on time of day, so a notification doesn’t blare audio when someone is sleeping.
  • Use facial and image recognition to make contextual announcements like who is at the door (person with suggested age, glasses, etc), package delivered, cat is back from it’s adventures!
  • Use the switch’s motion sensors and speaker (or nearby speaker) to announce switch state changes like (light turning on, motion detected, fireplace turning on). This is behind an automation accessibility mode flag and is useful to hear the state changes or what’s going on in the room (and debugging).
  • Announcements when tasks are completed (e.g., the washer or dryer has finished).
  • Whole house notifications for announcements like dinner is ready or it’s bed time. This can be a little annoying for switches which might have audio delivery delays as audio echos throughout the house.

Future automation goals relating to audio:

  • Use directional audio notifications with sensor/location data to point someone to the closest door in case of emergency.
  • Use speakers to amplify security alarms and doorbells.
  • Integrate with live weather advisories and keep informed about dangerous weather conditions.
  • Notifications when wildlife is outside (e.g., deer, ducks, etc.).
  • Clear alexa history.
  • Play relaxing music, white noise or lullabies at bed time based on occupancy.

If you are using Amazon Echo devices and are using Home Assistant, I’d highly recommend installing the Alexa Media Player Integration. I use this to control all of my devices as well as do text to speech. Here is the Home Assistant service call needed to send a message:

service: notify.alexa_media
data:
  message: "my message"
  data:
    type: "tts"
  target: ["media_player.YOUR_MEDIA_PLAYER"]

I created a reusable Node-Red Subflow that calls this service and has input_boolean and overrides for announcements.

Lighting

TLDR: There’s more to lighting than just smart bulbs. Removing the need to turn on or off a single light is a huge deal for those with little to no mobility.

Lighting can be used to transmit vital information about current or future state. But the most often use case is to use color to control room ambience or enhance a movie experience through smart bulbs and hub. The current two most popular lighting solutions Hue and LIFX.

But you don’t need smart bulbs to have great lighting. While I do have some smart bulbs primarily for my lamps, I’ve invested in smart switches to control my lighting. I feel like this gives me way more control over the environment in a future proof way that works with any lighting source, it also allows me to control lights by the switch, motion, voice or application. Which is a huge win as smart bulbs typically don’t provide bright light and can lock you in on controlling them. With this said, I do think that smart bulbs and devices with integrated lights (switches, smoke detectors for pathway detection) can increase accessibility more than just a light switch.

Keep in mind, smart bulbs don’t work with most switches and don’t even think about using it with a dimmer switch.

One advantage of a smart bulb is that some can change colors. With color, you can show different states like danger, this way to safety, or work-in-progress. It’s important to try and choose accessible colors that everyone can see!

Here is a sample list of automations I’m currently doing with lighting:

  • Turn on lights based motion, time of day, and outside and inside illuminance. It is really important to respect turning on or off the lights by manual press!
  • Turn on lights when people are detected in the driveway / door.
  • Turning off lights when the tv starts playing a movie.
  • Turning on lights and fans when shower turns on and off 30 minutes after shower stops.
  • Turn on/off devices and lights when waking up or going to sleep.

Future automation goals relating to lighting:

  • While my wired Nest Protect smoke detectors currently provide some basic path way lighting. I would like to have directional lighting to the exit based on occupancy. Think of bright light a head of you and fading light behind you.
  • Use a colored light to show busy status like in virtual meeting.
  • Show current traffic conditions for possible delays based on calendar location data.
  • Have greater presence detection so the home knows where you are at.

Other Devices

There are other many other device types, just keep in mind the devices responsibility and make sure it does it well. Progressive enhancements can be used to power future automations which can improve the quality of life for all.

Smart Home Software

I think about accessibility not just on physical devices but the software too. This could be the automations you wrote to the smartphone applications or management hub (e.g., Home Assistant).

We have a long way for software to be more inclusive from color schemes, easy clickable buttons, and screen reader support.

Home Assistant Accessibility

I’d like to see more work go into improving accessibility in Home Assistant (as well as this blog) as shown above. I think this will be improved over time which will be a huge win for the whole community.

Power failures

Lastly, what about power failures? Can we handle them in an accessible way where interaction isn’t needed like automatic power fail over? For example do we handle the following scenarios:

  • Restoring to last state on power restart.
  • Running critical devices like smoke detectors, wifi on batteries.
  • Critical alerts like security, fridge and flood sensors while power is out.
  • Letting others know we might need assistance.

Conclusion

I feel those that have the most to gain with a smart home are those with disabilities and we need to make it easier. But, it feels almost impossible to install, configure, and automate a smart home today. There are just too many blocking factors such as:

  • Too many inaccessible product options and software.
  • Limited knowledgeable professional installers.
  • Steep learning curve to get a hub up and running, and integrate your devices.
  • Steep Learning curve learning how to write automations, especially for the majority who don’t know how to program.
  • Hard to have reliable and secure networks (Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wifi). Having a network just for Internet of Things (IoT), is only available on high end routers (e.g. Ubiquity UniFi Dream Machine).
  • Consumers need to be privacy aware in a time when paid products are compromising user privacy for profit.

We need to take the steps to make Home Automation and Smart Homes more accessible in this early adoption stage of Smart Homes.

Also, be sure to check out volunteer opportunities like Be My Eyes for bringing sight to blind and low-vision people!

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