2003 Conference Proceedings

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Robert J. Cantine
DynaVox Systems LLC
2100 Wharton St., Suite 400
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
412-381-4883, ext. 515

Many augmented communicators, in addition to being non-verbal, have physical or cognitive disabilities that require the use of additional assistive technology devices. Public Law 100-407, the Technical Assistance to the States Act of the United States, defines an assistive technology device as "any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities."

One such device is an ECU or Environmental Control Unit. An ECU is a system that allows spontaneous, remote control of electrically operated appliances. Whether we are familiar with the term or not, we all use ECUs in our daily lives. The most common example is the remote control for our TVs. Without manually manipulating the television itself, we are able, through a technology interface, to turn the TV on or off, change channels and raise or lower the volume. This ability to control our environment is merely a convenience. But, for a person with a disability, it is vital to maintaining his or her independence.

There are several available methods of environmental control. These include house wiring, ultrasound, radio frequency and infrared transmission. When deciding which method to use it is important to assess not only the devices to be controlled but the abilities of the person making use of the devices. "The correspondence between a user's skills, the interface and the user's control needs are critical to the ECU design process"(Church and Glennen, p. 202). While it may seem important to provide remote control for various appliances in the home, if the user's cognitive abilities will not support a complex array of environmental control systems, the ECU will not be practicable. It is vital that the user's association skills and motor abilities are such that he or she can make use of the system provided.

Once the user's abilities have been assessed, it is necessary to choose the method of environmental control. This presentation will focus on IR or infrared transmission which has several advantages. Many home appliances now include infrared controls, including formerly manually controlled appliances such as air conditioners and window blinds. This means that there would be no installation cost for the ECU system and no additional equipment would be required. In addition, since IR requires no installation, it is easily portable. If an indvidual moves to different room in an assisted care facility or to another home, the ECU system can easily be moved to the new location. There is another important benefit of IR to be considered when deciding on an ECU. For individuals with cognitive disabilities or older individuals with acquired disabilities, there is often an intimidating learning curve with all of the technology that they need to master. Infrared is a technology that most are already familiar with and is fairly intuitive and easy to learn if they are not.

Infrared technology can also be used in conjunction with special adapters, such as the X10 to provide remote control of devices, such as lamps and doors, that do not have built-in IR capabilities. This increases the control an individual has over his or her environment and broadens the scope of his or her independence.

An often overlooked component of environmental control is remote access to a computer. Being able to access the computer, provides the ability to use commercial software applications like budget-planning software or word processing programs. But it also provides access to email and the Internet, which are two powerful tools in promoting and maintaining independence. With remote access to email, an individual can keep in touch with family and friends, as well as make appointments with doctors and therapists and arrange for transportation to those appointments. Such Internet features as online shopping and banking can relieve an individual's dependence on a caregiver to help with these tasks.

There are many products in the AAC market that support IR-controlled ECU use and they offer several features that make them effective tools for independence. Most offer multiple access methods, such as direct select and switch access. They also allow for graphic representations for non-literate individuals and those whose literacy has been affected by traumatic brain injury or a degenerative condition such as ALS. A very important consideration is the capacity for customization which allows the options of design and organization for a specific user's needs and abilities. Although DynaVox products will be used in the demonstration of IR-controlled ECUs in the home and of design and organization of graphic-based environmental control applications, the strategies presented are applicable to many other AAC products.


Beukelman, David, Ph.D. (Principle Investigator). "Attitudes of AAC Users, Peers, and Intervention Professionals toward AAC Technology and Toward Technology Use by Elderly Persons." AAC-RERC. Online. Internet. Available: http://aac-rerc.com.

Church, Gregory and Sharon Glennen. The Handbook of Assistive Technology. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, Inc., 1992.

Cook, Albert M., Ph.D., PE and Susan M. Hussey, MS, OTR. Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice. Sacramento: Mosby, 1995.

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