ACT News


Technology lets disabled have run of the house

Technological advances are helping break down stereotypes of people with disabilities, whose homes can be now be kitted out with as many gadgets as a James Bond film.

Eyeball tracking, infra-red technology and voice recognition software are quickly becoming the norm, according to Sean Fitzgerald, who said smart housing was ultimately about harnessing technology to make homes more manageable for people in his situation.

"You can spend all day talking about ramps and wider doorways, but what happens if you can't open the front door?" he said.

"For a lot of people with significant physical or sometimes intellectual disabilities, they can't do that."

The former IT worker broke his neck while mountain biking 12 years ago and now helps people with disabilities source and install helpful technology, all while paralysed from the shoulders down.

Mr Fitzgerald operates an array of household and office devices in his own home through a camera on the top of his computer monitor. It uses infra-red to bounce off the "sticky silver" reflective sticker on his forehead, which then translates his head movements into actions on the screen.


While he uses an electronic wheelchair to move about, directing actions through a chin control and by blowing through straws, wireless systems and infra-red control everything from the entertainment system to the front door and bed.

"You can do a lot of stuff but the big choice for people is how much and what you put in," he said. "I could have the blinds controlled, the doors controlled, the window openers controlled - you can do all sorts of things. You have to decide where the limit is."

Price could be a restrictive factor, said Mr Fitzgerald, who was given a $40,000 quote when he was first hospitalised in 2000. But with technology now compatible with off-the-shelf electronics, he said it could cost $1000 to $2000 to control three rooms.

"It can be really bloody expensive. Nowadays, it's a lot more mainstream and much, much cheaper. [With] some of the latest stuff, the control is done using iPods and tablets."

As well as being more affordable, the technology will soon be easier to access.

Mr Fitzgerald and fellow expert Graeme Smith were recently awarded $155,000 in funding from the National Disability Insurance Scheme to help people independently assess and gather information on environmental control for their own home.

They are designing a 3D interactive website where people will be able to choose through a standard Australian house in 3D the things that they might like to control.

"They can run the mouse over the television and that becomes a hot spot and pops up with a video or 3D graphics to show the kinds of things that can be done with a television in terms of control," Mr Fitzgerald said

The site will also allow users to create a shopping list of available and suitable equipment, which is then compared against a list of providers and assessors near their home.

Mr Fitzgerald said his work, and that of other people in his field, made a huge difference to people's lives by giving them levels of independence they may have never experienced.

"For the first time in their lives, they can control a large amount of what goes on around them," he said. "A lot of the time we find that people have been told never to expect these things - don't expect a normal life, don't expect a job. Always expect to have to wait for other people to help, and then we show them this.

''It changes things all together."