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Furnace, Speak to Us!

Editor's Note: Chris and Marie Stark are long-time advocates for increased access, universal design and true inclusion for persons who are blind. They live in Ottawa, Ontario.

"It\'s 6:30 a.m. Please hurry," the talking alarm clock tells us. Picking up the bedside phone, we disarm the home alarm system and are told that the internal temperature is 18 degrees and outside it\'s minus ten. We figure it is much too cold to get out of bed, but a couple of telephone keystrokes later, the furnace speaks through the phone and tells us it is now set to 21 degrees and rumbles into life.

Welcome to another day in the Stark household.

When our children left the nest, and we decided to purchase a newly built bungalow in an adult lifestyle community, our desire to live independently was our guiding principle. We were seeking a level of integration where technology would enhance our abilities and would contribute to our quality of life. In our dream home, we wanted to obtain an array of services that met our needs, and that we could use efficiently, and at the same cost as our sighted neighbours.

We wanted to know about smart house design techniques such as programmable thermostats, environmental and security equipment that can be operated without visual prompts, audio house locators, intercoms and phones whose features were not screen dependent, appliances with accessibility features, lighting considerations, and other cost effective design hints for persons who are blind.

We were disappointed in the lack of information available from the building industry about the choices that could help homeowners who are blind. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, for example, did not have any relevant information for people who have disabilities, besides that for people who use wheelchairs. Organizations for the blind, like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), had no experience or advice to offer in this area.

This lack of information made us feel like we were experimenters--on our own, once again.

One of our biggest problems was obtaining information such as operating manuals, satellite or cable channel guides and feature sheets in formats we could read. We need electronic information files without columns, graphics and charts. Compared to braille, or printing costs, for that matter, meeting our customer service need for information is simple, within the capability of most companies and relatively inexpensive.

We set out to equip our new house with smart home technology, without the accessibility barriers of visual only on-screen programming and menus, or keypads we cannot feel.

We did lots of research and talked to many persons who are blind, in search of solutions to annoying barriers. We thought that the simpler the solution, the more effective and usable it would be. Solutions that work would be a mix of traditional devices and experimental technology, together with ingenuity. We did find some solutions, but often at a higher cost than our neighbours.

The outside lights are now integrated into our talking smart home security system. We can program them ourselves, so they are turned on and off at the appropriate times, according to changes in daylight or dark.

We considered using a home sound emitting locator device to help us find our house, but opted for a low-tech solution. A wind chime provides confirmation that our guide dogs are on the right track.

The integrated automatic garage door opening system gives us quick access to the garage, where we dry our guide dogs and clean the mud off them before entering the house.

A front door voice intercom allows us to check who has rung the doorbell, from speakers located in key places within our home. This system also announces when a door or window is opened, and which one. Being surprised in your own home, or having to open a door without knowing who is there, are legitimate security concerns. Looking through the window or peephole to see who is there is something most homeowners do automatically. We can now also choose to send the unwanted salesperson away, without opening the door.

The intercom system allows us to communicate without having to yell from one end of the house to the other, and not really hearing the message clearly. The call for supper now comes over the intercom, which has replaced the old dinner gong.

We continue to have difficulty with phone service accessibility, including call answering, voice mail and call display. We did try a small talking caller ID device, but found it did not provide all the information we need, at the same cost as those who can see. No two phone models have the same key layout, and function key labels are neither tactile nor audible. Speed dialling features, furthermore, require the operator to use visual prompts on the screen. We are still seeking solutions to some of these phone barriers.

As alluded to earlier, we can use our telephone to control the security system, some lights, heating and air conditioning, with voice prompts and action confirmations via voice or beeps. This can also be done through telephones outside our home, which is a convenient feature.

We have high speed internet connection with multiple computers simultaneously and independently accessing the world, using email, surfing the web and listening to online radio. We can scan documents, such as operating manuals and product directions, and then read them with our refreshable braille display or talking computers.

In-house email and file transfer capacity between computers is important for us as no two persons use the same equipment configurations. We have a Residential Universal Network (RUN) box for distributing computer, phone and video signals throughout the house.

Our VCR has talking on-screen programming that lets us set the event timer, by ourselves, to record programs. We only wish that the new digital television and DVD player on-screen programming had been introduced with an audio option, which would have given us easy access to this entertainment information.

Since we have access to multiple independent computer, television, radio and internet capabilities, we both can watch different programs at the same time--Marie her hockey or football game, and Chris the news. We have hooked up a small transmitter to one of our computers, and we can now broadcast internet programs through the house and pick them up on any radio, even in the backyard!

We have acquired a new clock that sings to us on the hour with different bird melodies, but which mercifully has a sensor that stops it from singing after dark, just like the real creatures in the trees!

Our electric stove has a numeric keypad that has been labelled in braille, which enables us to set oven temperatures and other functions like self-cleaning and timers by ourselves, with accuracy and confidence. The stove also beeps when dinner is ready. There are now some talking microwaves available, but we will use our old one until it gives up the struggle.

There are still some kitchen challenges we have not totally solved. For instance, we still have to label some products with braille, in order to identify them, and package directions are still inaccessible. The braille cookbook provides good recipes, as long as we get the right ingredients from the packages, with print-only labels and instructions!

One type of information we have and need is the weight given us as we step onto our talking scales. On second thought, maybe we could do without that information, after all!

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