Charles Ward of Phoenix, Md., had a prospering business going as a manufacturer's representative for construction machinery when he fell off a tower in 1977.
Ward suffered severe spinal cord injury that left his arms and legs paralyzed. In seconds, he had joined the army of the disabled, unable to do even the most basic things for himself.But thousands of disabled people like Ward have a new ally in maintaining their independence - modern technology, which enables paralyzed, blind and deaf people to stay in their own homes after the installation of high-tech equipment.
Ward himself has become a leader in the drive to make houses friendly to the disabled. His 135-year-old farmhouse on the outskirts of Baltimore, once a tavern, is bristling with electronic systems, thanks to a Baltimore nonprofit group called Volunteers for Medical Engineering.
Ward calls the place "Future Home" and says it is the first house in the country devoted to demonstrating electronic home auto-ma-tion.
In fact, he can operate just about anything in the house, from doors to lights, by voice or by remote control from a wheelchair.
"It creates another level of independence," says Alice Perrella of Volunteers for Medical Engineering. "You don't need a full-time caregiver or a nursing home. With just a couple of modifications, you can stay in your lifestyle."
Here is some of the technology now available:
- A television-based operating system that helps monitor what is happening inside and outside the house. The blind can talk to the monitor, which can talk, too.
- A computer that will write a letter for a blind person and read it back.
- An automatic system that opens a door when it senses the presence of a wheelchair.
- Intelligent lighting that can be controlled remotely from a bed, chair or wheelchair. The lighting turns on automatically for people with physical disabilities when they enter a room or leave the premises.
- Hands-free phones that enable disabled people to make and receive voice calls from anywhere in the house.
- Adjustable cabinetry, including tabletops and kitchen cabinets that can be electrically lowered from the customary height.
- A pill prompter that announces reminders about taking pills or seeing the doctor over the house intercom system.
- Computer programs that allow people with limited mobility to shop, bank and work at home.
In fact, electronics even figure out in advance what Ward's needs might be. As he wheels through the house, the computer sends information to open and close doors or to brighten lights.
The equipment in Future Home cost $65,000, but Perrella says that is far more than any one person would need to spend since the house is a demonstration project. The most expensive piece of equipment cost about $5,000, but most of it is priced under $1,000.
"These costs are relatively small compared to the $40,000-$50,000 annual cost of living in an institution," she says.
ITT Hartford Insurance Group, in cooperation with the American Association of Retired Persons, also has developed a user-friendly house that has 150 products or design concepts aimed at helping older Americans. Some of its features:
- Table lamps that go on and off just by touching the base.
- Lever handles on the kitchen sink.
- Chairs and couches at a comfortable height.
- A talking alarm clock.
- Automatic smoke-penetrating lights.
For information on the house, write ITT Hartford, 200 Executive Blvd., Southington, CT 06489.
For information on the Future Home, call Volunteers for Medical Engineering at (410) 243-7495. The home is at 12900 Jarrettsville Pike, Phoenix, MD 21131.