Touch screen eases disability at home

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Robert Haskell, 20, changes light dimmers using his father Scott Haskell's bedroom display. In addition to touch screens, the house has wider doorways, a wheelchair ramp and an elevator.

By pressing a finger to a touch screen the size of a laptop computer, Scott Haskell can open his front door, answer the phone, or talk via intercom to someone in another room. He can play a movie on his plasma television, turn on the radio, or turn lights off and on anywhere in the house.

For most people, such a sophisticated home-automation setup would be a luxurious convenience. For Haskell, who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his hands, the system he had installed in his new home is a godsend.

"It makes my life easier - so much easier," Haskell says.

A former truck driver for a trash-recycling company, Haskell was hit by a car on the job in 1994. For 13 years after that, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Allentown that made no accommodations to his disability.

"There were doorknobs and faucets I couldn't turn," he says.

The place was so small, he had difficulty navigating around the furniture in his motorized wheelchair, Haskell says. "It was hell."

So when a long-fought-for insurance settlement made it possible for him to buy his dream house in a new development near Coopersburg, just north of the Bucks County line, Haskell, 45, knew exactly the sort of modifications he wanted to make in the builder's standard plans.

He requested wider doorways, levers instead of doorknobs, a wheelchair ramp in the garage, a roll-in shower, and an elevator to carry him up and down through the nearly 5,000-square foot, three-story house.

Haskell thought that was the limit for making his house accessible. But Orleans Homebuilders, which constructed it, had another idea. "They said, 'There might be some things you want to do with home automation,' " he says.

Orleans referred him to HiFi House, the Broomall-based installer of high-end home theaters and smart-home systems. At the company's Jenkintown store, Haskell and his son Robert, 20, who lives with his father and helps with his care, worked with designer/installer Patrick Whipkey to devise a system custom-made for his needs.

"If I am in my bed and someone rings the doorbell, I can see who is standing there," says Haskell, who has a one-touch screen by his bed, another in the living room, and a third in the basement media room. "When I hit 'push to talk' on the touch screen, I can talk to them, and then I can push a corresponding button to open the door."

Touch screens allow Haskell to turn on ceiling fans and a gas fireplace, and the system lets him see where lights have been left on in the house and switch them off if he chooses.

One menu lets him select lighting "scenes," such as "Entertain" or "Away," that turn on or dim lights where appropriate.

Another menu offers him the option of playing movies or video games on any of the home's four TVs, or music in any room, thanks to the 400-disk DVD/CD player.

Like the rest of the system's components and processors, that player is hidden away, on a 6-foot-high rack in a climate-controlled basement storage room. Connecting it all to the house is a thick bundle of wires and cables snaking up through the ceiling.

Best of all, Haskell says, "You don't have to be a wizard to operate it. If you look at it, it's all pretty self-explanatory."

Though smart-home systems are an obvious boon for disabled homeowners, such installations are still rare. The reason: cost.

Haskell estimates that his system, including all the television and audio components, set him back more than $190,000.

"That was actually a smaller job for us," says E.J. Feulner, director of Elite Home Technologies, a year-old business unit launched by HiFi House.

In the kind of luxury homes the company often works on, smart systems might include such features as a baby monitor wired into the sound system, a fire alarm with a recorded voice that reminds children what to do, and window shades programmed to go up and down according to the position of the sun. Increasingly common are systems that can be monitored and operated remotely, using a phone, laptop or handheld device.

Feulner sees the price of home automation coming down as the systems become more widely adopted. He envisions a day when lighting controls become standard in new-home construction, and when home-monitoring systems that can help save energy become common.

Being increasingly explored to help the elderly remain safely in their own homes are systems that offer remote monitoring of medical conditions and activity.

"You can also do these systems in bits, room by room," Feulner says. "A lot of times, we'll do a media room to start with, and then someone will say, 'I'd love to have my master suite done.' "

Haskell has his own plans for an add-on.

"I'm going to put a pool in," he says. "And I'm going make it so I can turn on the pool heater with that touch screen."