What smart homes can learn from the independent living movement

From accessing entertainment online to staying in touch with friends, family and carers, the potential for technology to empower disabled and older people to live as they choose is immense. 

Assistive technology, and smart devices in particular, are on the cusp of offering people an unprecedented level of choice and control over their environment at an ever-diminishing cost.

However, as smart home technologies mature, it is vital that we make sure that these new products and services evolve to benefit everyone.  This is why the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology – which is in the process of reconstituting for the new Parliament – has launched a new programme of work exploring how policymakers, technology manufacturers and suppliers, health and social care professionals and other key stakeholders can work with disabled and older people to shape industry practices and public policies that promote the demands of social care and independent living. 

Independent living

The idea that people should be supported to decide how they want to live is not new.  Smart technologies represent merely the latest opportunity for a movement stretching back several decades. 

The push for disabled people to live independently in the community dates back to the 1950s and 1960s in the United States (US) when a generation of disabled students began to protest that they were being held back by a combination of environmental and social factors that were undermining their ability to participate in society.  US universities -such as Berkeley (California) and Illinois (Chicago) - led the way in encouraging students to be as independent as possible by physically adapting their premises and surrounding neighbourhood to make buildings more accessible for wheelchair users.

By the 1970s, the independent living movement had spread to the UK where disabled people demanded to leave the institutional care settings in which many had previously resided for most of their lives.  Over the following thirty years, local authorities and central government were gradually persuaded to divert funding from care homes and cede control of the care purse strings so individuals could determine how it should be spent.

The independent living movement calls for buildings, products and services to be accessible to all and provided on the basis of equal opportunity to enable disabled people to enjoy flexibility and genuine control over their daily lives.  This requires that the built environment and transport are designed inclusively, people have access to personal assistants and assistive technology. The ultimate aim should be to maximise flexibility in people’s daily lives. 

The home is foundational to disabled people’s independence in other areas.  Research has shown that disabled people who live in housing that meets their access needs tend to feel safer and report better social contact and improvements in their health and wellbeing.  By contrast, disabled people living in inappropriate homes are four times more likely to be unemployed or not seeking work. 

"The potential for technology to empower disabled and older people to live as they choose is immense"

Seizing the opportunities

The ageing population means that the goals of the independent living movement are becoming relevant to a much broader segment of society.

While technology has long been recognised as a potential enabler of independent living, as recognised by the HAPPI ‘care ready’ design principles, the capabilities of modern specialist environmental control systems and mainstream smart devices – which allow multiple appliances around the home to be integrated and controlled from a single interface – offer a level of versatility that would have previously been impossible for many people.   

Despite these advantages, digital technology has yet to fundamentally change the way we support people to live independently.  This is partly because the most promising technologies are still maturing.  It has only been during the last couple of years that we have started to see major technology brands and start-ups investing in specialist markets such as social care robotics and mental health aids.

A significant bottleneck that has held up technology adoption among older and disabled people is the lack of inclusive design in products and services.  Smart homes increasingly rely on voice recognition and touchscreen operated smart phones as the key means by which people interact with appliances.  This can pose near-insurmountable challenges for people who cannot make themselves understood by voice recognition tools or manipulate a touchscreen device. 

Another key issue is compatibility between technologies from different manufacturers.  It is one of the ironies of the connected home era that many devices are unable to talk to each other.  Smart systems that are designed to lock users into using a particular narrow range of products limit choice for all consumers but can be particularly problematic for people with who rely on specialist assistive technologies.

It is important to make sure that each individual has a bespoke solution that fits around their lifestyle preferences and requirements. The technology has to be able to adapt so it can be personalised around each individual, and inter-operability is a vital part of that. An individual’s preferences may change over time so it is important that all parts of their set up can be adjusted as required.

As the population ages and the number of disabled people in society increases, the calls for technology to be designed more inclusively will only grow louder. Smart home technology has enormous potential to further independent living. Unlocking it will require technologies that place as few constraints as possible on their users with a view offering people genuine choice and control over their lives.  We look forward to working with the Housing LIN to realise this ambition.

Philip Robinson is the Managing Director of Possum, a leading environmental controls and telecare supplier, and associate member of the APPG for Assistive Technology.

Clive Gilbert is Policy Manager for Assistive Technology at the cross party think tank Policy Connect, which provides the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology.

If your organisation would like to know more about the APPG’s work on social care and independent living or would like to find out how to support the project, please contact Clive by email.


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