The Smart Home

by Sonny Ali reprinted from New Mobility July 2017

The Amazon Echo (left) and Dot (right) can be used to turn lights off and on as well as tap into your favorite playlists or answer trivia questions.

As a T5 paraplegic with two young boys, a wife, a full-time job and a nonprofit to run, I can use all the help I can get around the house to stay on top of things. With that in mind, I decided to go all-in on the emerging smart tech revolution when I remodeled our house to make it more accessible following my injury two years ago. When going the smart home route, there are a number of good options — Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, Apple’s HomeKit — all voice-operated, cloud-based, artificial intelligence smart home solutions, each with slightly different options. The Echo retails for $179.99; Google Home for $129; and Apple’s HomeKit can run off any iOS-using device. All three require the purchase of compatible home appliances.

I decided to go with Amazon Echo, a simple black cylinder that sits on my dresser and serves as the central brain connecting an array of applications and appliances to help my family with day-to-day tasks and also help me live more independently. In addition to my main Echo, I have numerous Echo Dots placed throughout the house (Echo Dot is the smaller, speakerless version of the Echo, which retails for $49.99).

Right out of the box, after the initial set-up, all you have to do to use the Echo is utter its wake-up word, “Alexa.” Once someone says the magic word, the Echo will listen and try to answer whatever question, or do whatever task is commanded next. I can ask Alexa how long my commute will be, what the weather forecast is, or what’s on my calendar. Alexa’s responses are almost instantaneous — giving me the quickest route to the office, or advising me to dress warm because the weather forecast suggests a drop in temperature. My wife uses Alexa to order pizza delivered or to call Uber. We use it to set timers, reminders, and to keep track of our grocery list. My kids use it to help with checking their math homework by asking, “Alexa, what is 12 times 12?” The list of things Alexa can do is simply amazing and grows with each update. Or if you’re looking for a Bluetooth speaker to play your music library from your tablet or smart phone, Alexa can do that, too. The sound quality is better than you’d expect.

What makes the Amazon Echo a truly marvelous tool for people with spinal cord injuries is its ability to integrate with third-party smart-home solutions. The list of third-party solutions continues to grow daily, but here are a few solutions I’ve integrated with the Echo to simplify my daily life.

  • Integrating my Echo with Phillips Hue smart lights gives me the ability to control my kitchen, living room, and master bedroom lights with simple voice commands. “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights. Alexa, turn on the bedroom lights.” I replaced the vast majority of my home’s standard lights with Philips Hue lights that are controlled by Alexa. My kids tend to leave lights on wherever they go, but now I can turn everything off with a simple voice command.
  • Integrate Harmony with Echo and you can control your entertainment center with your voice

    Integrating my Echo with the Harmony Hub and Universal Remote Control gives me voice control of my entire media center. I can say, “Alexa, turn off the TV,” as I’m getting ready for bedtime. Or I can tell Alexa to turn on Netflix if I feel like binge watching Breaking Bad. One feature I really like is being able to turn off my entire living room media center from the comfort of my bedroom. With Echo, you don’t have to be in the same room as the appliance you want to control — you can do it from anywhere you have an Echo or Echo Dot.

  • Integrating my Echo with the Samsung SmartThings Hub gives me the ability to turn lamps and other appliances on and off. Whatever I plug into a SmartThings Smart Outlet is at my command. You can also swap out your standard light switches with SmartThings Smart Switches to allow them to be controlled by the Echo. I control a floor heater and table fan that are plugged into SmartThings Smart Outlets.
  • SmartThings Hub can be used to control lamps and other appliances that turn on or off.

    Integrating my Echo with Nest allows me to turn up the AC or heater with a simple voice command. Being able to control my Nest thermostats with my voice and keep my house just the temperature I want is my favorite feature. “Alexa, turn the downstairs heater to 70 degrees.” Larger homes with dual climate zones can be controlled independently.

I’ve been using Amazon Echo and the third-party smart home solutions for over a year now, and I’m truly grateful for this technology. For me, the ability to issue voice commands, without having to transfer into or out of my wheelchair and do the work manually, has saved me an incredible amount of time and frustration.


From Norman’s Desk – August 2017

Norman A. Smith, Associate Executive Director

This year will be the twelfth time in my life that I cast a vote for the governor of NJ. I remember back in 1973 being forced to vote two weeks ahead of time by absentee ballot because my polling place was not accessible. I remember in 1992 being challenged at the poll because of my disability, and I remember the empowerment I felt by calling a state hotline while at the poll to “fix” the situation to my satisfaction.

Times have changed for people with disabilities in terms of voting ease. Now most polling places and polling booths are accessible. Voting early by mail is encouraged for everyone in many states. Yes, there are still barriers to voting—especially in other states, but there is no excuse for any person with a disability not to vote.

Yet LAST YEAR I read an article FROM the Arizona Capital Times about people with disabilities voting, and it cited a report from the Research Alliance for Accessible Voting. The report said that people with disabilities voted at a lower rate than their able-bodied peers in the 2012 election. The rate was 56.9% in the able community vs 48.1% for people with disabilities. Our vote was 12% less than people who were able-bodied, and we wonder why some elected off do not pay attention to us!

The article also contained a quote from Phil Pangrazio, a person with a disability and the CEO of an Arizona-based center for independent living. Pangrazio said: “With barely half of our commu-nity overall voting in any given election, it is critical that we each take our civic right – and our duty – seriously. Not voting may just be one of the most selfish and irresponsible acts a citizen could commit.”

I agree with Pangrazio—especially with what is happening in Washington and Trenton these days. Nothing about us without us, right? Well, the decision process for our issues is moving ahead at all levels of government. We need to be involved! We need to be involved from the start by voting! Before we demonstrate, before we sit-in, before we get arrested, WE NEED TO VOTE!!! The rest is meaningless unless we exercise our right to vote. To paraphrase our great leader Justin Dart: We need to vote as if our lives dependent on it! We all need to vote on November 7!

Norman A. Smith, Associate Executive Director –
Follow me on Twitter @normansmith02

“My Two Cents” – August 2017

Tim Doherty, Executive Director
Recently, our family went on a summer vacation to Florida, to our favorite place—Walt Disney World. This required that we get on a plane for the two hour ride from New Jersey to Orlando, Florida. In the past, when the kids were young, we were able to use the bathrooms on the flight, even though they are not even big enough for one person, let alone a mother and her daughter. Today, however things are different. Jen is a woman, with a disability, who needs a handicapped bathroom. Guess what? There aren’t any on short flights such as these.

This is something that I was amazed to find out, and that is that on most short domestic flights in the US, most of the planes flying those routes are Airbus 320 which only have very small standard lavatories—none for disabled people. In addition, originally, airlines were exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act until it was revised in 1986 under the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, which has required accessible lavatories on the wider- twin aisle planes. The DOT has an Access Advisory Committee which has been studying changes to the current law that would require more accessibility on the single-aisle planes such as the 737 or the A320.

Even the larger planes which fly overseas on long trips, don’t really have the kind of accessible lavatories that a disabled person needs. Most reports that I have read state that these lavatories are still too small to get a regular size wheelchair in, for someone to transfer out of and onto the toilet. Many folks with a disability claim to dehydrate the day prior to a flight, so that they will not have to use the restrooms on a plane. This seems ridiculous knowing that the airlines have made concessions to people so as to bring their companion animals on the flight with them. These “service” animals are important to that person, however I would think that solving the bathroom issue would be paramount to the companion issue.

‘Suffice it to say, Jen was okay for our trip, having taking care of business prior to our flight. One thing to note, however is that there are more delays today on flights, which can add to the time, someone is forced to sit on the plane. Our flight out of Philadelphia was delayed over an hour going out, and two hours coming back—time which could be made more difficult for someone with a disability who is unable to use the lavatory on a plane.

This condition is really unacceptable. I know friends who use a wheelchair and simply don’t fly anymore, because of the embarrassment or inconvenience of having to be “loaded” on the plane and into a seat by way of an aisle chair. This is more like a hand truck for packages than for people. Also, those who use a power chair, and try to take that chair on the plane, have found it to be completely destroyed, leaving them without their most precious asset.

This really is a call to action. We all need to let our Federal Legislators know that this present condition is unacceptable, and that people with mobility issues have the right to travel just like anyone else.

Study finds small but persistent NJ voter disability gap

By Michael Hill Correspondent NJTV News

Asbury Park’s Wali Mohammed injured in a car accident was among the 16 million Americans with disabilities who voted in last year’s presidential election, according to a new Rutgers University study. Mohammed says he physically goes to vote in all elections with hope for those sworn in to office.

“I just don’t believe they know the struggles that a person with all disabilities, I don’t care what kind of disability, I don’t think they know what they go through every day just to get up in this chair, just to move around,” said Mohammed.

Rutgers Professors Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse crunched Census Bureau data and found more than 62 percent of registered voters without disabilities voted in the Nov. 8 election and nearly 56 percent with disabilities voted.
“I think the good news is that a majority of people with disabilities do vote and clearly they are as interested in the issues as people without disabilities. When we ask them questions about do you follow politics, are you interested in the issues, there really is not a difference there,” said Schur.

The professors found the disability gap, the percentage between those with and those without disabilities, persists across the last three presidential elections. Kruse, who was recognized by the Obama administration as a senior economist, calls the gap sobering.

“We were kind of hoping that we would see some closing of that disability gap, but it hasn’t. That means it’s very stubborn and there’s a lot of things going on,” said Kruse.

Accessibility among them a week before the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I think that progress has been much too slow in making polling places accessible,” said Kruse.

“Some people say, well vote by mail and that’ll just solve the problem. And we found a majority of people with disabilities say that they would prefer to vote in person in a polling place. There’s a symbolic and important aspect of showing up and being counted and participating with others in the act of voting,” said Schur.

During last month’s national disability voter registration week, advocates from the Alliance Center for Independence, New Jersey League of Women Voters and several other organizations staged Rev Up rallies to sign up voters with disabilities.

“With 56 million people with disabilities in our country. We need to have our voice heard, and in order to do that we need to be out, we need to be voting, we need to be getting involved. Not just at home posting on social media, but out in people’s faces,” said Alliance Center for Independence Executive Director Carole Tonks.

From Norman’s Desk – July 2017

Norman A. Smith, Associate Executive Director –

Our nation celebrates its Declaration of Independence from Great Britain on July 4th. We celebrate the idea that this nation wanted to be free from rules, regulations, and laws created without input from the Colonies.

We also celebrate the concept that each person has equality in the eyes of the law. Although many have tramped upon this basic concept throughout our history, its promise has survived thanks to the sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears of many.

As we celebrate Independence Day, we need to remember what we are celebrating and why. We need to remember the sacrifices of those who have died for the concepts of independence, liberty, and freedom. We must also remember that the fight is not over for people with disabilities, and, indeed, remember that the fight is only beginning for many of us.

The promise has been slow in coming for people with disabilities, and for many of us, equality is still not here, is still a concept enjoyed by others, and is a promise that still needs to be kept.

The promise is a lofty one, yet for some people with disabilities the promise translates into more practical considerations: the freedom to make choices in their daily lives, to be responsible for their lives, and to be a contributing part of their community.

Freedom and independence are grand sounding words, but for some they mean the right to do simple tasks. Freedom and independence are empty and hollow words when a debate about the worthiness of the lives of people with disabilities is encouraged by silence in one of our nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning.

Expecting the promise of freedom to be kept without struggle and sacrifice is foolhardy. Again, our history teaches that participatory governance over oneself or one’s country means stepping up to participate and sacrifice. Individuals must take up the cause of freedom, work together, and battle for the promise to be kept. This is true now for people with disabilities. The pictures below show the most recent participation through peaceful disobedience at our Nation’s Capitol.

So, while we celebrate what happened 241 years ago, let us remember for many of us with disabilities the struggle for freedom continues!

“My Two Cents” – July 2017

Tim Doherty, Executive Director
We recently took a family vacation to Florida, which required that we travel on a plane. Anyone who is disabled, and who has had the experience of traveling on an airplane will fully understand what I am about to say. What a nightmare.

First of all, if you use a wheelchair you just can’t get on the plane, like anyone else. The airline will have to use an isle chair to get you to your seat. Suffice it to say, you are loaded on this “chair”, strapped in like a piece of luggage, and carted down that very narrow isle, until you arrive at your seat. Then if you need assistance to transfer, you will need your PCA or a family member to help get you into the seat. Of course, the seat is very narrow, so if you are like me, and have a little excess “baggage”, it requires a little shimmy to get finally settled. Once settled in, you hope that they put your manual chair on the plane as well, otherwise you are stuck when you finally arrive at your destination.
And as if that is not humiliating enough, don’t try to use the bathroom on the plane, because it isn’t accessible—for anyone, let alone someone who uses a wheelchair. Now most able bodied people can get into the bathroom however it is just impossible for someone who uses a wheelchair to get in at all. So that begs the question, if you have to go, what do you do?

So my next question, is why with the ADA and all the laws on the books about equality and treating the disabled with the same rights as anyone else, how can the airlines get away with this? The answer is that the airlines are EXEMPT from certain portions of the ADA, and making airplanes accessible is one of them.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act ( ACAA ) single isle planes built prior to 1992 are not required to have an accessible bathroom. These are the planes most used on Domestic flights (airbus 300 series). Planes built after 1992, with twin isles, are required to have at least one accessible lavatory, complete with door lock, accessible call button, and grab bars. Planes that travel overseas, on longer flights are also required to have an accessible lavatory. However, even on those planes that do have an “accessible” lavatory, most disabled say that they still can’t use that lavatory, because there are no specifications about height or placement of grab bars that are required to be used by the airplane manufacturers. As a result, the airlines can interpret these regulations to fit their own benefit. And we all know that creating bigger, accessible bathrooms on airplanes will take away precious seats, which means a loss of revenue. Something needs to be done about this condition. I plan to write to my congressman and will join with other advocacy groups to force the airlines to make changes so that anyone who uses a wheelchair, will also be able to use the bathroom on an airplane in flight.

Freedom Village apartment complex approved

Like some of her classmates who graduated with her from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in 2009, Monica Koppstein would like to move out of her parents’ home and live in her own apartment. Koppstein, 29, works as a cashier’s assistant at a local business. Although she has multiple disabilities and could live on her own with some support, there are few options available to her. That’s why she has remained under her parents’ roof. Read More …