As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow, smart devices keep getting smarter. Consumers can now find affordably priced smart speakers, smart locks, video doorbells, and even smart window coverings — and for the 61 million American adults living with disabilities, smart home devices aren’t mere novelties. IoT tech has significantly improved accessibility by opening up new ways to interact with devices, often at a fraction of the cost of traditional assistive technologies.
And because smart home devices can be programmed to interact and change based on conditions, users have considerable control over the way that they function. Exploring a few real-world applications of smart home technology provides some insight into the way that real people live — and how new technologies can promote accessibility.
Smart devices are giving people more control over everyday tasks
New home security technologies help to showcase the potential of IoT home tech, and smart locks are an especially relevant example. The smart lock market is expected to grow substantially over the next several years thanks to impressive current-generation technology and a low cost of entry, and the devices can be used with other smart home gadgets to accommodate different users' capabilities.
For people with and without disabilities, smart locks simplify home security. The devices can be locked and unlocked remotely, allowing a user to grant access to a visitor from anywhere inside or outside a home. Temporary "keys" can also be created, allowing people to access the home during certain hours or blocking access entirely on certain days of the week.
Those basic functions can make tasks easier for the vast majority of consumers, but smart locks are ideal for people with certain mobility, vision, and cognitive disabilities. The major advantage of smart home technology involves coordination between different devices, which elevates the core features of smart security devices. For example:
- Video doorbells allow people to interact with visitors from any distance. If a family member or friend stops by, the resident can see them, carry on a conversation, and open the door via their smartphone, tablet, or computer.
- Smart lock notifications can be sent to the owner in a variety of ways. A person who is deaf, for instance, might have their phone vibrate when someone is at their door, while a person who is sensitive to sound might prefer to have internet-connected smart lights flicker or change color.
- Smart speakers allow for quick commands. By using voice commands, users can unlock doors remotely. Devices like Alexa and Google Home can be mapped to the user’s voice or to a single text-input device, ensuring that the primary user is the only person controlling the locks.
Smart devices don’t exist in a vacuum (with the exception of robot vacuums, which, of course, are vacuums). They interact with one another, creating an entire smart ecosystem that adapts to the needs of the user. As smart home adoption rates have increased, manufacturers have looked for more ways to automate simple tasks and expand the ecosystem, which opens up new opportunities for users.
For instance, smart blinds and shades can be scheduled to open or close to maximize energy efficiency; smart thermostats can be changed effortlessly from a phone or tablet. Devices can be linked and coordinated to improve functionality — a thermostat might send a signal to the smart blinds, for instance, closing them when the room reaches a certain temperature — and users can choose controls and settings that work with their lifestyles.
Some smart devices tend to follow the principles of accessibility by default
Smart gadgets cut down on labor and make many tasks easier, and because the devices don’t rely on a single set of controls, they can remove some challenges for people with disabilities. People with vision disabilities can use voice commands, while people with speech disabilities can input commands via smartphones, tablets, or other devices (Google’s Assistant app, for instance, now provides the same functionality through text as the Google Home, the company’s voice assistant technology).
In the smart home ecosystem, people have options. Tasks can be automated, controlled remotely, or scheduled to the user’s preferences, which opens up thousands of possible accommodations.
That’s important because people don’t follow a script. For a smart home device to be truly "smart," it needs to be adaptive, capable of changing to meet the needs of the consumer. By virtue of their design, smart home devices fulfill many of the goals of accessibility — they’re operable, adaptive to different types of users, perceivable in their functions, and robust enough to adapt to future technologies.