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Voice Recognition and Switch Controlled Environmental Control Units for Quadriplegics and Physically Disabled

What is an Environmental Control Unit for a Quadriplegic or Physically Disabled Person?

Before I go into what a environmental control unit is, I want to put out a few thoughts: 

  1. You need to know up front that environmental control units can be expensive.  A typical fully functional ECU with installation and training will start at around $10,000.  It can be much more.  You also have to consider maintenance costs such as microphone replacement.  Your environmental control unit is going to need repair.  Either the parts of the system that are mounted on your wheelchair are going to get snagged on something or your nursing assistant is going to be too rough on things and break a wire.  Something will happen that will need to be replaced. 
  2. Forget what you see in the movies.  You are not going to be able to talk out loud in any room in your house, saying whatever you want to some invisible smart home computer with its own personality who will be able to correctly interpret, understand, and perform any task you want.   Please, please, please wipe that image from your brain.  It just doesn't exist.
  3. Environmental control units require a lot of work on your part.  Yes, you have to work to make the experience successful.  You have to learn how to talk to the unit, you have to learn all the commands, you have to learn the command menus and submenus, and you have to know how to handle the equipment and more importantly how to tell your assistants how to handle the equipment. 

An environmental control unit (ECU) is a piece of assistive technology that allows a person who is physically disabled to control their living environment.  Since a person with a physical disability cannot always pick up the telephone receiver, flick on the light switch, or press the keys on the remote control, an environmental control unit is the technological bridge that allows that to happen.  Each particular environmental control unit has its own features but the typical environmental control unit allows the person who is physically disabled the ability to independently control such things as:

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Their are two basic methods of controlling an environmental control unit:


Each manufacturer typically has models available for switch, voice, or switch and voice control.   The advantage to a unit that does both is that a user can use the faster voice recognition method on most days but when the person is sick or their voice changes throughout the day, the switch can be used.       

How does an environmental control unit allow a Quadriplegic or Physically Disabled Person to control their environment?

An environmental control unit allows the disabled person to control their environment from a single centralized control station, equivalent to a master remote control.  The disabled person can either use their voice or access a single accessible switch to issue commands to environmental control unit.  The environmental control unit processes the commands and in turn sends out the control signals to the appropriate device (TV, bed, telephone, etc.)  All environmental control units consist of a base station that can be a desktop computer running special software or a custom control box housing electronic circuit boards.  The base station is usually mounted in the bedroom on a shelf, night stand, or chest of drawers.  It's best to locate it out of the way so that daily cleaning or physical movement by staff do not interfere with it.  Occasionally the base station is located in the bedroom. 

On some systems, separate from the base station is a wireless system mounted on the wheelchair which gives the person access to the environmental control unit while they are up in the chair.  So the person has access to the environmental control unit while in bed or while in the wheelchair.  The base station does not move.  While in the wheelchair the person will speak into a microphone mounting on the wheelchair and the voice is transmitted wirelessly back to the base station. 

Some environmental control units have to be moved to wherever the person using it is located.  There is no wireless remote accessory.  So if they are in bed using the environmental control unit and get up into their wheelchair, the environmental control unit has to be moved so that it is physically mounted on the wheelchair.  Obviously this can be a pain and can lead to damage from the back and forth moving.  Also the environmental control unit is physically located on the wheelchair so if it is bumped into walls, the environmental control unit can be damaged.  Some users who have their environmental control unit mounted on their wheelchair simply place the chair close enough to the bed so that they can operate their chair mounted system from bed. 

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