One of the key markers of transitioning to adulthood is moving out of the family home to begin a life of independent community living. When a person experiences disability, taking that step can be complicated by the need for ongoing support to complete everyday activities such as cooking, shopping and laundry.
However, technology is changing the way we control our environment. Smart home automation and communication technologies can now offer mainstream approaches to what – for people with disability or who are ageing – have traditionally needed expensive and customised assistive technology solutions.
I’m an occupational therapist who’s worked with people with neurological disability for the past 25 years in Australia and the US. As a senior lecturer in the occupational therapy department at Monash University, I lead an interdisciplinary research group collaborating with people with disability, their families, academic, government and industry partners to work to change the way support is delivered to people who experience disability. Our team has been approaching this in three key ways: demonstration work; pilot and innovation; and evaluation of technology in housing from the perspective of tenants with lived experience of disability.
New options for housing and support
In 2012, the Monash Department of Occupational Therapy led a successful team application for a $1.939 million federal government Supported Accommodation Innovation Grant to build technology-enabled units on the border of the Monash Peninsula campus.
A key focus of this smart housing design was to harness mainstream home automation and communication technologies that would allow tenants to choose and control the way they receive support for independent living. In addition to this technology, and availability of 24-hour shared disability support, tenants also have access to targeted support via Monash health professional student clinical training hours.
This innovative model aims to provide additional goal-directed input for tenants while also producing health professional graduates equipped to collaborate with people with lived experience of disability in regard to their personal goals for housing and support.
My colleague Jono Bredin lives in one of the units. As a technology enthusiast, Jono has not only harnessed the opportunity to use technology in everyday life, but also taught health professional students how to innovate and extend technology use in a collaborative person-centred approach.
Pilot and innovation
In an enduring partnership with the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria, we’ve also been identifying, piloting and innovating in the application of emerging technologies in housing with people living with traumatic brain and spinal cord injury. Most recently, this has included the trial of a movement-sensing, audio-prompt technology originally developed for older Australians – Sofihub – now being tested by people who experience cognitive difficulties after road trauma.
Following acquired brain injury, some people experience memory, planning and problem-solving issues that would traditionally require input from others for reminders and prompting. Using targeted goal-setting with the person who’s experienced brain injury, we’ve been able to identify everyday activities that benefit from replacement of human prompting and support with computer-generated audio prompts, activated via movement sensors – for example, when someone first enters their home, or at set times nominated by the person. This pilot work is really changing the way people can receive support to live as independently as possible, offering both quality of life and cost benefit.
Evaluation of technology in housing
In 2013, I joined forces with experienced architect Dr Kate Tregloan, of Monash Art, Design and Architecture. Building an innovative, cross-discipline research collaboration, we brought together occupational therapy and architectural design perspectives to develop a customised framework for post-occupancy evaluation of built and technology design.
A key focus of our research work was to start from the perspective of the tenants who have been living in, and experiencing every day, the housing, technology and support design. We’ve worked with them to develop innovative methods to evaluate and translate post-occupancy research findings into education tools for others. This has included developing 3D virtual housing tours that allow the viewer to explore tenants’ experience of reach, access and support delivery.
More recently, we’ve worked to convert the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Specialist Disability Accommodation policy into a virtual online game space where people with disability and their families can filter information on NDIS building standards and guidelines, assistive technology features, community design and tenant experience to ‘enter’ virtual housing spaces and explore housing and technology design within the NDIS.
Australia is in the eighth year of a 10-year National Disability Strategy, designed to build an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens. A key aim of our ongoing work at Monash is to ensure we deliver evidence for policy development, and government and industry investment, to drive new solutions in the delivery of housing, technology and support design. This will ensure those with disabilities can choose where they live, who they live with and how they receive support, just like other Australians.