My Assistive Technology

by Melanie Hawkes – PDA WA Associate Director

Hi, my name is Melanie and I joined PDA as an Associate Director for WA earlier this year. It’s my second time on the board, having completed 2 terms many years ago. 

I thought I’d share with you what assistive technology I use regularly, and the names I’ve given them. Or more importantly, the men (and woman) I share my house with. I’m known as Gadget Girl, and you’ll soon see why! 

Assistance Dog – Upton (nickname is Buddy)

Not exactly AT, but my retired assistance dog Upton is a huge help for me at home. He does a lot of tasks, like picking up dropped items (including rubbish while out walking, even coins!); opening and closing doors (even the fridge, freezer and oven); pulling my shoes, socks, scarf and hat off; pushing me up by my elbow if I fall sideways; and putting things in the washing machine and bins and on the table or in the sink. I also feel safer with him in the house. As much trouble as he has caused me (he had to retire due to behavioural challenges and has several health issues), his skills are amazing and I would not be able to live alone with minimal visiting support without him.
Here is a video I made of all the things my last service dog Happy did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ8TV_q3uxk. Upton’s skills are just as good, if not better than Happy’s were! 

HouseMate – Tom

While doing some research for environmental controls for a new house about 8 years ago, I came across a Bluetooth device called a HouseMate. It allows me to control my mobile phone without touching it, and is also an infra-red blaster. I can use my mobile (I have a Samsung S10) with my hand while sitting in my wheelchair, but at night I can’t. But now I have my phone mounted to the side of my bed and sleep with Tom. I can do everything on my phone, like send messages, make and receive calls, read my emails and ebooks and browse the internet. I only have to tap on the button on top of Tom to have full control (or you can plug a switch into him). It scans row and column for keyboard and has a mouse function too. It’s much slower than using my hand, but is invaluable for those sleepless nights or emergencies. And a bonus is that I can control all of my infra-red devices with Tom too! Like my stereo, fan, heater, TV, and my bed (I had TADWA modify my bed controller to work with Tom). It’s the best device I have, after my wheelchair. I don’t think I could actually sleep without Tom! And Tom, because when I was reading the manual, I kept seeing “The HouseMate devices” on the pages, and over time Thomas has gone to Tom.

Pet Tutor Pro – Pete 

Pete is a pet food or treat dispenser that I control with my phone through Bluetooth. It was the first thing I bought with my NDIS funds (I self manage my plan). You can fill it with any dried dog food, and I open the app on my phone, connect Pete and press Feed. I keep Pete on a chair near the mat at my back door, and use it when I get visitors, Upton has done something I want to reward him for, or to distract him from something, like my neighbour’s dog barking. It is so much quicker and easier than feeding treats by hand. It can run on batteries or plug into the power via usb. I like to be able to move it around, so have two power banks that I use with it. It is definitely Upton’s favourite device, and I’ve found him sitting on the mat waiting for his treat a few times! 

Pet Cube Bites 2 – Jill 

Jill is a wifi camera that dispenses dog treats! I just bought the new version from an old one I bought three years ago, to monitor Upton while I’m out. It automatically detects movement and sounds and records 10-second videos while I’m out (I activate that feature when I leave, and turn it off when I come home). It notifies me when sound is detected, and I can watch live and dispense treats from my phone. It has come in handy when Upton has had diarrhea during the night. He can open the door and get outside and do his business. Then I call him inside and he shuts the door so I give him a treat and can see him go back to bed. All on my phone without me getting out of bed! Oh and why the name Jill? Well my old one was Jack, because he was black – blackjack or Jack Black. And the new one is smaller, so Jill… And she has Alexa built in so I can now use my voice to dispense a treat (and got it on sale at 60% off)!

Philips Respironics CoughAssist E70 – Cam

Thanks to the NDIS for funding this last year. As the name suggests, it’s a cough assist machine (hence Cam). It has a tube that I put in my mouth (you can also attach a face mask) and it blows air into my lungs, then sucks it out of me again. It sounds awful, but feels good. I have low lung capacity and weak muscles so find it hard to cough. If I get a chest infection, I usually end up in hospital where I can get regular and intensive chest physio to help me cough up the phlegm. Cam should prevent that. My physio set up a daily preset, which enables me to take deep breaths and practise coughing. And another preset to cough stuff up (when I’m sick). Hopefully with daily use, I can improve my lung capacity and strengthen my cough muscles and prevent hospital stays. 

Samsung robovacuum – Sam 

I love my robovacuum! I don’t like the remote control that came with him (or her. It’s named after Samantha Jade or Sam Smith – Sam sung – of course!) but I taught the signals to Tom and now use my phone to control Sam. I only have a cleaner once a fortnight, and Upton is really hairy, so being able to vacuum my floors is important to me. I always use it like a remote-controlled car, following it around. It’s pretty fun, and my floors get vacuumed at the same time! 

Sicare Light II – Geri

Tom has superseded Geri, but I still use her (she has a female voice, so named her after Geri Halliwell) almost daily. She’s a voice activated remote control. She sits on a stand next to my bed (yes, I sleep with Tom and Geri!). I can control all the same devices that Tom does, plus a fancy home phone made by Technical Solutions Australia in Victoria. So I can dial numbers by name from my home phone, and answer calls by pressing a switch. It’s definitely old technology, as I got it well before Tom, but I still have a use for it. 

TicHome Mini – G-girl 

In preparation of Geri dying, I bought a Google Home Mini and some compatible wifi devices. I have 4 light globes in the rooms I use the most, a wifi double power point,  2 Genio Smart IR devices and now a wifi voice controller for my bed! I can use my voice to turn them on or off, change the colours or brightness of the lights, or use my phone as a remote control without Tom (handy for changing the channel of the TV). I also have an Anko video doorbell that I use to see who is out the front before opening my electric door. I call her G-girl when talking about her, as if you say Google she starts listening to you! She doesn’t always get the right command, but makes me laugh with her responses sometimes. 

IOGear cordless keyboard with trackball – Alicia or Ali 

At work I have a cordless keyboard with a built-in trackball that I love. So when lockdown started due to Covid-19 in 2020, I brought it home to use. I loved it so much that I didn’t want to take it back to the office! So I bought myself one for home. It’s compact enough to fit on my tray, the keys are easy to press and I have full mouse control too. And it’s cordless, so I can leave my desk without having to put it on the desk each time. And I named her after Alicia Keys, of course!

Edge 2.0 power wheelchair – ???

I haven’t actually named my wheelchair. It gets the most use of all my AT. It is my second chair with 6 wheels. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to 4 wheels as I do love how easily it turns. But not when people trip over the back wheels…  I have tilt, recline, elevation and legs up, but my favourite part of my chair is my USB port. It enables me to charge my mobile phone from my chair, and I also have an electric hand warmer for cold days! Please suggest a name for my chair. It’s purple, if that helps? 

As for more gadgets in the future, I’m thinking of getting a heated throw rug for my bed (that I can plug into a wifi plug and turn it on and off with my voice) and I’d love some way of washing my hands independently. I can’t rub my hands together so hand gel is not a solution. There’s nothing worse than being hungry and getting yourself a snack, knowing you’ve had dog hair, treats and slobber all over your hands! It’s a good way of increasing my immune system though. 

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8 thoughts on “My Assistive Technology

  1. Love this article! Great to get to know you and your assistive technology better.
    What about naming your wheelchair Prince? I keep taking of Prince’s Purple Rain costume!

    1. Thanks Matt. Prince Chairming it is! It’s great that I get to ride my Prince all day 😆

  2. Great read Melanie
    I’ve met all of Mel’s gadgets. Obviously Upton is my favourite even though he takes the most to maintain, he gives the most love.
    I remember being scared to drive the chair to dock it at night. Now I look forward to it 😊

  3. UPDATE:

    I received a free electric throw rug from a friend, and love it! If I’m feeling cold when I go to bed, I put it on straight away. My wifi plug has a timer so I set it and it switches off when I’m asleep. If I wake up shivering I ask G-girl to switch it on and before long I’m warm and asleep again.

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