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Pittsburgh-Area Smart Homes Are Adapting to Special Needs

July 20, 2017

By Eric Seiverling

Technology allows people to communicate around the world, provides entertainment, and brings information into our homes.

But thanks to Pittsburgh-area smart homes owned by the human services agency NHS, individuals with special needs can now accomplish tasks that most people take for granted.

“I love the house and it makes such a difference,” Michelle Schmidt, NHS Allegheny Valley School house manager, said of one of the smart homes located in Aliquippa, Pa. “There’s so many things they can do now. They can make their own breakfast, wash their hands, and turn the lights on and off.”

With a rich tradition spanning almost 50 years, NHS is at the forefront of providing care and services to people with special needs.

NHS, through its subsidiaries, is a leading provider of community-based, non-profit education and human services. More than 10,000 employees provide care to almost 50,000 adults, children, and their families throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Louisiana, and Michigan.

NHS has developed a unique continuum of care providing services in the areas of education and autism, behavioral health, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The NHS legacy is a result of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which provided federal funding for community mental health centers. Originally formed in Philadelphia in 1969 and called the Northwest Center, the agency’s five mandated services are inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, information and referral and community outreach and organization.

The agency currently utilizes one smart home in Aliquippa and a second smart home is scheduled to open in Coraopolis, Pa. by November of this year.

The Aliquippa home was purchased in July of 2014, and was originally a single-family residence. The house was retro-fitted into a four-bedroom group home, and four individuals currently live in the house. Three of the individuals have lived together for 20 years.

The home is wheelchair-compatible, and now features Lutron-automated lights, air conditioning and window blinds that can be operated by remote control, kitchen cabinetry that lowers to counter top height, a smart tv, a single-drawer dishwasher, and each individual in the house gets an Ipad with specialized apps and larger keyboards.

Michael Rankin, 51, is now able to use his home's sink thanks to lower counter tops in the NHS smart home in Aliquippa, Pa. Credit: NHS Allegheny Valley School.

Michael Rankin, 51, is now able to use his home’s sink thanks to lower counter tops in the NHS smart home in Aliquippa, Pa. Credit: NHS Allegheny Valley School.

The individuals living in the house require 24-hour surveillance, and an NHS employee is at the house at all times. However, that hasn’t stopped the individuals living in the house from becoming more independent.

“I like it a lot because it’s easier to do things,” said resident Michael Rankin, 51, who is in a wheel chair due to spina bifida. “I can wash my hands, the stove goes up and down and I can use the Internet.”

The home’s smart tv and iPads are powered by Wi-fi provided by Comcast.

All of our locations have broadband connectivity,” said NHS Corporate Vice President of Information Technology Tom Morgan. “The speed and reliability is always on. Having the broadband pipeline is a big advantage for us.”

NHS’s second smart home in Coraopolis is currently being built from the ground up, and will feature the same technology as the Aliquippa home as well as video doorbells to allow for two-way communication with visitors outside the house.

Shaleea Shields, an administrator for NHS, said moving into the Aliquippa smart home was relatively painless.

“There wasn’t a big learning curve,” Shields said. “The important part was getting our staff on board and understanding the importance of technology. They can really see the benefits.”

Technology’s importance was not lost on the home’s staff or the individuals living there.

“Technology has become such a big part of our lives,” said Schmidt, who plans the home’s staffing, financial, and grocery needs. “This is a first for our area. It’s been a learning experience for all of us.”