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How smart home technology made my home more accessible

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When it comes to smart home technology, what many reviewers and users may see as convenience, other people see as accessibility. In other words, using one’s phone or voice to flip a light switch may be convenient for you because you don’t need to get up. For me and other disabled people, this makes it accessible. 

The best illustration of this concept involves the AmazonBasics microwave. The Alexa-powered device (which, as far as can be determined, has not been available for sale for over a year) was admittedly a bit gimmicky. Why would you want to talk to your microwave to heat your food? The controls are right there. But while it is true that the microwave is pretty mediocre — my partner constantly bemoans how small and underpowered it is — she’s willing to tolerate it because she knows how accessible the thing is for me. Instead of standing at the microwave and squinting at the low-contrast keypad — even with the good lighting in the kitchen, the numbers can be hard for my low vision to distinguish — I can be across the room and use my voice to tell Alexa to heat up my leftovers. 

The Alexa-powered AmazonBasics microwave created convenience for some but accessibility for others.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The implications of this transcend convenience. In fact, between the microwave, the Alexa-based Echo Wall Clock (which is helpful for seeing timers), and an old Echo Dot hooked up to control both devices, our kitchen is arguably the most accessible room in the house. 

In many ways, smart home tech represents accessibility and assistive technology at its very best. It’s not merely pragmatic — it’s empowering. It takes ostensibly mundane everyday objects like lamps and garage doors and microwaves and turns them into spectacular, borderline magical marvels. 

For many in the disability community, this transformation means the difference between inclusion and independence or exclusion and dependence. These are qualities that many people, especially those in tech media, fail to consider in their coverage of the smart home but that are crucially important if one wishes to understand technology in a more holistic way. 

Navigating an Apple-rich home

Take my household. My partner and I are pretty hardcore Apple users. We both have iPhones. We both wear an Apple Watch and AirPods. There are multiple iPads, HomePods, and Apple TVs in our house. As a result, we primarily use HomeKit to control our various smart home devices, including those from Nest (more on that later). 

The fact that we wade knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem is convenient, but more important for me is accessibility

The fact that we wade knee-deep in the Apple ecosystem is convenient, but more important for me is accessibility. With one exception (a MyQ garage door opener, which I’ll touch on later), I can control all of my smart home devices from the Home widget in Control Center.

To tell the truth, this says as much about the accessibility of Apple’s vertical integration as it does about smart home devices. The big win here is that if I need to turn off the lamp in the living room, I don’t need to figure out what I need to do. I just have to grab whichever device is closest to me: my iPhone, my Apple Watch, an iPad, the Apple TV, or the HomePod. 

Sometimes, of course, you have to tweak your tech in order to get it to work the way you want it to — especially if you don’t want to invest in an entirely new set of devices. One downside to using HomeKit is that the Nest products we have — a Nest Thermostat E, Nest Protect smoke alarm, Nest x Yale smart lock, Nest Hello doorbell, and two Nest Cam IQ outdoor cameras — don’t natively support it. These are all older products that predate the Matter standard that ostensibly promises interoperability between smart home platforms. But we don’t want or need to replace it — however dated our Nest gear is, it all continues to work great, especially in the original Nest app

Still, I wanted to get all of it to show up in the Home app because we’re mainly HomeKit users. For us, the solution came in the way of the Starling Home Hub. It’s a little box you connect to your network and, upon hooking up your Nest and HomeKit credentials, it turns your thermostat or other devices into “native” HomeKit products. It allows me to ask Siri to lock the front door and adjust the thermostat as well as control them using the aforementioned Home widget in Control Center. 

Opening the garage door

Arguably the best smart home gadget we have is the MyQ garage door opener. I added this a few years ago when MyQ maker Chamberlain made the HomeKit version (sadly, it was recently discontinued). I call it the best because, for many years, our garage door was opened using a keypad outside, which was completely inaccessible, with small washed-out markings that were hard to see and mushy buttons that were hard to press. The addition of the smart opener means I can open and close the garage with a single tap. (Unfortunately, as of this writing, the HomeKit integration is broken — it shows a persistent “no response” status message — but it’s still fully functional within the MyQ app on my phone and watch.)

When a device like the MyQ garage door opener increases accessibility, then breaks its smart home integration, that can be more than inconvenient.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

It’s not all roses, however. The biggest frustration is maintenance. Especially with HomeKit, there are occasions when devices show as “no response” for no explicable reason. When my network goes down or is updated, sometimes it breaks the Starling Home Hub. But while playing IT support technician for my devices is annoying, it doesn’t erase the fundamental benefits of what all of these smart home devices add to my everyday life. 

A different perspective

It goes back to what I wrote at the outset about convenience and accessibility. From what I’ve read, the vast majority of reviewers and analysts see the smart home as made up of things you want but don’t need to live. This assumes that everybody uses technology in (mostly) the same way, and it’s just not true. 

The emotional gains are just as important as the practical ones

For a disabled person, myself included, being able to control light switches and garage doors with your devices means one’s home is more accessible. It instills greater feelings of agency and autonomy because I don’t need to ask for help for, say, turning on the lights. The emotional gains are just as important as the practical ones, and it’s for this reason that accessibility trumps convenience in this context. What’s convenient to you may be life-changing to me. 

All of this is not to say smart home devices are perfect — the salient point is it’s misguided to perpetually frame smart products as mere novelties that, in the case of the Alexa microwave, are tech for tech’s sake. It’s much more meaningful than that, but most people don’t have the foresight to consider other viewpoints. 

Smart home tech has far greater resonance than sheer convenience. It can be accessible and empower everyone — profoundly so. 



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