Environmental Control Units

Persons with long-term disabilities may feel somewhat restricted in terms of the amount of control they have over their living space. Fumbling with small switches to turn on light can become increasingly frustrating; small print on a thermostat may make it hard to adjust properly; getting up to open a door can be difficult if an individual has limited mobility. Fortunately, Environmental Control Units can help anyone regain power over his or her environment.

Environmental Control Units (ECUs) provide increased independence for people with disabilities. They are frequently used by patients in hospitals, but they can also be used in the home. With the aid of assistive technology, the quality of life for persons with disabilities can be improved, and control over individual living space can indeed be a reality for everyone.

What an ECU can do

An ECU is made up of one small unit, and is designed to be able to operate a variety of appliances. From opening a door to dialing a telephone, from adjusting the volume level on a TV to turning off lights, an ECU can control just about any electronic device in your home.

Other things that an ECU can make more accessible include opening and closing doors, adjusting drapes, performing telephone functions like redial, hold, call waiting, and volume adjustment, operating an adjustable bed, and turning most appliances on and off. Many ECUs use X-10 technology, a communications system that allows the user to run appliances by remote control. An X-10 receiver takes commands only from its own X-10 controller, and unlike other remote devices, it does not pick up interference from outside sources (such as police radar). Because it can work utilizing a standard household wiring, and because it does not require major installation, an ECU with X-10 technology can be used by anyone.

Controlling an ECU

An ECU is completely controlled by the individual user. There are a variety of control devices, or “switches,” for ECUs, and the switch that a particular person needs to operate an ECU depends on his or her individual needs. Deciding on the proper switch should be done with a trained professional, such as an occupational therapist. Switches can be wired directly into electronic appliances and devices to be controlled, and they can also be arranged to operate appliances by remote control.

A “ribbon” switch is a flat strip which the user needs to apply pressure to turn something on or off. A “button,” or “platform” switch is a large button which only needs to be pressed to operate an appliance. “Sip and Puff” switches are very useful for individuals with extremely limited movement because the user only needs to sip or puff air into or out of a tube. “Glove” switches operate by only bending a finger. “Pull” switches need only a gentle tug on a ring or ball to be activated and turn an appliance on or off. Voice-activated switches can also be used with many ECUs. This kind of switch is specially designed to recognize- and respond solely to- the voice of the user. Another kind of switch works on motion detection. These switches can be used by small and controlled muscle movements. For example, something as small as an eyeblink can be enough to turn on a radio or lower the heat.

Further Information

Obtaining an ECU may be as simple as picking one up from the local electronics store, as your local Radio Shack may be able to order them by request. If not, the following places make such devices available:

Hypertek
P.O. Box 5703
Derwood, MD 20855-0703
(301) 216-9836

MasterVoice
10523 Humbolt Street
Los Alamitos, CA 90720
(800) 628-5837

Quartet Technology, Inc.
11 School Street
N. Chelmsford, MA 01863
(508) 692-9313

Tash, Inc.
91 Station Street
Ajax, ONT L1S 3H2
(219) 462-8086 (TOLL FREE)

Teledyne Brown Engineering
300 Sparkman Drive, NW
P.O. Box 070007
Huntsville, AL 35807-7007
(800) 944-8002

X-10 (USA) Inc.
91 Ruckman Road
Closter, NJ 07624
(800) 526-0027

The following companies make switches that may be used with ECUs:

Adaptive Switch Labs
300 East New Hope Road, Suite 201
Cedar Park, TX 78613
(800) 626-8698

Switch-It
4423 Shadowdale
Houston, TX 77041
(713) 896-1699

Tash, Inc.
91 Station Street
Ajax, ONT L1S 3H2
(219) 462-8086 (TOLL FREE)