Living independently: The impact of technology on special needs residents in NYC

Posted: 6:56 AM, Feb 26, 2016
Updated: 2016-02-26 08:57:37-05

NEW YORK — In New York City, an organization is providing individuals with special needs the means to live independently through the use of smart home technology.

Independent Residences Inc. (IRI), a non-profit serving the five boroughs, outfits apartments with connected technology that allows its organization to supervise and support clients with disabilities who would otherwise be unsafe living alone.

“They are able to live independently, staff isn’t in their face all the time.” Ray DeNatale, IRI’s Executive Director, said. “We give them the resources to live on their own, do what they can do, and if they need help the technology gives us the cue to provide that.”

Queens native Robert Foster is currently living in an IRI apartment. He previously lived in a group home for individuals with disabilities. Foster had been unhappy with the level of restrictions he faced in the group environment.

Now, thanks to IRI, Foster is able to live with a roommate in an apartment in Queens.

Every day, an automated medicine alarm/dispenser reminds Foster to take his pills. Everything is pre-measured and set to his schedule.

Foster, an avid and skilled cook, has stove sensors to alert him, and the IRI team, if he’s left the burner on for an extended period of time.

“He likes to be cleaning and listening to music. This reminds him you’ve got to come back to the stove,” said Deatrice Cain Foster’s IRI Direct Care Assistant Manager, who receives the alerts and provides direct support to Foster.

Several strategically placed motion sensors let Cain know where Foster is in the home, and whether he has left his unit. While he reportedly sticks to a relatively consistent schedule, these tools serve as a vital safety net.

IRI is not one-size-fits-all. Clients are assessed individually, then matched with the home setup that suits their unique needs.

In the digital age, assistive technology can be developed faster, cost the user less, and offer more user-friendly interfacing.

For IRI, technology allows them to use fewer staff to support more residents, and do so more effectively.

“We go out looking for new technology in every way possible that helps us do that,” said DiNatali, who’s toolbox of tech ranges from simple to cutting edge.

Check out these tech companies that serve individuals with disabilities:

  • DOT Smartwatch — converts texts and emails to braille
  • VivoText — infusing human emotion into text-to-speech programs
  • Eye Writer — eyeball-controlled art tool developed by a street artist with Lou Gehrig’s Disease
  • Be My Eyes — smartphone app lets you lend your eyes to the blind
  • Wheeliz — wheelchair adapted car sharing
  • KinesicMouse — control a computer using your head and face

Even tech titans are doing their part. The “Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities” is putting support behind innovative tech that makes the world more accessible, claiming they “believe through innovation and everyday efforts, we can all help create more access and opportunity for the one billion people living with disabilities.”

An estimated 1 in 10 Americans live with disabilities, according to U.S. Census data from 2010-2014.

For a person who previously lived under constant supervision, IRI is providing something every American values: freedom.

To learn more about Independent Residences Inc., including how to support their work, visit