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Advances in Serving the Physically Challenged


Aug 1, 2001 12:00 PM,
Steve Filippini

The primary focus for the special-needs customer is the user interface, anything from a keypad to a key-lock device.

LOUD BELLS, SIRENS, AND FLASHING LIGHTS and indicators are usually the first things you imagine in a security system. In fact, I am willing to bet that each of you has had the pleasure of waking up to the shrill musical stylings of a 135-decibel siren at some point. Sirens and bells draw attention to emergencies. Flashing lights increase public awareness and pinpoint the location of a home or business for nearby emergency agencies. These external indicators enhance the operation of a security system. They complement the area of protection by grabbing the attention of neighbors and by requiring some form of action to address it.

For special needs clients, however, specific efforts have to be made to ensure that the security systems installed in their homes will alert them to the system’s status and enable them to take the proper actions even before outside help arrives. A brilliant strobe-light illuminating the sky for all the world to see may bring help to the scene, but if the user is blind, they’ll be completely unaware that anything is happening. The areas that require extra attention are setting up the security system to serve the specific needs of the user and configuring the system to interface with the user in as many ways as possible.


As with all security systems, the primary focus for the special-needs customer is the user interface. This can be anything from a keypad to a key-lock device used to arm and disarm the system. These devices may also provide access to system features and functions. As a rule, the physical make-up of these keypads has to be user-friendly.

Membrane-surfaced keypads, for example, may not support the visually challenged customer because the smooth surface makes it difficult to locate the proper buttons. Some security providers use stick-on Braille labels for membrane-surfaced keypads. This will only work if the labels are properly applied. Labels can slide away from the intended mark after continuous use. Furthermore, if you ever need to replace the keypad, you must have a supply of these labels to modify the surface of the new device.

Installing keypads that offer individual buttons with a tactile-feel response when pressed can address that problem. Several keypad manufacturers have also included a tiny bump in the center of the “5” button. This serves as a reference point for feeling the way around the available buttons.

Some standard keypads have small, tightly grouped buttons. This design makes identifying them in a dimly lit hallway or entrance nearly impossible, forcing the customer to struggle when attempting to enter the arm/disarm code. Even in brightly lit rooms, if the customer has difficulty distinguishing one keypad button from another, system modifications may be required. Substituting roomy keypads with large, brightly colored buttons is one method that has met with success.


Visual Cues

Most manufacturers design their systems to respond with a “dit” sound when a button is pressed. If your customer is hearing impaired, he or she might need visual verification from the system that they pressed the right button. Some manufacturers provide an LED flash each time a button is pressed. Some security system keypads offer 1- to 4-line LCD displays that provide text or icons for the customer to refer to when accessing the system. A special-needs keypad may use an LCD that displays larger-than-normal characters along with increased back lighting. This reduces the need for the customer to squint or stand back when attempting to identify keypad images.

If your customer needs a visual aid to know if the system is armed, you can add an LED or lamp indicator that flashes while in a disarmed state and remains solid during armed conditions. This is very effective when initiating remote system arming or disarming when the customer is away from a keypad and the status indicators are not located nearby.

Aural Cues

Beyond modified keypads that offer some of the enhancements I’ve mentioned, there are additional features available to assist the special-needs customer. An audible indication that annunciates an armed or disarmed status can be very helpful. A long tone (for example) may indicate an armed condition whereas three short tones may indicate a disarmed condition.

Physical Cues

Once the customer has armed the system, he or she may need to address additional requirements. If your customer is visually impaired, you may want to install audible devices that use different tones and sounds depending on the systems status or condition. For the hearing impaired, you may want to install a vibrating pager system that transmits a signal to a remote device in the event of an alarm. By tapping into the bell or siren output, you can provide a system-activated indication. Placing the remote vibrating device under a pillow or strapping it to an ankle will awaken the customer in case of an alarm. This is an option worth pursuing when audible indicators do not help the user.

Customizing Sound Range

Sometimes the hearing-impaired customer cannot pick up certain frequencies or tones. I have a good friend who requires me to lower my voice an octave in order for him to hear me. For people like my friend, a simple device or component exchange may be all that is required. The trick is finding an acceptable range of tones that will consistently alert the customer. A trip to Radio Shack may be your first step in keeping the customer happy.

Lighting Cues

Installing strobe lights in place of sirens and bells is often necessary. If you cannot hear an alarm condition, you might see one instead. Smoke detectors now come with a bright light to assist in pathway lighting. If the room is filled with smoke or the lights are not working, the smoke detector lights the way. Powerful strobe lights penetrate eyelids and awaken people almost as effectively as a loud siren. I have often toyed with the idea of wiring strobe lights in my kids’ room to see if they’d work better than their alarm clocks.

Home Automation

Home automation systems and mid-ranged control panels offer light and appliance activation. By interfacing the system with an X-10 or power-line carrier transmitter, entire rooms and outside lighting fixtures are controlled. This option does require some expertise in the field of AC power and signal distribution. Proper line filtering, signal bridging and a little knowledge will ensure correct operation.

Some New Directions

The list of options continues to grow. There are companies testing voice-activated systems that respond to simple audible requests. Consumer-testing organizations currently use retina-tracking devices. By staring at a desired icon, the system executes a pre-determined course of action. A system that uses a “Suck/Blow” action through an air tube gives a paraplegic the ability to move about a computer screen and make system selections.


Phone Controls

If your customer is unable to walk or get out of bed, you may consider installing a telephone-accessible security system. Instead of using a standard user-interface keypad, the customer can pick up a touch-tone or cordless telephone and access the system. This is especially helpful when the customer is immobile, limited in their movements, or unable to stand or sit for extended periods.

Panic Buttons

Other options to consider do not require control panel modifications or special hardware; they require some thought and imagination. Installing a panic button in a bathroom is a good start. Heart attacks and strokes are often the result of physical stress induced by everyday bodily functions. I also recommend installing the panic device a few inches off the floor. If the customer slips and falls, or if an attack renders them helpless, reaching up to press a button may be the hardest thing they need to do. Keeping their emergency alarm within arm’s reach may save a life. Providing your customer with a wireless panic pendant may be another option. Kick-plates and foot-activated devices are also available. No matter where the customer may be, proper placement of emergency activation/notification sensors should always be within reach.

Wireless Controls

Many security systems offer wireless access to control the system as well as to initiate an emergency alarm. Transmitters the size of a pack of cigarettes (or smaller) can be programmed to arm and disarm the system, open and close doors, and control lights. My system allows me to control my overhead garage door, arm and disarm the system, and turn on a siren test. Activating a strobe light or initiating pathway lighting may be all your customer needs. Wireless thermostat controls are now available through some security and home automation providers. By offering an easier way to change a customer’s immediate environment, you have met their special needs and satisfied that customer.

Steve Filippini is a senior security technician with 20 years of experience in the security installation industry. He can be reached at[email protected].

The Meaning of Special Needs

Special needs, a term referring to the needs of people with physical disabilities, became widely used in the early 1990s. It covers a variety of conditions from partial or total deafness to the loss or limitation of a limb or limbs. The realm of special needs is now recognized as a source of possible service offerings for customers who are physically challenged. People with special needs require a different approach to protection. Regardless of their physical condition, a customer who is unable to distinguish or recognize a security system’s different warnings is unable to react appropriately — and is at risk. It is unacceptable for the security industry to let this happen.

Security companies have always worked at providing the best possible protection to their customers. Field technicians have modified security control panels to make them easier for their special-needs customers to operate. Over the years, special needs has become its own sub-industry as public awareness, along with corporate sponsorship, has taken it beyond case-by-case modifications. Security system manufacturers are now encouraged by market forces and sponsorships to innovate features and functions to accommodate special-needs customers.

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