Posted on October 5, 2008 · Posted in Brain Injury

Date: 10/5/2008 12:04 AM

Associated Press Writer

PLANTATION, Fla. (AP) _ From the outside, the one-story pink house on the quiet, tree-lined street looks like any other in South Florida’s suburbia. But once you go through the glass double doors, it’s obvious: This home is different.

Doors and lights work by pressing a touch-screen that looks like a giant remote control. The height of the kitchen table is also controlled by the panel, as are the curtains. There is a rotating shelf system that acts as a pantry.

This is Gizmo House, where six people with multiple developmental disabilities live somewhat independently. Operated by the Ann Storck Center and funded in part by the state and federal governments, residents are now worried about the 10-year-old home’s future as Florida undergoes severe budget cuts.

Jim McGuire, the center’s executive director, said the deficit this year for Gizmo House and four other homes his group operates will be at least $600,000, and he estimates he will need to find an additional $1.6 million to run the homes for 2008-2009.

He’s not sure how that will be made up.

The state’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities said all providers are facing cuts.

“They are going to have to make choices and changes, but hopefully they will survive,” said Melanie Etters, an ADP spokeswoman.

Gizmo House is the cheapest to maintain of the Storck Center’s five homes because its residents have the most self-sufficient skills. But they are assisted around-the-clock by two or three aides.

The technology, by Crestron Electronics Inc., is custom designed and programmed at a cost of $60,000 installed. Touch-screens alone cost $2,000 each.

“There are no two systems that are alike,” said Jeff Singer, the Rockleigh, N.J., company’s marketing and communications director.

The touch panel sends commands to a central operating system, which can control or automate virtually anything in the home. It allows residents to do more for themselves.

“They don’t have to rely on the staff to get their snacks, to open doors,” said Stacey Verity, the house manager.

On a recent rainy summer afternoon, Bennie and Lennie Merchant, 41-year-old twins born with cerebral palsy, show off the gadgets.

The brothers have multiple disabilities, but Bennie is able to open his bathroom door by pressing on the touch-screen attached to the lap tray on his wheelchair. In the kitchen, Lennie mixes cake batter with a large metallic spoon while nurse Beverly Prescott holds the bowl. Then he demonstrates how to cook corn on the induction range with Verity’s help, even though he says he doesn’t like corn.

Bennie turns on the TV to watch the Rachel Ray cooking show by pressing his touch-screen on his wheelchair.

All the residents congregate in the kitchen, sometimes causing a traffic jam of wheelchairs as two others set the table and get ready for dinner.

Through the use of the radio frequency and wireless technology, residents control the TVs by pressing an icon of their favorite channels. Sometimes the ability to turn on the lights may cause confusion, like when one resident shut off the living room lights from her bedroom by accident.

“Unfortunately the technology is still fairly expensive to incorporate. However, it’s a perfect product for people with these needs, people who are severely handicapped,” said Bruce Wrobel, who helped install the system.

For the phones, Wrobel said he took an audio conferencing system and gave the residents the ability to use a handsfree autodial phone system. They can call their six favorite people by hitting the icon on the phone, which automatically turns on the speaker phone.

“One of the things is maintenance because they can be pretty harsh on the equipment. It’s like anything. After you use a car for eight or 10 years, obviously things break and need to be fixed,” Wrobel said. “It’s certainly not at the end of its service life, but it’s getting on in age.”

For 44-year-old Linda Cothran, who has been living at Gizmo House since it opened, there’s more to lose than gadgets and gizmos if the house is shuttered.

“We’re a family,” she said.

And no one can replace that.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447