Personalizing Alexa for Yourself and Your Family

Echo Dot: A round device labeled Amazon, with a blue light around the edge showing that it is listening for user direction.
The Amazon Echo Dot

The New Alexa Blueprints

Many members of our community have learned to use specific Alexa Skills as AT to solve support problems in their lives. But how do we customize skills to exactly fit our needs? Developers have been able to create “skills” or programs for Amazon’s Alexa assistant for some time. What about those of us who don’t have coding chops?

Alexa Blueprints are templates that will allow you to create Alexa Skills without needing to code. You will need an Amazon account to use the blueprints, and you can use the same account that is tied to your Alexa App.

The Blueprints section of the Alexa development system is at .  The templates (21 right now) are organized as a grid, and using them is as easy as:

  1. Pick a Blueprint.
  2. Fill in the Blanks.
  3. Use the skill you just created.

Many of the Blueprints are focused on family and friend activities. There is also a section of Blueprints for creating stories using various themes. I think that as the number of Blueprints expands, there will be ones that the disability community can use. For example:

There are two themes, one focused on creating information for a sitter, and one for creating information for a pet, that could be easily hijacked to:

  • Create basic information for a personal assistant about your needs, red flags, locations of important resources, scheduling important tasks, emergency contact info, specific responses to your emergency reactions, and so on. The skill could be easily adjusted to deal with life changes or the unexpected.
  • Create basic information about your service animal, so that their unique needs can be easily reviewed by anyone who has predictable interaction with the animal. When should the dog poop, how often, what food isn’t safe, what behavior is a red flag, and so on?

There is also a Houseguest Blueprint that could be used to orient care staff to where things are in your house, what to watch out for, how your neighborhood is laid out, where stores you use are located and local travel issues.

I would guess that the number of Blueprints will expand, but if you have an Echo and use Alexa for supporting your independence now, you might want to play around with one or more of the current Blueprints to get a feel for them. If you do, you’ll be ready to use Alexa as a more customized AT device when Amazon expands the repertoire of Blueprints.

There is a Help Page with a short video that outlines how to set up a Family Trivia Game. It also contains information about how to make better use of the huge library of existing skills.

Give one of the Blueprints a try, and let us know how it went!

Smart 911: Your Path to Safety in a Disaster

One of the enduring problems for people with disabilities who find themselves in an emergency or a disaster is the inability of the systems of emergency response to actually help them with the problems and threats they face. Once the emergency has occurred, it is too late to go through the complexities of your personal support system and health care needs. Response systems are largely operating on automatic during the early part of the emergency and they seem incapable of nuance.

Various registry approaches with, for example, power companies have been set up, but they all involve great practical difficulties in actual use not the least of which is the need for updating every time your needs in an emergency change.

There is a system out there that goes some way to reducing these barriers to safety in a disaster for our community. It is called smart911, and its purpose is to enable first responders to know what you need and want while they are responding. It is very flexible and allows for a wide variety of the kinds of preparation you can build with first responders. I would suggest that you work on it a little at a time so that you can more easily think through what you need.

You can start at the home site for smart911 at

I would scan the “How It Works” menu first. You can find out whether the service is part of your area by entering your zip code. You should also review the Security and Trust section, maybe several times over the period when you enter information. It can be daunting to fill out even if you know the information you are sharing could be crucial to your survival in an emergency.

I live in Ingham county and there is an active smart911 service here, so I have been working on filling our data in over the last week.

You can include just about anything you believe is important to your safety, even for pets and service animals.

Note that the information is only available after you call 911 during an emergency and only to first responders. Smart911 saves about 11 minutes per person in response, which is a lot of time in an emergency. And the info is only available for a short period of time. The service is very popular with users.

Take a look today. We all need support for emergency response.

hispanic female fire chief from Washington, D.C.

“One of the things we fail to think about is the fact that when a person is dialing 9-1-1, it can be a very chaotic environment and there could be a lot of panic involved. If they have preloaded a profile that automatically populates for our responders, we have useful information, even if the person cannot relay all needed information to us.”

The Little Joys of Text Browsers

Cat lying on its back, apparently overweight
A Visually Complex Website

Modern browsers are gigantic affairs, designed to manage the remarkable variety of content available online, but also designed to do many more things, using a wide diversity of add-ons, scripting systems, plugins, revenue enhancement tools, and so on, ad infinitum. Now that wide bandwidth is more the rule than the exception, this makes some sense. But text-only browsers have been around for a quarter century (see Lynx, the oldest still being used), and they continue to be useful even in our ecosystem of browser behemoths.

I saw an item discussing the release of an up-to-date version of the WebbIE Web Browser 4, from the UK (see the download at, and the notice reminded me of all the small niceties of using a web browser that only focuses on the text:

  • The browser runs very fast, even on slow connections.
  • You don’t have to worry about malware or popups carried in graphic content.
  • It’s really easy to print the text without having to also print every single graphic chunk that the content creator or the advertiser thought was Very Important for you to see. This is especially useful if you want to use a PDF converter print driver so that you can share the text without carrying along all the graphics.
  • The Webbie Browser works with free screen readers like NVDA and Thunder (a webbie application screen reader. See the overview and link at the end of the post).
  • You can do a basic access test on any website simply be comparing what you get in Webbie, and what’s on the screen. Such a test won’t cover all access issues, but it does give you some direct insight into what people who need to use text as the core of their web access are getting from the site.

If you have another good use for a text browser, put it in the comments to this post!

Webbie has a variety of other applications that are text focused and well-maintained. They include the WebbIE Web Browser, PDF Reader, RSS News Reader, Clock, Calendar, Podcatcher, BBC iPlayer Radio and TV programs, and BBC Live Radio. The apps require Net Client version 4, included with the installer.

You can get all of them at


How Paid Leave Can Be a More Flexible Accommodation

Return To Work Cycle, with 3 sections, Accommodations (Accesibility Standards, Duty to Accommodate, Assistive Technology),Support For Recovery (Sick leave-injury-on-duty leave, Disability benefits-workers compensation, early intervention, case management and remain-return to work plan), Prevention (Employee Assistance Program and Wellness Programs, Special Working Arrangement, Occupational Health and Safety legislation and standards, Emergency and business continuity plans)
Returning To Work

Until recently, the general approach to paid leave as an accommodation was to allow or require it unless it reached the ADA threshold of an “undue burden”. For example, Federal ADA guidance suggests the following two-factor approach to this threshold:

“Undue burden means significant difficulty or expense. In determining whether an action would result in an undue burden, factors to be considered include —

(1) The nature and cost of the action needed under this part;

(2) The overall financial resources of the site or sites involved in the action; the number of persons employed at the site; the effect on expenses and resources; legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation, including crime prevention measures; or the impact otherwise of the action upon the operation of the site;”

In a case in the 7th Circuit, Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017 for Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), the court’s decision set a much more specific standard, by saying that several months or an indeterminate length of paid leave would meet the “undue” threshold. Of course, this decision could be appealed, or other Federal Circuits could define this threshold differently. But, it is typical in civil rights law for relatively flexible standards to become more and more specific over time. This very ordinary evolution of law can be seen clearly in special education law and rules decisions, for example.

I think our community has to assume that over time, paid leave as an accommodation will become less and less flexible. We need to embrace approaches that introduce more flexibility in the use of paid leave, and which support more control by us in the use of it.

One way that has been around for a long time is to look at rehabilitation during paid leave less mechanically than, “You are on rehab leave until you are fully rehabilitated.” Individuals who have experienced a work-related injury receive their rehabilitation services at their work site, and even in the actual workstation,  they used before the accident. PT and OT, for example, are provided focused on outcomes that are tied directly to what the person did prior to their injury.

Embracing the concept that accommodation should not be just passive support, but could be organized around a more flexible concept of “return-to-work”, Assistive Technology could be a resource for an at-work sequence of rebuilding the old job around the new reality of the disability. This kind of support could be implemented without making any assumptions about indeterminate accommodations or what might constitute the ultimate configuration of AT for a person as they reimagine how they might do their old job well. The person could work into a supported version of their job gradually, by learning to adapt and as the need for accommodation evolved during personal recovery. Customization, always a core of effective AT, could be expanded to include the expectation that the configuration of individual accommodations would change during recovery.


Accommodation and Compliance Series: Return-to-Work Programs

Return to Work or Stay at Work and Accommodations: Part 1

Return to Work: A Snapshot: Part 2


The Little Things

cartoon frogs around a minature mobil home with scenary and luggage
A Short Trip

All my life, I have had a fine motor coordination problem with my hands. My cursive writing is illegible. When I was in Catholic elementary school the nuns made me practice my cursive for an hour every day for an entire school year before concluding that I simply couldn’t improve.

My printing is only somewhat better, and if I am in a hurry, it too is illegible. Even my signature shows symptoms of actual brain damage in that my repeated signatures have different numbers of strokes. Computers have been a godsend to me, though not without their problems, too.

I have always simply taken it for granted that I would have a tough time using my fingers for anything delicate. So, I wasn’t surprised when my use of a smartphone was plagued with misses and sliding finger taps, making my use of apps in general and smartphone typing systems in particular fraught with mistakes. I have to double-check everything, even content I have created many times before. I also have a terrible time using the same amount of pressure with my finger each time I do so, often producing no result or one that shows I pushed too long.

Entirely separately, I got tired of wiping the greasy finger marks off my smartphone every morning and decided I would try using a stylus to reduce the grime. I assumed I would have as much trouble with the stylus as I did with my fingers-maybe even more.

Blue Cheap Stylus against fake wood background
A Tool

I was wrong.

There was a vast difference in the quality of my input when I used the stylus as compared with my finger. My error rate dropped very noticeably when I used the stylus, making my smartphone use more enjoyable and productive.

So, If you have trouble with fine motor tasks and it shows up on your smartphone, you might want to try a stylus too.

You can get styluses in bulk for about $.25 each or you can get better quality ones almost anywhere.  The link below is to the Amazon page for styluses that show you the enormous variety and broad cost points for these products. Check to make sure your choice works with your device.

Amazon Selection of Stylus Options page

What To Do About Piles of Crap?

Man in red sweat shirt piling trash in field
Pile That Trash!

There is a universal design approach to handling the barriers of fall and winter, but the reality is that it requires real customization and thought long before the barrier appears. Since it is early fall, I thought I’d summarize the universal design approach before expanding the possibilities with a social support approach I ran across recently.

If you have the luxury of designing your home from scratch, you can do a lot to dramatically reduce the need for removal, and to prepare for the snow that will inevitably accumulate. Even if you rent in a high snow area, there are still things you can do:

“General Preparation And Supplies

  • Stock up on non-perishable food – high calorie is more efficient
  • Stock up on prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • Stock-up on water; if an emergency is expected, fill up containers and bathtubs.
  • A first-aid emergency kit; supplement it with any special items you need.
  • Batteries (special ones for health gadgets too)
  • Battery powered radio; hand crank is good too.
  • Means for communication: Most phones today require electric to work; make sure you have an old, no-frills phone that needs no more than a basic phone land-line connection. Cell phones will work if you can keep them powered and if the service isn’t congested.
  • Blankets – plenty
  • Matches and/or lighters
  • Snow shovel, snow pusher, ice chipper or snow blower – smaller shovels lift less weight are easier on the back
  • Needed supplies in good working order – as if they might have to for 7-14 days.
  • I wish I didn’t have to add this, but in some cases this is important: have personal protection, something with which you can defend your home and protect your family should that become necessary.
  • Supplies for pet needs too.”

These recommendations are useful for any emergency loss of community travel and use.

You will need to customize your approach to removal as well. There are lots of options if you prepare, and almost none if you wait until the snow has fallen. Have your system in place long before flakes fall. I’ve included two core links for this issue below, but the blog that published those linked posts contains a wide variety of additional home-focused frameworks for successful accommodation.

Similarly, there are variations for other barrier and trash removal, though again they must be customized.

As an adjunct to universal design approaches, I describe below a framework which I believe would be an important enhancement to your preparation, based on a social support model.

I attended one of a series of the meetings for the creation of an Age-Friendly Plan for Lansing Michigan that included a discussion of how to manage the removal of snow, grasses, leaves, and trash. The discussion reminded me of the ongoing, seemingly insoluble social problem of such removal by persons with disabilities that make standard removal a problem.

There is a common set of barriers and practices in all municipalities and rural areas that make clearance of these barriers to movement for people with disabilities problematic:

  • Automatically devaluing the clearing of barriers if the beneficiaries of clearing are PWD
  • The use of fines and other sanctions if clearing is not done by PWD themselves. This often necessitates expenses by people who are already poor, sometimes at a premium cost since PWD “have no other choice” but to contract for private clearing or face fines.
  • The use of disability access parking spots and curb cuts as storage for large snowfall, on the assumption that PWD won’t be using them anyway.
  • Requiring self-transport of hazardous materials for annual collection when PWD can’t use any transportation to do this. This requires someone else to do it, and all the coordination that entails, or it requires ignoring the hazard.
  • And so on…..

These are all barriers that define removal as the total responsibility of the person who happens to have the barrier on their property, regardless of property ownership. This is true even when the “trash” is a tree that fell from city property onto private property, as occurred during the ice storm in 2013 in our local area.

The person on the private property was threatened with fines unless she removed it, something that was impossible because of her disability and her poverty. A solution was negotiated to resolve this, but the rules weren’t changed or modified to prevent this wrongful sanctioning in the future.

The proposal in the Age-Friendly workgroup (which I think is a good one) is to make support for such barrier removal a part of an integrated volunteer use system that would cover many neighborhood issues that are infrequent. This idea is one thread of a general proposal to make volunteering and volunteer work easier throughout the range of volunteer activities in the greater Lansing area.

I view such a proposal as a form of Assistive Social Technology (AST) in which community supports provide an ongoing solution to infrequent access issues, along with other neighborhood issues that are infrequent but need resolution.  Potentially, there is both a digital/mobile aspect as well as the more obvious social one to such activity.

Such a “model” is already being done by some local people either through existing social relationships, spontaneous generosity, or deliberate local block organizing to assure that both older people and people with disabilities get support in removal. Rather than create an official program which will not change the low priority given to removal of barriers in a short term emergency, building a volunteer community effort where removal is a part of a general ongoing response to local need is a much better solution.

(I am going to try to develop the idea of AST for a future post.)

Surviving Snow & Ice: PREPARING FOR WINTER

Surviving Snow & Ice: SNOW REMOVAL

Lansing Age-Friendly Plan Website

Disability – Snow and Yard Waste Removal Problems



The Assistive Technology Maker Movement

The ATMakers Logo, a forest green rectangle with imprinted, and a circle with two hands, one palm up and the other a fist with the thumb pointing up. In the background of the circle are tools and circuit boards.
We Can Do For Ourselves


There is a small but growing movement among people with disabilities, engineers, students, families, and others who cherish personal independence and freedom of choice to take access to Assistive Technology (AT) to its next stage.

This is an opportunity for all of us to gain control over the tools we need to support ourselves in truly customized ways. It is just beginning, but this movement to control how we design, create and use AT is something we all need to embrace within our local communities.

About the ATMakers Movement

How does this initiative propose to accomplish an effective collaboration? is an experiment in solving problems in Assistive Technology using the skills and tools of the Maker community.  In short, we’ve seen tools in the Open-Source Hardware and Software community that can be incredibly useful for people with severe physical and cognitive challenges – we’d like to help introduce these communities to each other.

Founded by Bill Binko, co-founder and principal technologist at, we hope to provide descriptions and instructions that allow a community of Makers (for example a high-school robotics club or regulars at a MakerSpace) to build customized technology solutions for Assistive Technology Professionals and individuals whose lives would be enriched by them.

AT Makers sees the solution to access as needing local collaboration between people with science and engineering backgrounds, AT professionals, and users of AT. The immediate outcomes are building relationships between existing stakeholders:

STEM clubs & Robotics Teams

  • Complete service projects with our step-by-step guides
  • Apply your skills where they’re needed today

AT Professionals & Users

  • Find Makers in your area who can help
  • Learn about new technology you need

Makers & Engineers

  • Bring your skills to bear on today’s AT problems
  • Help mentor the next generation of AT Engineers


The Guides that ATMakers have developed involved straightforward projects that can be used to create ongoing collaboration around more sophisticated projects at larger scale. These guides can be found at and include such ideas as:

  • How to get your AT pieces printed when you don’t have a 3D printer
  • Making 3D printed Switches
  • 3D printed Camera Mounts
  • IOS Switch Controls on a budget using  Bluetooth keyboards
  •  An end-to-end video of how to make the Cariboo Adaptation
  • Connecting an AT switch as a PC keyboard for under $20


We don’t have to wait until some large medical manufacturer or medical supply system decides that our AT needs will produce enough revenue to warrant design and production. ATMakers says that we can do much of what we need by working together using community skills and lived experience to actually begin to customize what we need at a reasonable cost.

We have to become more conversant with the latest production and manufacturing technologies, and we have to find the people with the skills to help us make this real. These people are already in our high schools and elsewhere in our communities and they are already interested in taking on challenging new projects that will actually be of use in our community.

Time to reach out, learn together, and build what we need! Helping Makers Help Others