Alexa, lights on. See how Amazon’s Echo Dot is changing lives at United Ability

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United Ability’s Alyssa Scharf, Stacy Fredrick and Rebekah Waldrum working with a communication device and Amazon Echo Dot. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

“Alexa, lights on”

Those three words are life-changing for people who cannot communicate or have mobility issues, according to speech-language pathologists Alyssa Scharf and Rebekah Waldrum at United Ability.

A Simple Discovery

A United Ability communication device and an Amazon Echo Dot. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Last month, both Alyssa and Rebekah tinkered with the idea of programming an Augmentative/Alternative Communication (AAC) device (think Stephen Hawking), used by children and adults at United Ability, to say common commands directed at an Amazon Echo Dot, which carried out the requests.

“We have a number of people who have cerebral palsy or a disorder that may affect motor skills, keeping them from doing simple things like turning a light switch on and off or playing their own music,” described Alyssa. We wondered if Alexa could pick up the synthetic voice of a communication device. Rebekah took one of the communication devices home with her, tested it on her Echo and it worked!”

Alyssa Scharf, Stacy Fredrick and Rebekah Waldrum trying out the Echo Dot. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Meanwhile, they created an “Alexa page” that can be saved on a flash drive and plugged into all of United Ability’s AAC devices. Alyssa and Rebekah have now developed a template so they can customize it for any individual.

The response from the United Ability adults about using Alexa? They are overjoyed.

How does it work?

Bham Now wanted to see firsthand how the communication device and Amazon Echo Dot worked, so we met up with Alyssa and Rebekah to talk about their discovery.

That’s when we met Stacy Fredrick, who uses an AAC device in order to speak, and was one of the first people to benefit from this idea.

“We have programmed an Alexa page into Stacy’s device so she is able to command different things she wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” said Rebekah, beaming with pride.

She added, “For a lot of people in our adult day program, they may not have the dexterity to control certain things in their house, including simple things such as turning on or off a lamp. Something we ALL might take for granted.”

Enabling Stacy to use the Echo Dot, she can now not only turn the lights on and off, but she can also ask about the weather and listen to music.

The possibilities are endless.

Alyssa Scharf, Stacy Fredrick and Rebekah Waldrum trying out the Echo Dot. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Marrying Alexa / Amazon’s Echo Dot with United Ability’s communication devices is all about independence and enriching lives. It only took Stacy one week to learn the commands and use the Echo Dot independently.

“Independence, that’s what we want to move toward,” concluded Alyssa.

First program of its kind

To United Ability’s knowledge, this is the first program of its kind in our community—using the communication devices and Echo Dots together.

For more information or to donate to United Ability’s life changing programs, visit  – www.unitedability.org

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.