Handicapped #usecase

This one feels a little off-topic when thinking “sanctuary,” but it does go toward motivations and theme.

I have a son with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Duchenne’s is a genetic, neuromuscular disorder characterized by “muscle wasting.” He was diagnosed at age seven, and by age ten he was wheelchair-bound.

My son doesn’t get out too much. Part of that is logistics and part of that is “creature comforts:” the boy is surrounded by all of his needs at home, including computers, tablets, game systems, and so forth. Given email, Facebook chat, Google Hangouts, Skype, and everything else, he can reach the rest of the world when he’s so inclined. The one item he does not have is a cellphone. From my point of view, those things are crazy expensive, particularly given a kid who is not fond of leaving the house! Plus, when he is out & about, he’s generally with family members who have their own cellphones to stay in touch.

That did leave three holes, though:

  1. He was missing out on having his own private telephone number for chats with friends;
  2. He did not have ordinary text messaging normally associated with cellphones; and,
  3. He did not have an immediate way to get in touch with us if he needed us — and vice versa. That meant someone else always had to be in earshot of him and not so over-tired as to sleep through his calling out.

The solution I settled on was to install an office VoIP phone system in our house — one I installed myself.

That sounds daunting, and, like most things, it is or it isn’t depending on your skills and experience. When deploying a system for a business with guaranteed uptime and call quality, large numbers of desk phones and tabletop polycomms, and so forth, there can be a significant effort. For a small deployment in your house, it’s much more manageable. In our case, I run an instance of FreePBX in a virtual machine on my network. There is a separate VLAN for all phone traffic, servicing a few SIP desk phones as well as a small base station handling cordless DECT phones. One of those DECT phones sits next to my son. I have a handful of SIP telephone numbers for different projects, and one of those numbers is assigned to my son’s phone. He can make and receive calls with family and friends like anyone else, and like others his unanswered calls go to his own voicemail.

Inside the house, we have our own easy-to-dial extensions that don’t leave the house — that is unless he can’t reach us. For instance, my extension rings at my desk and my DECT phone; if I don’t answer, he can leave a message or press a button to try my cellphone. My daughter has a “virtual extension” so when my son dials that extension, it forwards directly to my daughter’s cellphone. And, just in case, there’s even one extension that rings us all in a ring group.

Similarly, we can call him with a hard-to-ignore ringing.

In addition to the physical phones, naturally there are free softphone clients that run on dekstops / laptops on the network. When away, they run surprisingly fine through a VPN.

There is of course no cost for calls inside the system; calls that leave cost around maybe $0.01 per minute — negligible for a kid who doesn’t chat much, and nearly free when compared with the cost of a cellphone for the same.

Text messaging and MMS (texts with pictures) was another story. For that, the VoIP provider provides an API for your software. It’s been an adventure, but I did write some software and now I do have in-house software running allowing us live texting inbound and oubound through a web browser. It’s a start!

Overall, this project had an immediate and profound impact on the entire family’s dynamic and outperformed other solutions such as Amazon Alexa’s “drop in” feature. How could it help other handicapped folks? The elderly? The physically separated? Imagination is the only limit.

The moral of the story? A lot of the work we do for commercial clients can be repurposed to help folks in need. You don’t have to be a charity to help: Charge a commercial client one dollar more if you have to; spend it doing the same work for people in need.

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