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Lighthouse Center shines light for independent living

Although it now goes by a different name, Duluth's Lighthouse Center continues to shine a light for those looking for help to live independently.

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Scott Coleman talks with visitors in his Morgan Park house as the light shade in the background lowers in response to a voice command from him. The Lighthouse Center for Vital Living, formerly the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss, is working with people challenged by disabilities, vision loss and aging to live independently through coaching, training, occupational therapy, and technology such as voice-commanded devices. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Scott Coleman can literally have more light in his life. Until about a month ago, the Morgan Park neighborhood resident would have to either ask for assistance opening and closing his curtains and roller shade or use a pole to make the attempt himself. Being quadriplegic, this task wasn't easy to complete from his wheelchair.

Today all he has to do is call on his Amazon Alexa.

"Alexa, move roller shade down," he said.

"OK," Alexa replied and down his shade closed.

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The Lighthouse Center for Vital Living worked with Scott Coleman so that he can control a number of devices in his house by talking with an Alexa device (foreground). (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"It has made my life so much easier," Coleman said. "I can't even explain how much easier it is."

That's not the only thing that's easier for Coleman to access. He can now adjust the thermostat, turn the lights on and off, fill a cup with water, control the TV and open and close the front door simply by using his voice.

"The automatic door is probably the biggest helper," he said. "Backing up while pulling on the door was really difficult to do. And then there was a chance that I'd do something like drop my keys while trying to get back in. Even if I didn't drop them, fiddling with a door lock in -20 from my chair was not something I wanted to do."

Looking for an automatic door was the impetus for all of the new voice-activated environmental controls installed in Coleman's home over the past month. He reached out to Technology for Home, a Twin Cities-based program that provides assessments and training for people needing assistive technology. And the program worked with Duluth-based Lighthouse for Vital Living to set up and maintain Coleman's environmental controls.

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Scott Coleman gets a mug of water after telling Alexa to have the kitchen faucet dispense one cup of water. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"I wouldn't have known to reach out to the Lighthouse if it weren't for the Tech for Home people," Coleman said. "I'd always thought of them as Lighthouse for Vision Loss, which I didn't have. But it's nice that they've expanded out to help more with technology."

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Mary Junnila, executive director of the Lighthouse, understands Coleman's confusion. Until November 2020, the nonprofit was named "The Lighthouse for Vision Loss," although Junnila said their mission had expanded to serve people of all ages and disabilities over a number of years.

"We've been easing into the change over several years," Junnila said. "But it was to the point where it was time to change because it was confusing people. People didn't think to send referrals to us because the person didn't have vision loss. So we finally took the plunge and adopted a new name that aligns with our mission."

Connecting people to technology that improves their lives was something that Junnila said the center always focused on, but now they've grown.

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Lydia Ezell watches as Scott Coleman demonstrates how his front door opens at his command. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"A lot of the technology we utilize is not specific to people with vision loss, so as we've expanded further, it only makes sense to share that knowledge with more and more people," Junnila said. "We have a new grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which is specifically focused on helping older adults age well in place by tapping into the power of technology."

Focusing on helping older adults with technology has been important for the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Junnila said they've helped teach older adults to use the video conferencing service Zoom to connect with their loved ones while remaining socially distanced. On the other end of the age spectrum, the center has run remote learning camps online for teens dealing with vision loss. These classes focused on everything from taekwondo to adapting to online learning.

Junnila also stressed that they do continue to offer services that they've become known for such as helping people with vision loss and providing access to the state of Minnesota's Radio Talking Book — now available online, rather than a live closed-circuit broadcast. The center continues to need volunteers to do things such as read a local newspaper aloud for people with vision loss.

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An Open Sesame device opens the front door of Scott Coleman’s home at his voice command. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"Basically, if you're somebody who is challenged to live independently, we can help," Junnila said. "It doesn't matter your age or disability or other challenge. We have a variety of professionals with a wide array of expertise. The idea is to help older adults age well in place and help younger adults achieve independence and live vital lives. We're all about helping people access the life that they want."

This includes connecting people to other partner agencies such as Tech for Home or the Arrowhead Agency on Aging to accomplish the client's goals. They also help connect clients to funding resources to help pay for modifications such as Coleman's environmental controls. Grants from the Minnesota Department of Human Services helped cover the costs of the work.

As for Coleman, he's happy with the changes made to his home.

"I just wanted it out there that all this technology has improved my life and let people know that it's available," he said. "And it didn't take very much for them to install it and get it up and running. But what a difference it's made."

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Scott Coleman

Related Topics: NONPROFITSDULUTHTECHNOLOGY
Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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