What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Switches - What are they and How do I use them?

Switches - What are they and How do I use them?

Switches are at the core of access technology. What can appear to some as simply a "button" can open worlds of access to communication devices, environmental controls, computer software, and mobile devices.  A simple definition of a standard switch is that it is an electromechanical device that is used to activate or deactivate an electrical signal by opening or closing a contact. There are a variety of types of switches. Switches make activities easier and are ideal for people who struggle with motor control issues. Switches can help with sequential message communication, environmental control, and computer functions. There are many different types of switches including sensitive, large button, small button, sip/puff, and foot switches. Some switches can be plugged directly into the computer but most are used in conjunction with a switch interface.

Depressing or activating the momentary contact switch closes the electrical circuit and activates the equipment that the switch is connected to via the 3.5 mm plug. A single switch can be connected to a range of equipment or technology. These clever little devices help to adapt a huge range of equipment for individuals with disabilities to enable them to engage and participate in activities.  They have control over their environment that they might otherwise not be able to achieve without the switch in place.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of different kinds of switches available, (for visuals and links for switch instruction, visit my Pinterest site, "Switch Access") from the tiniest mechanical switches and electronic equipment, all the way up to enormous switches used in mess of equipment and machinery. In addition there are also many different types of switches, such as mechanical, infrared, electromagnetic, hydraulic, temperature, touch sensitive, proximity; just to name a few. There are many uniquely designed switches which can be ingeniously used to enable a severely disabled person to do things which would not be possible without the switch interface and appropriate application.

Custom Solutions has one of the best guides for providing information about switches. It is broken down into several categories, including: What are switches, Why use Switches, Assessment, Control sites, Types of Switches, Framework for Training, and Curriculum Modification.

AbleNet, provider of the popular Jelly Bean, BIGmack and oh, so more, has a wonderful guide called: "Great Ideas and EASY SETUP Instructions for the BIGmack communicator and LITTLEmack communicator. If you use these switches at all, this is a must have! It will help walk you through set-up, advance features, ideas for use... 

When an appropriate switch is selected for the child, it will provide access to opportunities that would previously have been denied. The use of a switch will enable the child to turn something on or off, become mobile, communicate and even play with cause and effect toys. The switch will provide a type of access the rest of us usually take for granted. The first time you see a switch being used successfully, you will need no more convincing. Simply put, a switch is a tool for access.

Some ways that switches are used:
  1. Communication - Some students who use an electronic communication device also depend on an adaptive switch to operate the device. In some cases the switch is used to scan through message options. Other students may use switches that are recordable with single and multiple messages. Most  communication devices are switch accessible if a student is unable to access the device directly.
  2. Computer Access - An adaptive switch interface is needed to connect the switch to the computer. Students who are unable use keyboard or mouse devices may need to use an adaptive switch for computer input. This may be for a simple cause and effect type of program access or students may use a scanning method  for entering text and commands. 
  3. Inclusion in Educational and Leisure Activities - Adaptive switches can be used to enable students with physical disabilities to actively participate in activities where they otherwise would be passive observers. For example, a switch operated game spinner permits all students to participate in many board games. Furthermore, when combined with an AC control unit, adaptive switches can provide access to small appliances in the home economics class, science lab or shop.
  4. Accessing Toys - Play is a critical component of childhood. Children with disabilities may have difficulty interacting with objects and people due to the barriers that their disabilities present.  Because these young children may be restricted in the ways they play, communicate, and move, innovative ideas must be found that promote new ways of playing and participating in daily activities. Assistive Technology (AT) has been used to provide new opportunities for children with disabilities to interact with and control their environment.  One way we have found is to connect an adapter and a switch to a simple battery-operated toy --this provides a way for a child to make the toy go independently.  It can also help the child to participate in playing with other kids, their brothers and their sisters.  
Common Vocabulary used when working with Switches:
  1. Switch Interfaces are needed in order to use a switch as an input device with a computer. 
  2. Battery Interrupters allow you to use any of our switches with battery operated unadapted toys or devices. The Battery Interrupter is easy to install. Works with most battery operated devices that have an on/off switch. (This link shows you how to make this adaptation.) (See Kate Ahern's site for 60 ways to use a switch with a battery interrupter.) 
  3. Switch Mounts - The effectiveness of a switch is often dependent on the positioning and mounting of the switch. A poorly mounted switch, can in some cases, make it inaccessible or cause excessive strain for the user. There are many mounts on the market. 
  4. Switch Scanning is often used for accessing communication devices and/or computers.
Switch Resources:
  • AbilityNet provides a wonderful visual of a variety of switches in the industry.
  • AbleNet provides a guide for how to use switches with the Apple iOS 7 iPads. Jumpstart Blog also has a guide worth exploring.
  • Ian Bean provides free downloads of switch and touch-screen games and activities. Most of these are simple cause and effect activities you can use with a switch or touch screen.Be sure to look at his resources.
  • Internet for Classrooms has some sites listed for learning to use a mouse. Some of these work well with switches also. LowIncidence AT Resources offers  sites to access downloadable activities, Cause & Effect, Single Switch, and Scanning Access Methods.
  • OneSwitch provides an Ideas section full of inspiration and ideas for using a switch including switch video games, art activities, accessible music and information. A site worth exploring.
  • The Pacer Center has a great article "Switch Activities Promote Classroom Inclusion"
  • Plano provides switch activities for the classroom.
  • Priory Woods provides videos can be played online or downloaded for use on a PC or Macintosh computer.
  • SET  Building Skills of the Switch User - Kelly Fonner provides an overview of the use of switches and scanning for participation and interaction, explaining the assessment process and considerations for implementation. She demonstrates a number of software programs that are useful for teaching switch and scanning skills, as well as learning software with built-in switch access.
  • Sqworl has a wonderful list of activities and games that can be used with switches broken down into wonderful categories based on needs.
  • James Grayston provides a video review of the Switch Progression Road Map download which is available from Inclusive Technology
  • An area that is really expanding is switch access to iDevices. Teaching Learners with Multiple Needs has a great listing.
  • Jane Farrall shows us a step-by-step process for using a switch with the iPad (OS 7). 
  • Utah Parent Center provides information about Switch Activities Promote Classroom Inclusion for Young Students.

By the way, yes, Stephen Hawking uses a switch. Switches are meant for many people with many different access and communication needs.