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 even some mobile devices. There are a variety of types of switches. Switches make activities easier and are ideal for people who struggle with motor control issues be more independent. Switches can help control such things as sequential message communication, environmental control, and computer functions, to name a few.There are many different types of switches including large button, small button, sip/puff, foot switches, face movement and even movement sensor switches. Some switches can be plugged directly into the computer or you might use a switch interface there are power interrupters that can help with access to things you plug in and there are even wireless switches.

A single switch can be connected to a range of equipment or technology. These amazing little devices, that seem so simplistic, 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.Mechanically speaking, switches themselves are very simple tools. Switches are devices that complete an electrical circuit in order to activate another powered device such as lights, toys, a radio.
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"). There are many uniquely designed switches which can be used to enable a person to do things which would not be possible without the switch system being put in place.

"The Switch Progression Road Map" by Ian Bean is the best switch guide available and it is free. This is a must have if you are ever working with switches.

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, however teaching a student with a significant disability how to use and independently initiate switch use can be a challenge.

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.  
When considering which switch to use, it is important to really consider both the positioning of the switch and the positioning of the person using the switch in order to experience maximum control over the switch.

  1. Consider the seating and positioning of the student.
  2. Think about where the student has the best control of their body. Switches can be placed in a variety of positions, such as the head, foot, knee, etc.
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.

  • Beyond Cause and Effect- I love this slideshow! It really helps us to understand the purpose of using a switch beyond just hit and get a reward!
  • 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.
  • Linda Burkhart has provided us with a nice guide of how to teach one-step to two-step scanning. Check out: Stepping Stones To Switch Access (Two Switch Step Scanning).

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