Switch Access: an introduction

What is switch access?

Switch access refers to a specialist way of accessing a computer, smartphone, tablet, or communication aid using a simple switch, in the place of the more varied a complex interfaces such as keyboards and touch screens which most people use every day.

What is a switch?

JellyBean AbleNet Switch - commonly used for switch access
AbleNet Jelly Bean Switch

A switch is a simple device that has two states – on and off – just like a light switch. They come in a variety of different shapes and sizes and are operated in different ways. Often this is through a push motion but you can also buy switches that you grasp, pull, sip, puff or even blink to activate. The most common type of switch is the buddy button or jelly bean switch (pictured). You can check out a selection of switches and some video examples of them in use.

Who uses switches?

Switches are used by people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Switches are used by people who have a degree of physical impairments that means that they are unable to access a keyboard or any type of pointer control. Sometimes a single switch is used, or sometimes a combination of multiple switches working together. Such set-ups are used by people with motor neurone disease (MND/ALS), cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and so forth. Switches are also suitable for people with intellectual disabilities as they are a simple method of accessing games and other activities.

Accessing computers, smartphones and tablets

Primary Switch Access

Primary Access Switching involves the use of a switch to operate a computer, communication aid, environmental control or a wheelchair. In Primary Access Switching, the user relies entirely on a switch or a combination of switches to control this device. Use of switches ranges from single-switch ‘hit-and-happen’ games for early users and those with severe cognitive difficulties, up to multiple-switch ‘scanning’ for those who want to use a computer to write emails, documents, surf the Internet, and for AAC. Modern Apple Mac computers have switch access built-in to the system, which works to a lesser or greater extent. Microsft Windows users will need to invest in software such as The Grid which can control the computer using a switch. Both the iOS (Apple iPads etc.) and Android platforms have switch access built-in and ready to go, although the iOS option is far more sophisticated.

Supplementary Switch Access

In some circumstances, a switch plays a supplemental role in the overall access solution. The most common example is when a switch is used to replace the left mouse button of a mouse or mouse alternative. This can be a very efficient solution for an individual who is able to move the pointer around the screen but not hold it steady while they press the button. I have a produced a short animated demonstration (I made this in 2000 so you won’t be surprised to hear that it requires Flash).

Connecting a switch to your computer

You usually can’t plug a switch directly into a computer, tablet or smartphone without a switch interface device. For supplementary access, many specialist rollerballs and joysticks have sockets for switches. in any case you can use a switch interface to emulate a mouse click if needed.

Case Studies

Follow this link to read case studies for switch access.

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