An alternative mouse or keyboard can transform access to a computer, a change in settings can improve access to a tablet. Often individuals require a combination of hardware and software to make sure their computer or tablet enables their learning rather than becoming a barrier.
The touchscreens on phones and tablets are now one of the primary ways learners interact with technology. Accessing touchscreens can be an issue for some people but there are a few ways to improve this.
Make sure that the tablet is positioned at an appropriate angle and height. Often placing the tablet on a table, lap tray or wheelchair tray is more stable than holding the tablet. For some people it can be tricky to get the tablet in the correct position for access and still be able to see the screen. At all times check with the user if they are comfortable and if possible seek the advice of an Occupational Therapist to ensure no strains or injuries are being caused by the positioning.
There are probably as many types of stand and cases as there are types of tablet. For positioning on a table or tray it is important to find the solution which places the tablet at the right angle. Too shallow and it will be hard to see and reflect overhead lights. Too steep and it may be tiring to operate as the user will have to keep their arm in the air.
A wide range of mountings is available to clamp the tablet to a table or chair. These will be dependent on model of tablet. A good multipurpose solution is the adjustable tablet cradle made by RAM Mounts (pictured) which will hold an iPad even if it is in a rugged case. Another option is the Flexzi 3 mount from Meru which comes with its own case.
Within operating systems settings can be changed to make touch more accessible. Each devices deals with the settings differently and there is an overview below. For a full run down of the accessibility setting for specific versions of operating systems see the My Computer My Way website.
For Apple devices such as iPads and iPhones go to Settings then General then Accessibility.
Under Touch Accommodations you can change the length of time required for a touch to be registered and ignore repeat presses. These are very useful for people who have a tremor. You can also choose to have the touch recognised when the user lifts off, in case they need to drag across the screen to get to the item they want to select.
The Assistive Touch settings will place a white circle in a black box in the corner of the screen. Touching this circle gives a range of options which can be accessed with one touch rather than multiple e.g. for double-tap or the pinch gesture. It can also be used to do things like take a screen shot which normally requires holding home and power buttons simultaneously or for an undo command which requires the whole device to be shaken.
Accessiblity settings in Android vary between versions, but from version 7.0 (Nougat) upwards you can go to Settings then Accessibility and change the Touch and Hold Delay. NOTE: this is not a global setting for any touch, it just changes the delay between standard touch and touch and hold e.g. for when an icon is dragged around the home screen.
Android does have the capability for any mouse to be plugged in and use this rather than touching the screen. A USB adaptor will be required, or a Bluetooth mouse can be used. The mouse cursor size can be adjusted and a dwell click feature can be activated.
Windows 10 has a Tablet mode which should make the touchscreen more usable. A back button appears in the taskbar on the bottom left so you can jump back to a previous app. Various gestures also become usable. Turn Tablet Mode on or off by clicking in the bottom right corner of the screen and selecting Tablet Mode. You can’t turn this mode on if you have an external keyboard or monitor plugged in. For details on the gestures see the Microsoft guide to tablet mode.
Alternatives to the standard mouse are can serve a dual purpose. For some learners they are a physical aide, for others they may cognitively more straightforward than a standard mouse. Either way learners should be given opportunity to use one if required.
Before changing the hardware though, make sure to experiment with the mouse settings to see if this makes a difference. The mouse pointer can be enlarged and slowed down. The double-click speed can be adjusted, or click lock turned on for user who struggle with dragging. All of these can be adjusted found in the Ease of Access Centre in Windows, or Accessiblity settings on a Mac. For a full run down for your operating system see the My Computer My Way website.
Rollerballs can be moved with fingers or a whole hand and the size is critical to the user. The speed of the mouse pointer will also need to be slowed (see above) or rollerballs can be far too sensitive. It is important that this is done before first introducing the rollerball to a learner or they may have a bad experience. Some rollerballs have the facility to vary the speed of the pointer by pressing a button built into the rollerball.
Trackpads are generally useful for people who use their fine motor skills and therefore may not be able to use a standard mouse. They are the same as the trackpad on a laptop, but standalone and lug in via USB. These are easy to assess for by asking a learner to try one on a laptop. However the stand alone version have several advantages: They can be positioned away form the keyboard, they can be positioned at an angle or even strapped to someone’s leg. Many version also come with programmable buttons which can be assigned to open a specific application or double click.
Joysticks can be required by people who may cannot easily make lots of small repeated movements. As with rollerballs the speed of the pointer must be adjusted to suit and some joysticks have this functionality built in. Many users may not be able to remove their hand from the joystick easily to be able to click so an external switch can be attached. This switch can activate the click with another hand, knee, foot or head. Advice should be sought from an Occupational Therapist if the individual is using for long periods of time or if the set-up is complex.
There are multiple suppliers of these devices, but look for a company which has a returns policy so that the device can be refunded or replaced if it is not suitable for the user.
Highly Specialist Pointing Devices
For highly specialist access devices such as those below it is recommended that expert help is sought for example from one of TechAbility’s Centres of Excellence, or a local assistive technology assessment service.
Headpointers are rapidly being replaced by eyegaze, but they are still the best solution for many. A reflective dot is placed on the forehead of the user and a camera device sits on top of the screen to pick up the dot and direct the mouse pointer. Clicks are achieved by dwelling or by using a switch.
Eyegaze is controlled by looking at the point on the screen on which you would like to click. Additional software to zoom in on an area is required as the pointer cannot be controlled accurately, without assistance from software. Several eyegaze systems are available from companies including Tobii Dynavox, Alea, LC and EyeTech. This technology can be truly transformative for some users giving access to technology and communication at a speed which was never before possible.
Switches are very simple devices, but can be incredibly complex to setup. They are single contact switches (hold for on, let go for off), but can be configured to access computers, tablets and communication devices by using scanning systems. Some people use more than one switch if they are able to access them. To demonstrate what is possible with switches, Stephen Hawking produced his work and his speech output all via a single switch.
As with mice before trying alternative hardware check that the issue cannot be overcome by adjusting the accessibility settings. Among other things it is possible to slow down the key repeat, lengthen the time a key needs to be pressed and have keys like shift and control ‘held’ down if this is not possible for the user.
Though there are multiple configurations of alternative keyboards, if the issue is that the user cannot see the letters on the keys, it may be that they require clearer, bolder lettering rather than larger keys. Many keyboards are available which have yellow letters on a black background, or black on white, or black on yellow. This better contrast and large lettering often meets a user’s requirements. This is not true just for people with a visual impairment, but for people with other print impairments such as dyslexia.
Many larger keyboards are available which have keys approximately twice the size of a standard keyboard. The keyboard doesn’t take up much more desk space though as the number pad has been removed. These keyboards are available in a range of colours and can be useful for people with a visual or physical impairment. The colour combination will be a preference of the user. Occasionally the ones which look ‘young’ because they have multiple bright colours can serve to break up the keyboard visually, so adults may still prefer them.
Compact keyboards have keys the same size as a standard keyboard, but a smaller footprint. This is espescially useful for people who use their keyboard on a wheelchair tray. They then have space for a mouse or other pointing device.
Keyboards with tiny keys such as the Ultra Compact Keyboard can be an option for one-handed typists though teaching a one handed typing scheme should definitely be considered alongside or instead of alternative hardware.
Software Support for Typing
Often just changing the hardware is not the full answer. Software such as word prediction, spellcheckers, grammar checkers and alternative methods of text input need be used alongside the hardware. For more details on these see our guide: I want help to write text
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