Tips for Using the Latest Tech Gadgets if You’re Physically Challenged

Impairments in the body’s functions and structure, as well as the limitations in activities caused by those impairments, have historically placed disabled people at often insurmountable disadvantages.

Reader Fred Cheshire, who’s a C5/6 quadriplegic, asked how to use tablets and mobile phones when you have no finger control.

The good news is that user interface forms have been developed for these types of devices that can allow a person with a disability to interact with them just as well as someone without a disability — and at an unprecedented low cost.

The solution is often very affordable and obtainable, even without insurance. After a person gets help from a friend to do the research and implement the initial setup, the solution itself is often usable without further assistance.

Scope of the Challenge

You may need a buddy to help you with this step. First, determine the scope of the physical challenge. This is often split into two areas — physical disability and sensory disability. Physical disability can include limb function and more, and sensory disability can include visual or hearing impairment.

Make a note of the challenges you have faced interacting with devices in the past. For example, a person like Fred, with a spinal cord injury, may have issues with finger control that inhibits all use of devices.

Hardware Options

Consider the hardware. If weight is an issue, choose a smaller-screened device. A smartphone is lighter than a tablet. The 7-inch Android tablets often weigh around a pound. The original iPad with its big screen is heavy, but the newer iPad 2 is significantly lighter.

Larger size may be an advantage, though. It’s easier to read if you have more screen real estate available. A larger screen is also more forgiving of imprecise finger touches, and a bigger device gives you more to grip.

In terms of sound, many of the devices can be of surprisingly quiet. Pick up a rechargeable external speaker that plugs into the 3.5mm headphone jack if you encounter issues hearing the output. You can get amplified mini-speakers for around twenty bucks at consumer electronics stores.

Sensory Disabilities

Perform a search in the two major app markets — Apple’s App Store or the Android Market — depending on your device. If your device uses the Android system, you can perform a Web-based search without further ado. If you have an Apple-branded device, you will need to download iTunes software onto a computer and then perform a search.

Look for Code Factory, which makes blind accessibility apps that provide touch navigation — you move your finger around the screen, and the voice synthesis reads the text under your finger.

Experiment with other apps for other sensory disabilities. Check out SKC Interpret Lite, which is designed to make communications between the deaf and the hearing easy. The person who can hear speaks into the phone or tablet’s microphone, and the SKC app transcribes the words into text for the deaf user to read.

Physical Disabilities

Take a look at Tecla Access for Android. It’s a set of open software and hardware tools being developed by the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation that lets you control your phone or tablet from your wheelchair controls, or other external switches.

You send a command from the chair, the interface receives the command, and it controls the phone or tablet just as if you were swiping or stabbing at it with a finger. It’s not for the non-technically inclined, but could make a good project for you, or an au fait buddy.

Malamber’s Screen Saver, also available in the Android Market, lets you turn off Android screens with a touch of the screen, rather than with the fiddly hardware button.

Voice Actions from Pannous, also in the Android market, lets you control your phone through speech commands. For example, you can ask it to set alarms and reminders, control WiFi, volume and more.

Siri, which comes with the new iPhone 4S, provides similar voice control functionality.

Simpler solutions? Look for settings functions on existing apps that allow you to make accessibility changes. For example, many news apps let you change the size of the font, and that may be all you need.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech you’d like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that’s got you confounded?

Please send your tech questions to me, and I’ll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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