Switches & Software - Where to Start

In my first column regarding switches, I said, “SOFTWARE + SWITCHES = ACCESS”. We have discussed access, so now let us turn our attention to software. Switches and computers are useless without software. Let’s start at the very beginning here and work towards complete computer access in the next article.

Switch Interface

To work with switches, computers need an interface device like the Sensory Joycable or Crick USB switch interface. The device links one or two switches to your computer either through the keyboard socket or USB port. A driver software programme is supplied with the interface so that your computer can recognise and use it. Switch interfaces work by converting the on/off action of the switch into an emulated key press, usually the spacebar and enter keys. Most switch software looks for these key presses in the same way that other programmes might look for mouse clicks.


The computer and associated technologies have much to offer the MDVI individual (multiple difficulties with visual impairment) and the PMLD individual (profound and multiple learning difficulties).

Independent control is the desired outcome for any individual, leading them from an understanding of cause and effect, to developing the ability to make choices. However, there is much groundwork to do before this can happen.

What do I mean by the term cause and effect? Simply put, it means helping an individual understand that they can influence and control their immediate environment; that an action on their part can cause a response from people or objects around them.

Firstly, such individuals can use switches to control the environment, like linking switches to toys and electrical equipment such as fans. Secondly, they could use special programmes such as Big Bang, Happy Duck, Switch-It!, Patterns and Pictures, and Touch Balloons to learn about cause and effect. They can also develop their own material in programmes like Clicker, BoardMaker Plus, BoardMaker SD Pro and The Grid, using colourful pictures and PCS symbols. Photographs are widely used in activities and can be added to these programmes as well.

When selecting software, look for bright, noisy programmes with motivating sounds and images which provide the user the opportunity of moving from cause and effect stimuli to making choices, and perhaps also developing hand-eye coordination and timing. For example, recording a verbal greeting onto a BIGmack communicator and having the user press the switch (the action) elicits a response from those around the user (the reaction). This is also the start of developing communication skills.

Once cause and effect has been learnt, most programmes offer a switch-building activity. Here, the user must press the switch several times to get one complete action before a reward is given, such as a picture-build activity in the Switch-It! Series. All switch-building programmes enable you to choose the number of steps the user has to complete before receiving a reward. The key skill here would be learning to complete a sequence. It is vitally important that the user is aware that the screen changes after each press of the switch. The Switch-It! Extra series are great programmes which can be used in therapy and in the classroom.

The next step is to practise switch timing, making sure the press of the switch is appropriate and timely, and lastly, to practise choice making. Programmes suited for young learners are Lets go to the Seaside and Choose and Tell Series. For older individuals, you can consider Easy Games, Megamix and Life Skills 24 Hours a Day.

Cause and effect

Most programmes teach either cause and effect or timing, rarely both. You can initially get curriculum switch software which teaches numeracy and phonics. Again, programmes like Clicker, BoardMaker Plus, BoardMaker SD Pro and The Grid can be programmed to achieve curriculum results.

Switches can also be used with communicators. The communicator will scan, perhaps with a voice preview or a flashing LED light, and a switch can be pressed to activate a picture or symbol to speak a pre-recorded message. Communicators like BIGmack, Traxsys 4scan4, Talara and AMDI Tech series all give the desired result, depending on the level of communicator device used.

Switches can be used together with some access devices to further enhance function. The SmartNav HeadMouse can use a switch to left or right click, and the Traxsys Joystick Plus can use a switch to do the same.

On a higher level, the BoardMaker Plus enables communication programmes to be set up. Interactive stories and curriculum can be programmed for any access. Switches can be used very effectively with a programme like The Grid to access a computer, browse the internet, send SMS messages, listen to a media player, and write text with either word prediction, or pre-defined blocks with prewritten sentences or words.

There is no reason why anyone should not have a voice or access to a writing tool! The only obstacle is the facilitator who does not know what is available, or how to use these properly.

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