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A switch is a device for simulating mouse and / or keyboard actions for users who are unable to use standard mice or keyboards. A mouse button can be regarded as a switch, as can a single key on a keyboard.

In the context of access, a switch can be used by a person with severe and complex disabilities to help them interact with a computer or tablet device. A switch, coupled with appropriate software and hardware, can also be used to control an individual's environment (environmental control), e.g. close and open curtains, turn a TV on and off etc.

An individual can use a switch to:

  • Operate a toy to help develop an understanding of ‘cause and effect'.
  • Access a communication aid or control their computer.
  • Control devices at home in conjunction with an environmental control system.

Choosing switches

Switches are available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are operated by contact (touching, pressing, squeezing, etc.); others don't require physical contact, but can be activated by movement or sound.

  1. Button switches (rounded, circular)
  2. Pal Pad switches (square, flat)

Some switches are also specialised:

  1. IntegraMouse Plus' (mouth control)
  2. proximity sensor' (no pressure required)
  3. Wobble Switch (can be used by different parts of the body)
  4. Track-IT (simulate mouse movements and mouse clicks)


Issues to consider

Choosing a switch to suit the individual needs of a learner is not always straight forward.

Some issues to considering successful switch use include:

  • Motivation
  • Suitable activities
  • Sufficient time for practice
  • Lots of encouragement
  • The position of a switch
  • The type of switch

Operating a switch

Switches can be operated by the user using their:

  • head,
  • arm or hand,
  • knee or foot,
  • eye-blink, etc.

It is important to have a proper assessment to determine the most suitable type of switch and the best access method. Our Equipment Loan Bank has a wide range of switches available for evaluation loans for up to two months.


Cause and Effect

A single switch can be used for 'Cause and Effect', i.e. the user presses or hits the switch and something happens on screen.

Cause and effect, whether it is a switch connected to an engaging, singing toy or to a computer game with bright colourful and, noisy animations, can be the beginning of teaching important learning skills such as:

  • Looking;
  • Listening;
  • Choosing;
  • Responding;
  • Identifying;
  • Choosing;
  • Targeting;
  • Timing;
  • Turn taking.

The main objective is to ‘make something happen’. This can help to promote an understanding between the ‘action’ and ‘reaction’ of pressing a switch, providing a foundation for early learning.

For example, cause and effect via switch access gives someone control over a toy or a computer (possibly for the first time) to make them an active participant instead of simply passively watching.

Cause and effect can increase confidence and as learning progresses other skills can gradually be incorporated such as:

  • Pressing and holding the switch
  • Pressing and letting go (some switch adapted toys only stop ‘performing’ when the switch is released
  • Pressing a second time (sometimes the reaction on screen can differ from the first press)
  • Turning on and off (a cause and effect activity could be turning on music or a video and then pausing or stopping it playing)

See Ian Bean's Switch Progression Roadmap for more practical advice on using switches.

Switches and Scanning

Switch scanning is an advanced selection technique to help navigate, identify and target selected items.

Switch scanning should be seen as a progression as it requires time to develop both cognitive and physical skills to successfully achieve accurate switch scanning.

Types of switch scanning

  • Single-switch scanning - using an ‘indicator' or ‘highlight' to move through items on a computer or tablet one at a time, sometimes referred to as ‘step scanning' When the desired item is highlighted the user activates the switch.
  • Two-switch scanning - similar to single switch scanning but with two switches, e.g. one to activate the cursor and one to select the item.
  • Row-column scanning - the cursor moves or scans by row then by column.

Switch timings

As well as the various switch scanning methods, consideration should also be given to switch timing, e.g. the amount of time a scan takes to move through each item in relation to the user's cognitive, physical ability.

  • Scan time - the time it takes to move from one item to another and time it takes to identify and activate the chosen item.
  • Initial scan time - some users may require a ‘delay' before each scanning session.
  • Scan pause - some users may need to pause and think about each stage of the scan.
  • Dwell time - the amount of time to choose and select an item.
  • Repeat delay - the amount of time the switch is held down for before the repeat starts, e.g. if a user misses the item or makes a mistake and need to repeat the scan.
  • Acceptance time - the amount of time a switch should be held down for before it selects an item i.e. if a user accidentally hits the switch.

For more information on switch scanning and timing see:

It is important to have an assessment carried out by an AAC specialist to ensure that a suitable scanning method is chosen.



Using switches with a computer or tablet device

What does a switch interface do?

The first point to remember is that you can't plug a switch directly into a computer or a tablet - you need a switch interface (sometimes referred to as a switch box).

A switch interface allows the user to:

  • Emulate basic keyboard presses, such as 'space' or 'enter' when a switch is pressed.
  • A switch box can also be used to replicate a single mouse or button click when a switch is pressed.

How do I connect a switch interface to my computer?

Switch interfaces have traditionally connected to a computer via USB. While some will only work on a Windows computer, others, such as the Don Johnston Pro can also be used with Macs and even Chromebooks. With the development of wireless and Bluetooth, switches can also be connected wirelessly.

  • When a switch is successfully connected, the switch interface will register the connection and a light or software indicator will register when the switch is pressed.
  • It is good practise to save the switch settings - while some switch boxes feature an automatic save settings others require the settings to be saved manually.

What kinds of switch interface are there?


Using switches on tablets

Switch access on a tablet works in a similar way to a computer, using a Bluetooth interface. Unlike traditional ‘wired' switch interfaces, a Bluetooth switch combines both the interface and switch buttons,

for example:

Simplifying switch access on the iPad - a comprehensive guide by Ablenet on using switch control recipes.


Using switches with a communication aid

Most communication aids can be set up for use with one or two switches.

  • A person using two switches can use one switch to scan through items on a display and then use the other switch to select the desired location.
  • A single switch user has to rely on the communication aid to scan through locations and then use their switch to select the target.

Using switches with toys and household devices

Switch operated toys have a valuable role to play in introducing the concept of ‘cause and effect', (i.e. press the switch and something nice will happen) or learning about turn-taking, to young children.

Types of switch adapted toys include:

  • Turn taking,
  • Mp3 players,
  • Selection of animals - a singing shark, Elephant, ‘peek-a-boo',
  • Tractors, train sets,
  • Bubble machines,
  • Popular children's characters; Fireman Sam, Minions,
  • Toy versions of household goods such as hoovers and washing machines.

A number of suitable toys can be purchased from:

Many simple battery-operated toys can be adapted for use with a switch by using a Battery Adaptor, available from Inclusive for £9.00.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of battery-operated toys are now ‘multi-function', with the toy performing a number of different actions, and are more difficult to adapt.

Household devices

It is also possible to use a switch in conjunction with an Ablenet PowerLink  (including a timer) or similar device to operate mains devices:

  • a fan,
  • a light,
  • a TV or Radio.

All of which can be motivating for people starting to use a switch.


Switch scanning software

There is a wide range of software available for switch users, ranging from cause and effect programs for young children, e.g. the SwitchIt! programs, through programs that support writing activities, e.g. Clicker, to programs that can provide full access to the computer, e.g. The Grid 3.

They include:

  • Inclusive Technology - provide a family of switch activities for all ages and abilities - Big Bang, Choices and Counting, Switchit Series, Switch Skills, Target and Touch.
  • Inclusive iPad and Android Apps - motivational, switch accessible apps.
  • Doorway Online - many of the activities are switch accessible.
  • Clicker 7 - literacy support with built-in switch access.
  • The Grid 3 - accessible apps (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook) and computer control via a switch.
  • TherapyBox - range of communication and literacy apps.

Free switch games:

  • Specialbites - huge selection of free switch games including online switch games.
  • Do2Learn - learning games to help develop motor and social skills.
  • OneSwitch - free accessible games designed to work with one switch.
  • SENICT Software - Ian Bean's SEN ITC games.

Further Information