Tim Cook began Apple’s latest product unveiling with a video narrated by a disabled woman using a Mac with the help of an assistive device — a switch that she could bump with the side of her head. Her name is Sady Paulson, and the message couldn’t have been clearer: With the right technology, even people with almost no control over their bodies can interact with the world and harness their own creativity in ways that were previously impossible.
Wireless freedom for disabled people
The video was upbeat and inspirational, meant to affirm Apple’s commitment to accessibility. But what it didn’t show was the struggle those like Paulson have when it comes to controlling a multitude of devices. That head-triggered switch might be her only means of controlling her wheelchair, computer, or phone or tablet. If it’s hardwired into one of these devices, how can it control the others?
This is the problem that Mauricio Meza, co-founder of Toronto’s Komodo OpenLab, is tackling with the $350 Tecla Shield, a Bluetooth gateway that conveys switch commands to any compatible computer, phone, or tablet. With the help of a caregiver, the user simply plugs the assistive device into the Tecla Shield — it has two ports for switch devices and one for wheelchair control — and then pairs the Tecla Shield with the target computer or tablet. Depending on a user’s disability, they might want to use a single-click button with their hand, a head-triggered button as in the Apple video, a joystick, or any number of other devices purpose-built for these interactions.
“Driving a wheelchair [using these inputs] is like second-nature,” Meza told Digital Trends, “so there’s almost no learning curve.” The Tecla Shield supports up to six switches at once, and each can trigger two types of actions: short and long presses. If a joystick is used, each of the four directions represents a switch, leaving room for two additional actions. For some, this is a good option, and navigating iOS is straightforward if not quite as convenient as using finger taps and gestures. But many do not possess this freedom of movement, or prefer to use a simpler input.
The Tecla Shield isn’t the first device that connects assistive switches to computers via Bluetooth; the $185 Blue2 Bluetooth Switch combines a physical switch with inputs for two more switches and Bluetooth, for example. But so far it’s the only one that gives wheelchair users the option of using their existing wheelchair control device, whether it’s a joystick, sip-and-puff controller, or any other kind of control.
Neil Mercer, for example, is a disabled wheelchair user with very limited movement in his hands. Mercer has a joystick for wheelchair control but opts to control his Tecla Shield-enabled iPhone using a small, button-style switch. Apple has designed iOS with an ingenious system for switch-based navigation that involves targeting desired icons with a set of horizontally and vertically sliding bars: You click the button once each time a bar lines up with the row and column of the icon you want. It works, but the process is tedious and at times inefficient due to missed clicks. Mercer told us he is willing to put up with the process because clicking a button with his left hand is much less taxing physically than navigating with his wheelchair’s joystick.
With iOS (and all Apple products in fact), accessibility functions are built-in and highly consistent from one device to another, Meza points out. “Apple users now can transfer [their Tecla Shield-connected switches] independently from their phone to their iPad, computer, or AppleTV,” he said, “as long as all devices are under the same iCloud account and Wi-Fi network.”
“I like the idea of control — that you plug in the switches once and you’re good to go”
The same cannot be said of the Android ecosystem, thanks to fragmentation and the tendency of some manufacturers to put customized layers on top of stock Android — Meza calls out LG as an example. “It’s the launcher,” he said, referring to the top-most layer of the operating system. “Most manufacturers don’t care to make them accessible.”
Sharon Rosenblatt is director of communications at Silver Spring, MD-based Accessibility Partners, a consultancy that helps its clients meet federal accessibility standards in their products and services. She agreed with Meza that Android lags behind iOS when it comes to accessibility.
“The industry has been dominated by iOS,” she told us. “Apple has really made a commitment to accessibility.” Though Rosenblatt had not previously heard of the Tecla Shield, she’s bullish on its capabilities. “I like the idea of control — that you plug in the switches once and you’re good to go,” she told Digital Trends.
She also points out that people who need accessibility products often end up playing a waiting game in terms of compatibility: When new products enter the market, such as tablets or smartwatches, they don’t immediately possess the ability to connect to switch controls. “We have to wait until the next big product comes out and then figure out how to accommodate it,” Rosenblatt noted, “but [the Tecla Shield] seems very forward-thinking. I know of a number of disabled people who could definitely take advantage of it.”
If there’s a drawback to the Tecla Shield, it’s the need to switch modes when moving between non-Apple devices or from a non-Apple device to an Apple device. This is done through the use of a recessed button on the side of the Tecla, and would require the help of a caregiver for someone with severe mobility problems. It’s mostly a problem for people with PCs and Android devices, whereas users who stay within the Apple ecosystem will have an easier time.
The Tecla Shield has been under development since 2010, and Meza says about 3,000 people are using it around the world. In Canada, mobile carrier Bell Canada will subsidize a portion of the Tecla’s price, bringing the cost down to $200 CDN for customers on an existing mobile plan. In the U.S., Meza tells us that the sum might be covered in whole or in part by medical insurance under the mobility device category.
It can be easy to forget that the advances in technology we find so convenient and magical don’t improve all lives equally. High prices remain a barrier for many, and thankfully these are coming down all the time. Devices like the Tecla Shield ensure that physical barriers come down too.