Switch Access - ORIGINAL

Posted 24th July 2018

What is a switch?

A switch is an assistive technology device that is commonly used by those with physical or cognitive difficulties

to operate computer software, mains devices, battery toys and communication devices.

Which switch?

There are various types of switches available designed to be operated in different way, the majority being operated by either touch or press. When choosing the correct switch, various determining factors should be taken into consideration:


A large switch such as a Big Red Twist Switch can be easier to target but will take up more space and be more obtrusive. Some users may find it easier to start with a big switch and then move to a smaller one such as a Buddy Button. A very small switch such as the Mini Cup Switch may be easier to position and may suit where a single finger can be used. A very flat switch such as the Pal Pad may be used in situations where the user is unable to lift their hand to touch the surface of a deeper switch.

Feel and sound

For most users the feedback offered by a switch that moves and clicks when it is pressed is an advantage in the same way that a "proper" keyboard is preferred to a flat membrane keyboard. Alternatively, a low-profile switch which can be operated by a slightest touch such the Pal Pad may be better as it will distract the user less but the tactile feedback will be less.

Operating area

Some switches are made in the form of a hinged box, the major disadvantage of these is that the pressure needed to work them varies over the surface, in fact they may not work at all if touched near the hinge. It is desirable that a switch operates consistently wherever it is pressed so the user is always successful. 


Colour can make a switch attractive to touch and help users with a visual problem when they are placed on a contrasting surface. Different colours will help the pupil using two switches. Older users may prefer a less obtrusive colour, or even different colours as a fashion accessory. Transparent covers allow you to put pictures, symbols or different textures onto a switch. Pictures or symbols on a switch can be useful to give your pupil the chance to choose between a number of battery or mains devices.

Specialised switches

It may be necessary to consider a different type of switch when a button switch isn’t suitable. There are many specialised switches available, designed to be operated by head, foot and the chin. It’s also necessary to ensure that enough time has been provided to allow the user to practice using the switch.  Remember how long it takes for a child to practice and develop pencil skills before they can write, switch skills may look simpler but can take as long to develop. Switch use requires some conscious and controlled activity and an awareness of "cause and effect" in order to make things happen.

Switch use

Successful switch use depends on many factors including:

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

In many instances the type of switch is the least in importance. Switch use and skills will only develop in the context of the whole activity, the switch is a means to an end. The focus of switching should be on the outcome: you are switching on the light, not just pressing the switch.

Children who really enjoy being with others may develop their skills more quickly using their switch to control a simple communicator rather than a computer program. Pupils with a visual difficulty may react best to being in control of a visually stimulating computer program. The choice of activity is a key part of the development of switching skills, in fact the activity is the reason for using the switch.