Let Your Feet Do the Talking

Foot controls open doors for computer access

by Alyssa Quintero on May 1, 2008 - 4:31pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 3

Severe hand and arm weakness can make using a conventional computer keyboard and mouse impossible. Eye-tracking and head mouse technology can help, but if you have adequate lower-body strength, it may be worth letting your feet give you a hand.

Foot controls — including trackball and rollerball mice, programmable foot pedals and foot switches — offer viable options for maintaining computer access.

Augie Nieto
Augie Nieto’s large trackball mouse helps him communicate extensively with family, friends and colleagues.

Trackball wizard

Augie Nieto, MDA’s ALS Division co-chairperson and the driving force behind MDA’s Augie’s Quest research initiative, spends much of his day on the computer, communicating with people around the globe.

Trackball Feet

Since his diagnosis in March 2005, the disease has affected his upper body strength and speech, leaving him unable to grip his computer mouse. So in April 2006, he placed his large, yellow trackball mouse on the floor and started typing with his feet.

“It wasn’t difficult at all,” Nieto, 50, said via e-mail. “For me the ability to continue communicating is key as my voice deteriorates. I’d definitely recommend this to other people with ALS.”

Nieto currently types 50 words per minute using his foot mouse. He uses his left foot for “clicks” via a blue button switch, and his right foot to type and move the 3-inch BIGtrack trackball mouse ($79, Infogrip).

In conjunction with the foot mouse, Nieto uses the Dasher program to type e-mails and other documents. Dasher is a text-entry interface that’s operated by continuous pointing gestures. The user chooses what to write by choosing where to zoom.

On Nieto’s flat-screen monitor, letters and colored boxes scroll up. Moving the mouse with his feet, he selects letters and phrases, which then move to the left side of the screen until whole words, phrases and sentences appear. Created by a team of physicists at Cambridge University in England, Dasher has such built-in energy-saving features as word completion and the ability to learn commonly used words.

“Using the foot mouse and the Dasher program is inexpensive and very easy to learn,” Nieto added. It took him a week to master the program, which can be downloaded at no charge at www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher.

Feet pave the way

By the time Bert Woodard of Satsuma, Ala., received his first computer in 1999 — 16 years after his ALS diagnosis — he’d already lost the use of his arms and hands, so he started off typing with his feet.

In the beginning, Woodard, now 50, typed on an oversize keyboard with a pencil and eraser topper strapped to his right foot, while his left foot maneuvered the trackball and moved the cursor. In fact, Woodard wrote most of his book, Living With It, Not Dying of It (Westview Publishing Inc., 2007), by using this method.

As his ALS progressed, Woodard began using the foot mouse to move the cursor and type via OnScreen with Word-Complete ($99-$119), an on-screen keyboard he purchased from EnableMart.

Bert Woodard
Bert Woodard learned to use his first computer by controlling it with his feet.

“With ALS, if you have a body part that still works, use it,” he wrote via e-mail.

Woodard, who spends about seven hours each day at his computer, now uses a smaller trackball called Marble Mouse ($19.95, Logitech). He was having difficulty using the large yellow trackball because his foot often slid across it without making it move. It also got in his way, preventing him from pressing the left click button to make selections.

“I like the smaller rollerball/trackball mouse because your foot can cover the ball, and move to the right and left click buttons more easily. Most importantly, you don’t have to keep moving your leg up and down, which can be tiring,” he explained.

Foot and mouth

Dov Wisebrod of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, uses his computer as his speech-generating device.

Because he has only slight movement in his face and left big toe, Wisebrod employs a toe switch and a single-switch scanning method to maintain communication. (“Switch scanning” scans through various options, displaying them sequentially on the screen. The user clicks the switch when the desired option is highlighted.)

“Maintaining the ability to have a conversation and interact socially is vital to the quality of my life as my body deteriorates,” Wisebrod, 35, said via e-mail.

Wisebrod tapes the switch to the top of his toe because he can move it thousands of times a day with reliable precision. He uses the Sensor Switch Kit ($149.95, Enabling Devices), which is connected to the computer by a USB switch interface called Swifty ($79.95, Origin Instruments).

Toe Switch
Dov Wisebrod’s toe switch method is a prime example of doing whatever it takes to stay online.

The blue sensor switch is sensitive to bending and vibration, so when Wisebrod bends his toe, a signal is sent from the switch to the interface, which translates the signal into a left mouse click and activates the switch-scanning selection options. Wisebrod, who learned he had ALS in 1994 while attending law school, was dissatisfied with other scanning software, so he developed the Skeleton Key on-screen keyboard.

“Although scanning in Skeleton Key can be controlled by either one or two switches, I use only one due to the difficulty of precisely positioning a blue sensor so it works properly,” Wisebrod said via e-mail.

He noted that his feet have become his pathway to expression. “Even with the limitations of scanning, I can control all of my computer’s keyboard, mouse, text-to-speech, software and other powerful functions.”

Additional Resources

Bili Inc.
(626) 333-8718
The FOOTIME Foot Mouse ($199) features programmable pedals and is compatible with most Windows and Mac operating systems; USB port required.

(888) 640-1999
Offers a multitude of switches, switch interfaces and alternative mouse options.

Hunter Digital
(800) 576-6873
The NoHands Mouse ($349.99) is compatible with most Windows and Mac operating systems; PS/2 to USB adapter sold separately.

(800) 397-0921
Find a variety of switches, trackballs, and ergonomic and alternative keyboards.

Kinesis Corp.
(800) 454-6374
The Savant Elite programmable USB foot switches are available in single ($99), dual ($129) and triple ($149) configurations. Connects to Windows or Mac computers via USB port.

MAB Assistive Technologies
(619) 248-4758
AbleTrack Ergonomic Trackball ($129.95) includes a trackball mouse with two external foot switches and USB connector.


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