Mobile Tech Tips for Weak Hands

Don't let hand weakness interfere with using a tablet, e-reader or smartphone

Article Highlights:
  • Mainstream mobile technology can become more accessible to people with hand weakness through the strategies and products described in this article.
  • Although they rule the market, iPads may not be the best tablet for those requiring alternate access such as a switch, eyegaze or sip and puff. Other brands may offer more accessibility.
  • Always try before you buy, consult with your vendor if you have a problem with accessibilty, and be sure to get a 30-day money-back guarantee.
by Christina Medvescek on October 1, 2011 - 3:37pm

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 4

Technology has put the world into the palms of our hands through hand-held mobile devices such as the iPad, smartphone and e-reader. But when disability caused by muscle disease takes the “hand” out of “hand-held,” the tips and products detailed in this article may help.

Don’t hold it, mount it

“The No. 1 thing people can do to improve hand control of a device is to look for a way to mount it firmly so it doesn’t have to be held at all,” says RJ Cooper, engineer and owner of RJ Cooper and Associates, a California-based company specializing in special-needs software and hardware.

Popular mobile devices have a huge global market, so there are many relatively inexpensive accessories out there for holding your stuff.

For example, the Slim-Grip Bicycle and Motorcycle Mount ($19.99) is designed to securely grip tubing of different widths, and holds most smartphone models. The Mini Friction Dashboard Mount ($29.99) also fits most smartphones, and is designed to stay in place on flat, slightly sloped or indented surfaces. (Arkon Resources, 800-841-0884)

In Your Face Viewbase
iDevice Body Mount strapped to leg
iDevice Body Mount (Photo courtesy of AbleNet)
NuGuard GripBase and GripStand
Articulating Arm

Fling Mini

The portable In Your Face Viewbase for iPhone and iPod Touch ($29.99) grips both flat and round surfaces up to 2 inches in width, and features a flexible 8-inch neck and adjustable swivel head (In Your Face, 925-858-1233).

Or, wheelchair users can strap smartphones and tablets securely to the top of their thigh with iDevice Body Mounts ($49, AbleNet, 800-322-0956).

It’s hard to count the number of standers, cases, covers and bases being sold for iPads. Stability and adjustability are key. NewerTech’s NuGuard GripBase/GripStand bundle for the first-generation iPad ($40) combines a variety of such features.

The protective shock-absorbing shell attaches to a skid-resistant stand that can be swiveled, angled, used as a carry handle, or used as a hook to hang the iPad on the wall. To turn the unit into a desktop workstation, the shell locks into the wide, weighted GripBase that “makes it impossible to knock over and perfect for any high traffic area,” says the company’s website (NewerTech, 815-308-7001).

An all-purpose wheelchair mount can steady a variety of devices. For example, the Articulating Arm ($149) and heavier-duty Magic Arm ($249) have three adjustable joints and can hold such devices as a tablet computer or a switch-adapted digital camera (RJ Cooper and Associates, 800-752-6673).

Do-it-yourself solutions may work too. “I once had a boy who wanted to play video games,” says Cooper. “He had to put the controller on his tummy to use it but it slid around. I went to the drugstore and bought a squishy gel cold pack, Velcroed the controller to it, and it stayed put perfectly. Cost about $16. Problem solved.”

Manipulating the touchscreen

Touching the screen with a finger is essential to the operation of all touchscreen devices, from phones to tablets to GPS.

If accidentally activating unwanted apps is a problem when you slide your finger across a touchscreen, buy thin cloth gloves and cut a small hole at the pad area of the pointing finger, suggests Mellowdee Brooks, an assistive technology specialist with the Arizona Technology Access Program. Even though your finger is sliding over the screen, it will not activate until you touch with your finger pad.

A capacitive stylus — basically a pen-shaped pointer that conducts body electricity — also can be used. There are scads of styli out there, and trial-and-error works best for finding the right one for you.

One line that works with an incredibly light touch is Stylus-R-Us, which boasts, “the lighter you touch — the better it works.” The tip has nearly invisible protruding fibers so it barely needs to touch the screen to work, eliminating the need for downward pressure — in fact these devices work poorly with a heavy touch. Some models telescope to 25 inches long. Prices range from $24.99 to $79.99. (Contact the company to receive a 30 percent disability discount.)

A do-it-yourself capacitive stylus (including a headpointer stylus) can be made for about $6 using an anti-static wrist strap from Radio Shack. See step-by-step instructions on RJ Cooper’s site.

Mobile gamers who have difficulty working an on-screen joystick may want to check out the Fling (for tablets) and Fling mini (for smartphones) — see-through analog joysticks that suction onto the screen and require only the use of your thumbs to operate. Prices range from $14.95 to $29.95 (Ten One).

Those who don’t use their hands at all but who can trigger a switch with another body part can operate an iPad or other tablet computer by switch.

RJ Cooper and AbleNet sell a Bluetooth switch ($100-$150) that can operate any switch-accessible mobile app. That last part is the kicker — currently, only a handful of mobile apps (software) work with a switch, and these apps are mostly mobile variations of existing augmentative and alternative communication software.

Think outside the iPad

“IPads are fantastic devices!” enthuses Cooper, ticking off their fine points: size, weight, user interface, operating system.

But, he notes, the iPad can’t be accessed via sip/puff switch, trackball, head tracker or eyegaze, and has very few apps that will work with a switch.

On the positive side, there are a few innovations in the works. Apple recently filed a patent application for a method of connecting its products to accessories that bypass the touchscreen, meaning it may be possible in the future to access smartphones and tablets by these alternate means.

And Dynamic Controls Accessibility iPortal system gives wheelchair users the ability to control an iPhone or iPod Touch using their wheelchair joystick or other alternative input device. However, the iPortal system currently is only available for the company's DX and DX-2 wheelchair controllers, and doesn't work with the iPad.

This lack of alternative access means that if hand mobility is an issue now, or is rapidly becoming an issue, an iPad may not be the most appropriate device for your needs at present.

Although they may not be as sleek and intuitive to use, other brands may allow more in the way of alternate access, says Cooper, citing Android-based systems and tablet computers by Blackberry and Samsung as possibilities. The number of alt-access apps for these devices also is low but growing.

The Auggie

Cooper sells a PC-based tablet called the Auggie, which is the same size and weight as the first-generation iPad, although not as elegant in its user interface and a bit more expensive. The $999 price tag includes a carry case, stand, external speaker and software that turns it into an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device.

The Auggie comes with an internal webcam and USB adapter, and works with any PC software as well as all the alternate access methods mentioned above.

“It’s just a PC running Windows 7,” Cooper says. To find a side-by-side comparison of the Auggie and iPad1, go to RJ Cooper's website and click on “My latest Auggie.”

Smartphones for students

If only we could be as smart as our phones. Smartphones offering Web access, touchscreens, cameras, media players, GPS and more are great multipurpose tools for students, say the experts at the Digital Media Zone, a program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

By downloading apps for graphic calculators, voice recorders, notepads and calendars, it’s possible to minimize the number of devices that must be dug out of a backpack in class. For example, Evernote offers free smartphone software that takes notes, does voice recording and takes photos of handwritten notes that can be searched later.

If the smartphone’s small touchscreen is a problem, Cooper recommends using an iPad or other tablet computer as a phone instead. Using Skype, a free Internet phone service, the tablets become “giant oversized phones,” says Cooper. “They work great as speakerphones, and you have a phone number, your phone can ring, and you can do other things on the tablet while you’re talking.”



E-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle not only provide armchair access to an enormous library of books, but also can read out loud to you. Unfortunately, hand mobility is required to turn the pages. But now a device called PageBot (Origin Instruments, 972-606-8740) enables those who can’t press the buttons to operate it by switch.

PageBot’s switch interface accepts “Next Page” and “Previous Page” commands from standard adaptive switches, dual switches (like a sip/puff switch) or a wired or wireless USB mouse device. A frame securely holds the e-reader and a universal mounting arm allows it to be free-standing or attached to furniture, wheelchair or stand. Prices range from about $330 to $380 for Kindle 2, 3 and DX (Origin Instruments, 972-606-8740).

Try before you buy

With any hand-held device, be prepared to try several possibilities before you get it right, and don’t be afraid to contact the vendor for exchanges. Be sure to get a 30-day money-back guarantee.

In Cooper’s experience, about 70 percent of the time the seller is able to offer an alternative that can fix your problem (although many are baffled by difficulty or inability to touch the screen, he notes).

Another potential way to try before you buy may be through your state’s federally funded Assistive Technology (AT) Act Program. Although each state program is different, they all offer short-term loans of assistive technology devices. For state contact info and a fuller explanation of the many helpful provisions of the tech act (including funding assistance), contact the RESNA Catalyst Project at (703) 524-6630.

Read more

Barbara Twardowski, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, reviews the pros and cons of the Nook Color, the e-reader from Barnes and Noble, in Best E-Reader for My Disability: the Nook Color.

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