New device enables kids with motor impairments to use tablets

Children with fine-motor impairments from neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy, soon will be able to use a tablet computer thanks to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Ayanna Howard, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and graduate student Hae Won Park developed a wireless input device that leverages a sensor system to translate physical movements into gestures to control the touch screen of a tablet, according a university announcement.

Worn around a child's forearm or placed on the arm of a wheelchair, the device--dubbed Access4Kids--includes three force-sensitive resistors that measure pressure and convert it into different "touch-based" commands on a tablet. Coupled with supporting open-source apps and software developed at the school, the device enables kids with fine-motor impairments to access off-the-shelf apps such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as custom-made apps for therapy and science education.

The problem with current assistive technology designed for people with motor impairments, such as augmentative and alternative communication devices, is that they are designed for traditional computer platforms, not tablets or smartphones. As a result, until now, more than 200,000 children in the U.S. public school system who have an orthopedic disability were excluded from tablet and touch screen devices. With the Access4Kids device, however, that limitation is about to change. 

"Every child wants access to tablet technology," Howard said in a statement. "So to say, 'No you can't use it because you have a physical limitation' is totally unfair. We're giving them the ability to use what's in their mind so they have an outlet to impact the world."

According to Howard, a second and more flexible Access4Kids prototype is already in development that will include wireless sensors that can be placed anywhere a child is capable of reaching them, such as with a foot or the side of the head. User trials will begin with clinical trials slated for 2013. A version of the device called TabAccess for adults with motor disabilities also is in the works.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have urged application developers to take older people into consideration who experience declines in cognition, vision, and motor skills when they develop their apps. Small, hard-to-read text, lack of contrast between the lines or text and the background color, and a scrolling mechanism that is overly sensitive are among the problems that older users face.

To learn more:
- read the announcement