Using Windows-based tablets as assistive technology

Guest post from Trevor Mobbs, Assistive Technologist at Beaumont College. 

Scope’s Beaumont College offers both residential and non-residential programmes for young disabled people, all of whom are between the ages of 19-25 years.

Hand selecting a TV channel to watch on a touch screen

In recent years, the College has attracted an increasing number of learners with complex needs and those on the autistic spectrum.  As an Assistive Technologist, it is my role to provide bespoke solutions for individual students to access IT and communication technology. This includes assessment, provision, training and on-going support for students, tutors and support staff.

Over recent years, the use of mainstream tablet computers as assistive technology has increased significantly and many of our learners are now benefitted from this mobile technology.  The solutions which we provide are tailored for the individual, and so therefore we do not standardise on one particular operating system.  We have many students using iPads (in similar ways to those described in Margie Woodward’s excellent blog post), but they are not necessarily the most suitable devices for everyone.  Here I will attempt to illustrate why Windows based tablets can be a better alternative for some.

Choice of input methods

Hand using a special keyboard

The standard USB port on a Windows tablet enables any kind of input device to be used.  This includes head mouse, eye gaze, switch, joystick, rollerball, high contrast keyboard etc etc.  Most of these are either not possible or have severe limitations on an iPad.  Having this full range of access methods available is a key benefit of a Windows based device.

Special access software

Screenshot of Grid 2 - special communication software

Having access to software packages like the industry leading Grid 2 software on a Windows tablet means that individual solutions can be created for communication, environmental control, social networking, office productivity etc.  The software available is more powerful and fully featured than the cut down or ‘lite’ versions which are available as apps (e.g. GridPlayer, Clicker Docs).

Accessibility of the operating system

Screenshot of access features in Windows

Even without any additional software, Windows has many in-built accessibility features via the “Ease of Access Center” such as a magnifier, voice recognition, on screen keyboard, high contrast colour schemes, text to speech etc.

Networking

A Windows tablet can be joined to an enterprise network, and thus configured and managed in exactly the same way as any other computer.  This means that our students can access their documents and email on the device, and more importantly all their customised settings will be applied whether they log on to their tablet or a desktop computer.  They thus have a unified user experience, irrespective of which device they are using at a given time.

Computing power

With recent advances in hardware, Windows tablets such as the Microsoft Surface Pro are now available which have as much computing power as their desktop counterparts.  This means that multitasking or more demanding applications such as games or video editing are now possible.

“Instant On”

Waiting for a Windows computer to boot up used to be a frustration, and perhaps an argument for using an alternative such as an iPad.  However with a combination of the software improvements in Windows 8 and the speed boost brought by solid state hard drives (SSDs), the time taken to start up a Windows tablet can now be measured in seconds rather than minutes.

Case study: Dominique

Dominque using a computer attached to her wheelchair

Dominique has moved from using a specialised dedicated communication aid which was very costly and somewhat limited in computing power, to a wheelchair mounted mainstream tablet (or “Wheeltop” as we like to call them!).  The tablet is a £700 Microsoft Surface Pro which meets her needs for communication (using Grid 2 software), web browsing, listening to music, social networking, Skype, environmental controls or anything else she fancies.  The next step is for her to trial an “iPortal” controller which will allow her to control the tablet with her wheelchair controller and eliminate the need for an additional joystick.