Switch access for iPadThis article describes switch access considerations for students who are unable to access an iOS device using the touch screen in a typical manner.


What is Switch Access?

Switches are alternative input tools to control electronic devices for students who are unable to input through direct selection (touch or keyboard or mouse) or other alternative systems like custom keyboards, speech recognition, joysticks, trackballs, etc. Switches are used to send input commands usually through a switch interface box connected to a computer. Software is also used to expand and extend how switches can input text and commands. A switch may be used by itself or it may be used in conjunction with other switches, interfaces and software to increase efficiency depending on both the cognitive ability as well as the physical ability of the student.

A Brief Timeline of Switch Access on the iPad

While switch access has been around for some time on personal computers, switch access for the iPad/iPhone/IPod touch have only recently been introduced for users with physical challenges. Without a full range of motion of their hands, these users were limited in what they were able to access on these devices. When iOS6 (the operating system for the iPad, iPod and iPhone) was released, some of these concerns were slightly alleviated with the creation of the Assistive Touch utility. This tool allowed users to emulate gestures or motions through the touch of a single button that they normally would not be able to produce. However, while this may have opened up the iOS environment in terms of navigation to more users, it presumed that the user could still touch a specific spot on the iPad screen and therefore it did very little for users who wished to access apps through alternate input options.

On an individual level, software developers had been adding switch access independently to their apps that would work with certain Bluetooth or wireless switch devices. Popular examples of these apps include Proloquo2go, GoTalk Now and Predictable. Jane Farrall has included a comprehensive list of switch accessible apps in her blog for those who might wish to play around with these apps.

These solutions allowed switch interfaces to recognize objects within the iOS environment through the VoiceOver function that was introduced in iOS6. VoiceOver is an accessibility feature built into the iPad operating system to assist students with visual impairments. It is a sophisticated screen reader that allows the user to navigate and control the iPad by vocalizing information that is on the screen as well as relaying information about each touch that the user makes. As such, every icon on the screen has an associated message. Just as each object is identified through the VoiceOver mechanism as having a physical presence and therefore value, switch manufacturers were able to design their solution around this platform. Thus, instead of vocalizing the objects on a screen, switch access allows the user to navigate from one object to another using a switch interface. Therefore, to allow these switch interfaces to work, the VoiceOver feature must be turned off to avoid conflict.

When iOS7 was released, switch access was incorporated notably through their “Switch Control” feature. The name Switch Control is in quotation marks because it refers to the name that Apple coined for this accessibility feature as opposed to describing the control of the iPad through a switch(es). Unlike the previous solution of identifying objects through VoiceOver, the use of Switch Control can be used with or without VoiceOver. Switch Control incorporates many traditional features of a scanning system either through auto scanning or through step scanning. However, it also has an optional imbedded menu system within it allowing users to replicate virtually any movement or gesture on the iPad. This affords users with motor impairment the same options of using the iPad as those with full motor control.

How Switch Control Works

When Switch Control is enabled and activated, items on the screen are highlighted with a cursor sequentially either manually or automatically, and when the desired item is highlighted it can be selected.

Switch Control has integrated three categories of switches: external switches utilizing a Bluetooth switch interface, the use of the full screen as a single switch, or the use of the camera to allow a head movement to be recognized as a switch. in a number of ways: the user can tap a portion of or the entire screen depending on the setup, depress an external switch or use a head movement.

When an item is selected, two possible outcomes exist depending upon how the device has been set up. The switch can either be set up to activate the item much like a finger press would do (auto tap) or it will activate a menu which allows more advanced options such as scrolling, saved gestures, accessing device functions, or accessing the settings menu.

Apple has been thorough in making Switch Control highly configurable in iOS 7. In addition to having access to a large list of menu items, you can also adjust scanning time, pausing, loops, setting a hold duration, ignoring repeats, incorporation of sounds such as clicks or voice feedback (similar to VoiceOver), grouping items for faster navigation, outlining selections in customizable colours or the ability to point scan.

The new iOS also supports multiple switches for those who are able to either step scan or would like the ability to multitask. These multiple switches may also incorporate in addition to multiple physical switches, the inclusion of the screen, head gestures or any combination thereof.

Switch Interfaces

There are currently a number of switch interfaces available for the iPad. The majority of them use a Bluetooth signal to connect to the iPad. However, one of them includes a 30 pin wireless dongle (which can be modified to be used with a lighting jack using a converter) that is plugged into the iPad. Some of these switch interfaces also have 1 or 2 built in switches in addition to 3.5 mm external jacks that allow users to plug in their own switches. The majority of switch interfaces allow for a minimum of 2 switches and one interface allows up to 6 switch devices when the device is connected to an ECU port.

One of the largest consideration in choosing a switch interface is the availability of key pairings. While all switch interfaces will at least offer the two most commonly used keys to control an app, some of the other interfaces will offer a menu of keys that could be paired to the iPad. One device offers a “learn” mode that enables the user to specify which keys they would like to pair to the interface.

All of the devices are simple to set up and the Bluetooth pairing process is fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, some of the devices are more complicated to set up afterwards and may require the assistance of an EA to either select specific key pairings or to enable a specific mode due to the physical design of the product. For specific details about each device, please see the individual product evaluation. Below are the devices that have been reviewed as part of this article. (At the time of publication, SET-BC supports the Ablenet Blue2 switch interface.)




Switch Integration

External Jacks

Key Pairings



RSL Steeper

Wireless Dongle




This device was designed to work primarily with the VoiceOver protocol. It does work with iOS7 as well.
Super Switch

RJ Cooper


Yes (1)



Tablet Switch Interface

RJ Cooper





Tecla ShieldDos

Komodo OpenLab





The TeclaShield is designed to support a number of devices other that iOS. It has a built in ECU port that can pair up to 6 switches.






The APPlicator can also control media playback.



Yes (2)



The Blue2 comes with 3 pairs of pre-programmed key pairings but also has the ability to learn 3 additional sets.


While all of the switch interfaces worked satisfactorily and met the basic requirements of enabling switches, there are a few general recommendations depending on the needs of the student. For overall simplicity and ease of use, or where alternate key pairings might be required and where external switches are not incorporated, the AbleNet Blue2 is an excellent interface. For students who use a wheelchair and who wish to incorporate their wheelchair controls into the switch interface or for users looking for a very robust interface for use with external switches, the Tecla ShieldDos is the recommended choice. Finally, for students who require alternate key pairings and require the use of external switches, the Pretorian APPlicator is the most suitable choice.

Switch Control Issues on the iPad

The complexity of operating an iPad in physical terms makes it difficult to incorporate switch use effectively. Simply put, it is difficult to replicate and emulate every single possible motion that the iPad recognizes with a single switch press. Further to this, part of the allure of the use of an iPad is the dynamic interaction that exists. The inclusion of a gyrometer within the iPad means that the device can recognize 360 degree movement. The iPad also has a built-in accelerometer which recognizes vigorous shaking. Both of these features are incorporated into the design and functionality of many apps to create a dynamic experience that requires the user to move the iPad back and forth in a timed manner. Although it is possible to use a switch to create these movements, it is a complex and time consuming endeavour which defeats the purpose of the app or makes it unusable to a switch user.

Similarly, another common feature of apps requires the user to quickly tap, drag, or create a path using their finger. Again, while it is possible to create these actions using a switch, it is not feasible to incorporate switch access within the parameters of what is expected by the specific app (unless it has been specifically designed around use with a switch) to make these apps both useable as well as enjoyable. Furthermore, quite frequently, apps that incorporate elements such as objects that appear and then disappear, the interface is simply not designed to recognize these objects as switch controllable or there is not enough time allotted for a switch user to be able to select these moving objects.

As such, switch accessibility speaks mostly to those apps which have a static display with few to no moving objects and do not require tracing, dragging, or tapping within a limited timeframe. The app should also require no active movement of the iPad itself whether it is tilting or shaking. These limitations severely limit not only the functionality of the iPad but perhaps also the motivation to use an iPad as a learning tool.

With respect to the use of these switch devices for SET-BC students, the AbleNet Blue2 switch was tested with the list of apps that we currently support using switch control on an iPad with iOS switch control. The results are as follows:

  • Clicker Docs – switch control is unable to access word prediction
  • Clicker Sentences – switch control is unable to swipe right or left to access different grids
  • Clicker Books – switch control works fine in almost all aspects of the app
  • Co-Writer – switch control works fine in almost all aspects of the app
  • iWordQ – switch control works fine in almost all aspects of the app
  • Pictello – Reading functions work well with switch control. The editing and sharing features of Pictello have some inconsistencies due to iOS 7 Switch Control issues and should be used with caution.
  • Predictable – switch control works fine although the built in switch access is better than the iOS version.
  • TouchChat – switch control works fine in almost all aspects of the app
  • GoTalk Now – switch control works fine in almost all aspects of the app
  • Proloquo2go – There are two different switch access methods and both seem to create different results. Interestingly, iOS Switch Control mode seems to recognize more objects than the native switch access that is built into Proloquo2go. When you use the native switch access programming that is built into the app, the toolbar including typing within the keyboard is not accessible. Furthermore, even when the user identifies that switch access is the preferred access method, this option needs to be turned on in the message bar and this on/off switch is also not switch accessible. Thus, switch access within the native programming cannot be done independently without external intervention.
  • Lamp Words for Life – switch control works fine in almost all aspects of the app

Results may vary depending on the switch interface that is being used but in theory, the control of the switch is more of a function of the operating system rather than the device.

Considerations for Switch Access on an iPad

Due to the complicated and imperfect nature of switch access on an iPad, a number of considerations must be taken before implementing a switch solution on an iPad. SET-BC developed this planning guide to help school teams determine if a switch interface will meet their students’ needs and can be implemented successfully in the classroom or school environment. Switch solutions are for students who have difficulty using the touchscreen.

Switch access solutions on the iPad can be implemented successfully if:

  • Device Guidelines
    • the iPad has been identified as the best solution due to size and weight limitations
    • the student requires an “instant on” solution
    • the student requires a device with an extended battery life
    • the student is highly motivated and determined to use an iPad over a laptop
    • a specific iApp has the right features or combination of features for a student
    • the team must be willing to upgrade their iPad to iOS7 or they must be working on an app that has native switch access built in if they wish to stay on iOS6
  • Access Guidelines
    • the student can not access the iPad in a traditional manner using the touch screen
    • the student is at the appropriate cognitive and physical level to access the switches
    • there is a reasonable expectation that the student will learn how to scan OR the student has an IEP indicating that other developmental goals are an objective (e.g. cause/effect, locating sound, visual scanning)
    • the device can be mounted easily and placed in an optimal location(s) for the student; the mount must also accommodate varying motor abilities throughout the day
  • Switch Support
    • the team must be able to support the student in using the switch access
    • the team is able to schedule time for one-on-one tutoring and ongoing support
  • Possible Switch Solutions:
    • iPad or iPad mini with iOS7 or app with native switch access
    • Use of Pictello, Proloquo2Go, GoTalk Now, TouchChat, Lamp Words for Life, Predictable, iWordQ, Co-Writer, or Clicker Book apps. Other SET-BC supported apps have glitches that make it not fully compatible with switch control at this point.
  • Team Support:
    • Team members are familiar with or have used switch access
    • Team has resources in place to support implementation of switch access
    • Student schedule can accommodate necessary training and practice requirements

Additional Resources

Manufacturer websites:

Switch Accessible Apps:

Switch Access on an iPad using iOS7 (Switch Control)

Switches and Switch Interfaces for iPad