What You Should Know About Switches

For person with a disability, a tap of a switch can open the door to the world of function and communication. A switch is a device for making or breaking the connections in an electrical circuit. When the circuit is closed, the connection is established. It can enable an individual who lacks the fine motor control to operate devices or appliances such as toys, blenders, or wheelchairs, or to activate a selection on computers, environmental controls, or augmentative communication devices.
Children, youth, and young adults with a variety of conditions and disabilities can benefit from the use of switches. Some of these conditions might include:
  • cerebral palsy
  • paralysis/spinal cord injuries
  • multiple sclerosis
  • arthritis
  • autism
  • speech impairments
  • visual impairments
Switches come in a vast array of sizes, shapes, colors, and types. Switches are generally divided into two different classifications: simple and specialty. Simple switches consist of those switches which are activated through touch. Specialty switches are those switches which establish a connection by an alternative means such as breath, motion, infrared, sound, and/or fiber optic.
Boy using a simple switch to operate toy dog
Boy using a simple switch to operate toy dog 2
Photos courtesy of Guam System for Assistive Technology, University of Guam Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research & Service (CEDDERS)
Simple (touch) switches are available in different sizes, shapes, and colors, and can be activated with a light touch of less than an ounce to a heavier touch greater than 20 ounces. Simple switches are available as one individual switch plate to multiple switch plates consisting of two to five activation sites.
Specialty switches are most commonly used for those individuals who are unable to successfully push a simple switch. Specialty switches are generally more expensive and require specialized mounting. A breath or pneumatic switch is a mechanical switch which is activated through breath control. Motion or movement switches detect any type of motion including an eye blink or muscle twitch. Proximity switches respond to movement in the activation area. Infrared and optic fiber switches use light rays and can be used with any body movement. Sound activated switches respond to a whisper or a loud clap.
Switches can enable users to perform daily activities including:
  • using a motorized wheelchair
  • opening doors to a home
  • using kitchen appliances
  • turning on and off lights, televisions, etc.
  • using computers
  • communicating

Assessing for Switch Use

The initial step in switch assessment is to determine the needs of the individual. This may range from:
  • simple activation of toys
  • EADL (electronic aids to daily living, more commonly referred to as environmental controls)
  • computer access
  • the need to operate multiple devices through one “integrated” system.

The need of the individual is the basis of the assessment. A switch is the vehicle for obtaining a functional outcome. It is not the goal.
Additional knowledge of the individual should be collected. This includes medical diagnosis and physical abilities and limitations. The medical diagnosis will provide information regarding the course (type of disorder - muscular, skeletal, etc.) and prognosis (slow/fast) of the disorder. A physical assessment of the individual should be completed to evaluate the consumer's positioning to allow maximum performance. Generally, the physician will be able to provide information about the strenghts and limitations of the individual while the occupational therapist, physical therapist, or assistive technology professional will be able to provide information about the physical requirements of the equipment. Assistive technology professionals can be found through Disability Resources, and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA).

Switch Characteristics

  • Physical size (overal dimensions, activation contact area)
  • Switch feedback (auditory, visual, vibratory)
  • Construction material (best if durable and cleanable; plastic, metal, wood, etc.)
  • Shape and size (round, square, oval, etc.)
  • Texture of contact area (smooth, bumpy, hard, soft, etc.)
  • Output options
    • Communicative output (digital or synthesized speech; printed; LCD display; Braille printout, etc.)
    • Environmental control (lights, doors, computer, thermostatic, radio, TV, etc.)
    • Recreational (computer games, toys, adapted recreational activities, etc.)
  • Selection method options (Morse Code, encoding, directed scanning, linear scanning, step scan, row/column scan, auditory scanning, etc.)

Types of Switches

There are many switches available for all types of contact and virtually any body movement. Some of the more common switches are listed below. An excellent website to locate detailed switch information is A sample list of manufacturers is provided in "Resources" below.
  • Pressure switches require pressure on the surface activate.
  • Lever switches require pressure on the end of a lever.
  • Touch switches are activated by touching a projection in any direction.
  • Joysticks can be moved in different directions to provide control of wheelchairs or computers or set up as a switch for four devices.
  • Sip-n-puff switches are activated by pressure changes by soft and hard sips and puffs into a mouth tube.
  • The SCATIR (Self-Calibrating Auditory Tone Infrared) switch is a multipurpose versatile switch that can be activated by eye blink, or eyebrow, finger, head or facial muscle movement.
  • Muscle twitch switches are activated by muscular movement perceived on the skin.
  • An eye blink switch is activated by each eye blink or double eye blink and can control communication devices, toys or computers.
  • Proximity switches operate through electromagnetic force received from proximity to a body part.
  • String switchs are activated by pulling and releasing a three-inch loop of string.
  • Tongue switches use a dental type plate positioned on the roof of the mouth that has variety of pressure sensitive spots activated by the tongue.
  • Directional switches have five pressure spots that operate as separate switches to control different devices or for devices that require more than one switch.
  • Mini-Joystick with Pad or Joystick with Pad switchs are similar to directional switches because they can be used to control any device that requires five single switches or can be adapted to control up to five devices operated with a single switch.
  • Rocker switches are a type of lever switch generally with a left and right side usually allowing the activation of two different switches.
  • Squeeze switches are activated by gripping with the hand onto a cylindrical or other type of handle.

Left photo: Example of a simple pressure switches on universal switch mountings, Photograph by Inclusive TLC (Technology Learning Communication).

Center photo: Example of a sip-n-puff switch. Photograph by Therafin Corporation.

Right photo: Example of a tongue switch. Photograph by Prentke Romich Company.

Switch Accessories

  • Battery interrupters are used to interface a switch with a battery operated toy or appliance, and are available commercially or homemade. A battery interrupter has a metal conductor that fits between the battery and the battery chamber and the other end has a switch plug. This allows a variety of switches to be plugged into the device. Battery interrupters are available in sizes to fit AA/AAA or C/D size batteries. When using a battery interrupter, it is recommended that a “V” shaped slot is filed on the cover of the battery compartment to prevent the delicate wires from being crimped or broken, thus rendering it non-functional.
  • Wireless switch transmitters are devices that allow a switch to operate a device without a direct link between the switch and the desired appliance.
  • Switch latch timers act as an interface between the switch and the device which is to be operated. Switch latch timers are available for AC (household current) or DC (battery current). The switch latch timers allow for different operations by hitting the switch. These include:
    • Momentary or direct - the device operates while the switch is activated or the connection is “closed.” This function is useful for teaching basis cause and effect or for activities of short duration such as momentarily turning on a blender.
    • Latched - switch activation will turn the device “on” and a second activation turns the device “off.” This function is useful for those individuals who are unable to maintain constant activation of a switch or for those activities where an “on/off” function is needed such as turning on and off a light.
    • Timer feature – allows for an adjustment in the length of time (either in seconds or minutes) that the device will run before requiring additional activations. This function is useful for training cause and effect when the individual is unable to sustain contact with the switch, so it turns “on” for a specified period of time, but requires reactivation of the switch to turn back “on.”
  • Switch mounts can be adapted or are commercially available. The purpose of a mount is to position the switch where it can be easily accessed in a stable, consistent manner. Mounts can be low tech such as placing a switch on non-skid materials (Dycem, plastic drawer liners, Velcro) or mounting the switch on a table top, tray, or other surface. Angled surfaces can be constructed using plywood or cardboard. Commercially available mounts are constructed to be positioned at different angles and can be attached to a variety of surfaces such as wheelchairs, tables, beds, etc.
  • A switch tester produces an audible sound when a functioning switch is plugged into the tester, thus ensuring that the switch is operational.


Information & Support

There are many commercial sites that provide speciality switches. Some examples are listed below. The Medical Home Portal is not endorsing any of these commercial companies by listing them here.

For Professionals
ABLEDATA gives objective information on assistive technology and rehabilitation equipment available from domestic and international sources. Parents can look at items they are thinking about purchasing and see details and the ratings users have given for them. Sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Disability Resources
US Department of Labor's Disability Resources web page. See also Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) homepage:

Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA)
RESNA is a professional society for individuals and organizations interested in technology and disability. RESNA provides training and resources for professionals and the public including links to finding certified professionals in states.

For Parents and Patients

Linda Burkhart
A commercial site offering instructions on how to make homemade switches, links to vendors, and links to resources.

Adaptive Switch Labs
A commercial site offering switches, cables, adapters, and other equipment and technology solutions.

AbleNet - Switches
A commercial site offering switches including specialty, timer, tilt, soft, multiple, and other switches and accessories.

Don Johnston Incorporated
A commercial site offering learning tools and technologies to schools and students including a variety of switches.

Inclusive TLC (Technology Learning Communication)
A commercial site offering technoogy and software for educational use including switches, software, communication aids, computer accessories, and more.

RJ Cooper & Associates
A commercial site offering computer software and hardware for persons with disabilities.

Enabling Devices
A commercial site offering assistive technology including switches, computer aids, mobility devices, toys, and more.

Zygo Industries, Inc.
A commercial site offering communication systems, switches, and other technology products.

A commercial site offering communication devices, computer devices, switches, and more.

Switch It, Inc.
A commercial site offering wheelchair controls, computer controls, and similar equipment.

Therafin Corporation
A commercial site offering wheelchairs, accessories, daily living aids, and more.

Luminaud, Inc
A commercial site offering electronic speech equipment, message boards, and switches for people with disabilities.

Services in Nevada

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Assistive Technology Equipment

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For other services related to this condition, browse our Services categories or search our database.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: February 2009; last update/revision: January 2011
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Amy Henningsen, OTR/L ATP
Reviewers: Craig Boogaard
Marilyn Hammond, Ph.D.