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Sensor system gives disabled kids a second shot at tablets

Researchers at Georgia Tech come up with a solution for making tablets more accessible to children with orthopedic disabilities and neurological disorders that impair motor skills.

Professor Ayanna Howard (right) and graduate student Hae Won park (left) show off Access4Kids on their arms.
Georgia Tech

For some people, touching a touch screen is difficult, if not impossible.

According to Georgia Tech, more than 200,000 kids in the U.S. public school system have some sort of orthopedic disability that hinders them from experiencing the vast information that awaits them on a tablet or smartphone. Children with neurological disorders -- such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida -- can also have difficulty using touch-screen devices due to motor skill impairments.

The need to counteract this limitation inspired Ayanna Howard, a Georgia Tech engineering professor, and graduate student Hae Won Park to create Access4Kids, a prototype assistive device that could level the playing field.

Top: the current Access4Kids prototype. Bottom: A future prototype with wireless sensors. Georgia Tech

The wireless-enabled Access4Kids can be worn on the forearm, or attached to a wheelchair. To make it work, the child merely touches one of three pressure-measuring sensors, which convert taps and swipes into highly accurate gestures that makes tablet operation easier for those lacking fine-motor skills.

In a press release, Georgia Tech explains why this is important for children with some disabilities, as they often have difficulty "touching a specific small region with appropriate intensity and timing needed for press and swipe gestures."

As for the software side of the project, Georgia Tech developed open-source apps and software to make therapy, science education, YouTube, and Facebook apps more accessible than ever before.

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

A second Access4Kids prototype offers more flexibility by including wireless sensors that could be placed on a foot or the side of a head.

"We can't keep it in the lab," Howard said. "It doesn't make sense for me to have one child, one at a time, look at it and say, 'Hey that's really cool' and not have it out there in the world. The real goal is to make it safe and efficient so someone can make it into a commercial product."