Getting work done on a computer is easily within reach of the blind and physically disabled thanks to a number of new and updated tools. We've rounded up the 14 best gadgets to improve computing for the disabled.

Using a PC for work or play may seem like an easy, every-day activity to you and me.

But for people who are blind, paralysed or otherwise physically disabled, using a computer can be an exercise in frustration.

However, a new generation of gadgets, gizmos and software is making it easier for disabled computer users to travel the digital world, interact with others and get work done without hitting the roadblocks that older technologies imposed.

A blind accountant can tell screen-reading software to read spreadsheet data aloud to her, while a paralysed programmer can write code by controlling his computer with the subtle movement of his neck muscles.

The key is that the PC is a general computing device that's adaptable to different forms of input and output.

The computer doesn't care, for instance, that the user is controlling the pointer with her feet or eye movements instead of a traditional mouse and keyboard.

I've gathered together 14 innovative items that can help the disabled take better advantage of the mainstream world of computing.

These devices use a variety of recent technologies and are available for a wide range of prices, from free to thousands of pounds.

These days, using a computer and being an integral part of the business world is not just for the able-bodied, but for everyone.

Muscle messages: The Impulse system

For those with amputated, paralysed or impaired limbs, AbleNet's Impulse system can be the ticket to using a computer without having to resort to bulky mechanical aids.

Impulse replaces the traditional keyboard and mouse with a small device fitted to the user's skin that uses electromyography technology to sense, amplify and transmit the small electrical impulses sent from the brain to the muscle.

It works with many different areas of the body, including the neck and face, and can turn a wink or smile into a click.

Impulse's disposable electrode sensor sticks to the skin; a small Bluetooth transmitter snaps on top.

Specialised third-party communications software installed on the PC, such as E Z Keys (sold separately), interprets the user's input and carries out the commands.

The user can navigate a PC's applications, surf the web and type with an on-screen keyboard.

Impulse works only with Windows XP or Windows Vista. The Impulse transmitter costs $2,100 (£1,390); 120 disposable electrodes adds $100 (£65) to the price tag.

The eyes have it: Eyegaze Edge

Quadriplegics or others who can't use a standard Keyboard and mouse can control a computer simply by moving an eye.

The Eyegaze Edge from LC Technologies uses a high-speed infrared camera mounted under the system's monitor and a small external processing unit to translate eye motion into on-screen action.

After calibrating the system, all the user does is look directly at control keys on the system's monitor, which can display a keyboard, mouse controls, a speech synthesiser with series of phrases to choose from, or a program for turning lights and appliances on and off in conjunction with the optional X-10 controller kit.

The system tracks where the user is looking on the control screen and 'presses' a key when she looks at a key for a specified period of time.

Users can connect a Mac or Windows system to the Eyegaze Edge system and use the keyboard and mouse screens to browse the web and run any off-the-shelf software.

Prices start at $7,250 (£4,810).

NEXT PAGE: Sip and puff input systems

  1. From keyboards controlled by the eye to light-operated PCs
  2. Sip and puff input systems
  3. Light-operated PCs
  4. ZoomText magnifier/reader
  5. Braille on the go

Getting work done on a computer is easily within reach of the blind and physically disabled thanks to a number of new and updated tools. We've rounded up the 14 best gadgets to improve computing for the disabled.

Sipping and puffing: Jouse2

A computer can be controlled with nothing more than mouth movements and gentle puffs of air.

'Sip and puff' input systems employ a thin, hollow joystick that lets disabled users fully interact with a PC.

The user manipulates the stick with his or her mouth, cheek, tongue or chin to move the on-screen cursor and can click on an item by blowing into or sucking out of the straw.

Although sip-and-puff systems such as Semco's QuadJoy have been around for many years, the redesigned Jouse2 from Compusult takes the technology to a new level.

The $1,400 (£925) device plugs into the USB port of a Windows, Linux or Mac computer, and the articulated, adjustable arm can be mounted on a tabletop, desk or wheelchair.

Users can adjust input settings such as cursor speed, double-click (double-puff) speed and sip/puff sensitivity.

In addition to being a mouse replacement, the Jouse2 acts as a keyboard replacement with the company's JoyWrite software, which lets users control the text cursor and enter individual letters, numbers and punctuation by combining sips and puffs of air.

Jouse2 can also translate Morse code commands into letters, where sips are dots and puffs are dashes.

Head-motion detectors: SmartNav 4 and Camera Mouse 2010

Another option for those who can't control a standard mouse and keyboard but do have steady control of head movements is NaturalPoint's SmartNav 4:AT, an infrared scanner that sits on top of a monitor or laptop.

The $500 (£331) device connects with a Windows PC or Mac and senses head motion in a 45 degree field of view 100 times per second.

SmartNav 4 works by sensing a small reflective dot that can be stuck to the user's forehead, eyeglass frames, hat or headset's microphone; the package includes 26 reusable dots.

Move your head around and SmartNav follows the motion to place the screen's pointer where you want it.

Users can type using a virtual keyboard on-screen; actions such as clicking, right-clicking and dragging are controlled with a special toolbar.

The software is highly configurable, offering adjustments such as separate X and Y scaling for users with limited horizontal or vertical head motion and smoothing control for those with unsteady head movements.

A free mouse alternative for those on a tight budget is the Camera Mouse 2010 application.

Developed by researchers at Boston College and Boston University, Camera Mouse replaces the Windows mouse software with a system that tracks the head's movements with a standard webcam (either built in or externally attached via USB 2.0).

After calibrating the system to a corner of an eye or the space between the nose and the mouth, the user moves his head to move the pointer around the screen; holding the pointer still on a small area of the screen activates a click.

It takes some getting used to and isn't as sophisticated or precise as products such as SmartNav, but the price is certainly right. Camera Mouse requires Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7.

NEXT PAGE: Light-operated PCs

  1. From keyboards controlled by the eye to light-operated PCs
  2. Sip and puff input systems
  3. Light-operated PCs
  4. ZoomText magnifier/reader
  5. Braille on the go

Getting work done on a computer is easily within reach of the blind and physically disabled thanks to a number of new and updated tools. We've rounded up the 14 best gadgets to improve computing for the disabled.

Light-operated computing: Lomak

A different kind of keyboard and mouse replacement, the Lomak is considered so innovative that it's earned a spot in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Art with a purpose, Lomak stands for 'light operated mouse and keyboard', and for those without the use of their hands, it can mean freedom to compute on their own.

The system uses a head-mounted device that shoots a laser beam to a keyboard replacement that has 105 photo-sensitive spots arranged in circles that correspond to letters and numbers, punctuation and mouse movements.

When the user aims the beam at what she wants and moves the beam to the Confirm button at each circle's centre, Lomak carries out the command. (There's also an LED hand pointer for those with limited hand movement.)

Not only does Lomak work with Macs and Windows machines, but unlike other keyboard replacements, it doesn't require calibration or any extra software.

Made by New Zealand-based Opdo, a complete Lomak setup costs $2,500 (£1,657).

Best foot forward: NoHands Mouse

Mouse substitutes that use foot pedals are nothing new for carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers or others looking to control a computer with their feet.

However, Hunter Digital's NoHands Mouse takes this technology to new heights by redesigning it with the user's feet in mind.

Unlike the usual blocky rectangular pedals that lack the sensitivity required to precisely move the pointer, NoHands' pedals are oval-shaped with a thin foot platform that senses 360 degrees of movement and varying amounts of pressure.

One pedal handles the pointer's movement, while the other does the clicking. Unlike older designs where the two pedals are mounted on a board, NoHands pedals can be independently set up for the comfort and efficiency of the user.

Priced at $350 (£232), NoHands Mouse works with Windows 95/XP/Vista, Mac OS X and Linux.

The key to computing: BigKeys LX keyboard

Sometimes all it takes is a little thoughtful redesign to help adapt a product for someone with poor eyesight or hand-eye coordination.

The BigKeys LX from Greystone Digital is a novel take on the standard keyboard, with large keys and labels.

The BigKeys LX replaces a standard keyboard for use with either Windows or Mac computers; no extra software is required.

The keyboard has most of the keys we're used to, but at 1in square, they're four times the size of traditional keys, making them easy to locate and press.

Note, however, that it has a somewhat odd layout, with many special-character keys off to the right, and the large key spacing requires some getting used to.

The keyboard costs $159 (£105) and comes with a five-year warranty. Both the traditional QWERTY and ABC formats are available.

The keyboard can be ordered with white, black, yellow or multicoloured keys for easy recognition.

NEXT PAGE: ZoomText magnifier/reader

  1. From keyboards controlled by the eye to light-operated PCs
  2. Sip and puff input systems
  3. Light-operated PCs
  4. ZoomText magnifier/reader
  5. Braille on the go

Getting work done on a computer is easily within reach of the blind and physically disabled thanks to a number of new and updated tools. We've rounded up the 14 best gadgets to improve computing for the disabled.

Up close and personal: ZoomText Magnifier/Reader

For those with poor eyesight, a screen magnifier can bring sentences or even individual letters into focus. Recent versions of Windows include a crude magnifier, but it can't go beyond a 9x zoom, and fonts look pixelated and blocky.

AI Squared's ZoomText Magnifier/Reader can blow text up to 32 times its original size and display it in a variety of ways.
It can also read what it sees - including documents, emails, web pages, application menus and so on - aloud to you with its synthetic speech processor.

The program can even be set to read back characters as they're being typed, for perfect letters or memos.

ZoomText Magnifier/Reader works only with Windows 2000, XP, Vista and Windows 7 PCs and costs $600 (£398). There's a 60-day free trial available.

Read it aloud: InfoScan TS Elite and Intel Reader

Screen magnifiers and readers are great when you're using a computer, but doing business also means reading off-screen materials such as memos, receipts and manuals. That's a real challenge for people with failing eyesight.

WizCom Technologies' InfoScan TS Elite scanning pen can help by scanning and storing printed material and reading it back to you.

InfoScan TS glides over the page and can hold up to 500 pages of material internally that can be transferred to a computer via a USB cable for further work or editing.

It has a built-in American Heritage Dictionary and can work with type that's between 6 and 22 points, in English, French, German, Portuguese or Spanish. The pen scanner costs about $150 (£100).

Another product that can help those with visual impairments when they're away from the computer is the Intel Reader.

About the size and weight of a paperback book, this e-reader can enlarge the text on its 4.3in. screen while a synthesised voice reads the material.

The Reader can be loaded with material from a Windows PC or a Linux system (there's no Mac software at the moment) via a USB cable, or just aim the device's 5Mp camera at your document to enlarge and read spreadsheets, memos or pages from a report.

The Intel Reader has an Atom processor, stores up to about 600 pages and runs for about two hours on a charge.

It costs $1,500 (£1,000); a dedicated scanner for capturing large amounts of text is available for an additional $400 (£265).

NEXT PAGE: Braille on the go

  1. From keyboards controlled by the eye to light-operated PCs
  2. Sip and puff input systems
  3. Light-operated PCs
  4. ZoomText magnifier/reader
  5. Braille on the go

Getting work done on a computer is easily within reach of the blind and physically disabled thanks to a number of new and updated tools. We've rounded up the 14 best gadgets to improve computing for the disabled.

Braille on the go: Braille+ Mobile Manager and BrailleNote Apex

Many blind people take notes in Braille, the nearly 200-year-old alphabet that's made from a series of raised dots. But most Braille devices are too cumbersome to carry around.

That's where the Braille+ Mobile Manager from the American Printing House for the Blind comes in.

With a 60GB hard drive and a powerful processor, it can go anywhere. The $1,395 (£927) device has a Perkins-style Braille keyboard so users can type in notes, appointments and contacts; there's also a voice recorder for oral memos.

Anything held in the Mobile Manager's memory can be read to the user with the device's synthetic speech engine or sent to a computer via built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

It synchronises with a Windows PC (according to a company representative, third parties are working on Linux and Mac software), is compatible with Word files and can surf the web, play music and read books aloud.

Plus, with several third-party apps and games available, Mobile Manager is evolving into a computing platform for the blind.
A larger, more powerful option (more like a laptop than a PDA) is HumanWare's BrailleNote Apex.

Based on Microsoft's Windows CE 6.0, the Apex is available with either a QWERTY keyboard (the QT model) or a standard eight-key Braille keyboard (the BT model).

In place of an LCD screen, the Apex has a 32 cell Braille display. A series of pins are raised above the surface in the distinctive Braille pattern that are felt and ‘read' by the user.

The Apex offers 8GB of internal memory, a high-capacity SDHC card socket, three USB 2.0 ports, a GPS receiver, and Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity.

The device is less than an inch thick and weighs just under 1kg.

The included KeySoft Suite can help the visually impaired type a memo or paper, do online research, send instant messages or record a meeting to keep up with a typical day at work or school.

It's easily the best-equipped system for the blind, but at $6,200 (£4,122), it's going to take a bite out of your budget.

A small hearing boost: soundAMP app

Computer use isn't an enormous challenge for the hearing impaired, but it can still be difficult to work in an office when you can't make out what co-workers are saying.

If you can't quite hear everything that's being said around you but aren't ready to wear a hearing aid, your iPhone or iPod Touch can help with an app called soundAMP from Ginger Labs.

With sophisticated audio-processing software, soundAMP can amplify words while filtering out background noise, helping make audio more comprehensive in meetings, noisy cubicles or elsewhere.

A sound-level meter lets you adjust the volume or tone at any time to suit the environment. You can even mute the sound if your boss is getting boring.

If you didn't catch what was just said, soundAMP can play back the last five seconds of material from its memory.

The app can be downloaded from Apple's App Store for £3.99.

See also: Websites not fit for disabled

  1. From keyboards controlled by the eye to light-operated PCs
  2. Sip and puff input systems
  3. Light-operated PCs
  4. ZoomText magnifier/reader
  5. Braille on the go