the surprised pessimist

"I'm not interested in blind optimism, but I'm very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, 'This is not enough.'" Colum McCann


Getting to Know Switch Control

When Convenience becomes Accessibility

Question: Why would anyone need to ask a virtual home assistant – there are several names to choose from nowadays – to turn on the lights or open the door or lower the temperature in the living room?

Answer: most people don’t. Don’t need to, I mean.

But many want to. It’s cool. It’s convenient. And who doesn’t want an assistant to do things for them? Even very basic things. Then there’s the safety and security angle, providing you don’t get ‘hacked’ (more on this later). Say that the delivery lady is at your door and you’re at work? No need for your package to be left on the front porch. Over your internet connection, you can see her clearly looking at the security camera. Just instruct your home assistant to unlock the door for her and then lock it after she leaves. Or there’s that moment when you’ve just arrived at the airport and can’t remember if you turned off the air conditioner. Ask you assistant to check that for you and set it straight right away.

All of these and many more dazzling innovations have been designed primarily for people who want comfort and convenience and can afford them. Nobody actually needs these things, right? Personally, I’m not sure I’ll ever bother, even though I’m tempted;  BUT…

Here’s where it gets interesting for the millions of Australians (billions worldwide) who live with impairments, chronic illnesses or the debilitating effects of ageing. While most of these home automation innovations have been designed to provide able-bodied people with convenience; just think about those times when convenience morphs into necessity!



My 21 year-old son, quadriplegic with cerebral palsy – but sharp as a tack and independently-minded – is moving into his own home in a few months. He will run his video-editing and consulting business from home. He will have a dog. He will party. And, even though he will have Support Workers around (no fully-functioning home-assist robots available just yet), he will get on with being 21!

Home automation, specifically, the Apple Home app controlling HomeKit-enabled devices and appliances, is one of three things that make this possible for him.

The other two are the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and his considerable mojo.

Okay. Apple HomeKit. Let me stop right there for a second. ‘Why Apple?’ you may be asking. [Disclaimer: I have nothing to declare here. I don’t work for Apple and I’m not trying to sell you anything.] Read on and I’ll explain.

As I’ve been describing, there are technological solutions for people who live with all manner of impairments that were not primarily designed as Assistive Technologies in the narrow sense of that term. They are ‘assistive’ quite by accident, you might say. Home automation is a great example.

Then there are tech solutions that are specifically designed to meet the needs of people who live with specific disabilities. Here‘s a great example. There are thousands of others.

Then there are devices and systems that are designed universally – that is, as far as humanly possible, they are designed to be used by everyone. And here’s where Apple comes in.

There are many things about Apple that are, shall we say, ‘quirky’. And Accessibility is one of them. The good people at Apple don’t seem to be able to help themselves. It’s almost as if it’s in their DNA. Every new device or service they roll out has been designed and built, not just for the ‘mainstream’ but for the ‘margins’. So, in our case, because every Apple device has Switch Control designed- and built-in, my quadriplegic son can do anything on an iOS touchscreen device that an able-bodied person can do. And he does! And because he has control of that device, he automatically has access to his Mac and his Apple TV and his apps, like Home!

As his father, what I appreciate about this is that I know his home automation will be safe and secure because HomeKit is as unhackable as all Apple devices!

In his case, Convenience (incorporated into HomeKit) means Accessibility, which means Independence.

Mount an iPhone on his power-wheelchair and he is in charge!

i didn’t expect this would be possible. I’m a pessimist and I’m surprised.


Apple has given my son a hand!

The human hand is a wondrous piece of engineering. Imagine where you’d be if you were suddenly without yours.

thumbs-up-signThink of the language we use: reach out, lend-a-hand, hands-on, get a grip, hand-out, handy, a handful, hands-free, hand-over, hang-on, hold on, at your fingertips, in the palm of your hand, second-hand, hand-me-downs, high-five, point-the-finger, thumbs-up, let your fingers do the walking, etc.

There are about 1,000 minutes in a waking day. I wonder how many of those minutes involve you using your hands…

…Grasping, gripping, holding…

…Making, fixing, building…

…Driving, working, writing…

…Caressing, fondling, stroking…

…and I wonder how you’d take care of yourself, earn a living, express yourself, interact with others, follow your dreams, live, if you had no use of your hands.

I don’t have to imagine what this is like. I have experienced it daily through my son, whose quadriplegia means that his strong, well-formed hands are quite useless. Well, perhaps not totally useless. As a diabetic, he needs several blood-glucose tests a day, and his fingers get regularly stuck with needles. But that’s all they are good for.

Then, surprise, surprise, into our lives comes Apple.

Did you know that every Apple device – Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch – is engineered with a powerful suite of Accessibility features? One of those features – Switch Control – is for people who have some form of physical impairment, such that they find it difficult or impossible to touch a screen or type on a keyboard or handle a remote control.

Using Switch Control, and tapping a small switch with his head, my son tweets, texts, types emails, makes FaceTime calls, operates the TV, studies at university online, runs a video-editing business using Final Cut Pro on his Mac, plays games, listens to music, turns on lights and air-conditioners in the house and even pilots a drone!

And there’s a new feature in iOS10 and MacOS Sierra called Platform Switching. This enables a Switch Control user to ‘pick up and put down’ various Apple devices around the home and office and control them from one device; in Christopher’s case, his wheelchair-mounted iPhone is now his universal remote controller and switch interface.

If you’re a Switch Control user and you haven’t tried Platform Switching, here’s a quick video I made, showing you how to activate it.

I never thought such things would be possible. I’m a pessimist, so I’m surprised!

The Quadriplegic Pilot



When my son, Christopher was very young, he enjoyed remote-controlled vehicles. Trucks, cars, whatever.

The only problem was…he had to rely on his old man to operate the controller. Joysticks are not made for those who have no use of their hands. We had a lot of fun – him directing,  me driving. Even when I managed to drive his first monster truck straight into our goldfish pond, we had fun. Good memories.


Any parent will understand that the memories are also bitter/sweet. If only he’d been able to take over the controls and have a go himself. Imagine the fun I would have had watching him crash into the pond!

Oh well. You learn how to ‘work around’ all kinds of situations when you live with cerebral palsy.

Anyway, yesterday, we discovered that may all be about to change. Using a combination of an iPad – the most accessible device on the planet – and the DJI Phantom 4 drone quadcopter (with a little help from me setting up the waypoints) Christopher got his first taste of piloting his own remote-controlled craft.

I never thought such things would be possible. I’m a pessimist, so I’m surprised!

Here’s a quick, very basic video to show what happened. Stay tuned. MUCH more to come. 🙂

A Quick Look at Recipes

Moving at a glacial pace (a bit like our internet) I am gradually working towards producing an on-going series of short videos about Switch Control and other assistive technologies. My plan is to have a series of 3-4 minute videos under the title “A Quick Look” and an accompanying series of longer (5-10 minute) instructional videos on the same topics, entitled “A Closer Look.”

Here is my first video – A Quick Look at Recipes. Feedback most welcome. I hope the content is helpful?

The Best Hands-Free Device Hands-Down

I made this short video to send to the guys at Komodo Open Labs in Canada as a user-testimonial for their magic little ‘Tecla Shield’ Bluetooth Switch Interface.

Tecla Shield

As a parent and carer, I can say that the Tecla has made a huge difference in my life; because it’s made a huge difference in my son’s life.

I am very grateful for the Tecla Shield because it is the only device I know of that gives him reliable, wireless access to his Mac and iPhone.

Think of the Tecla as a device that enables a person who has NO HANDS to access a Mac or iPhone and do exactly the same things that can be done by someone who does have use of their hands. A Tecla works like a touch-screen or a wireless keyboard – ever used a touch-screen device? brilliant! ever used a bluetooth keyboard? also brilliant! But what if you had no hands?

Think of tapping a switch like tapping your fingers on a computer keyboard or tapping on a touch-screen device (although, let’s be honest here – when I say ‘computer’, I mean ‘Mac’, and when I say ‘touch-screen device’, I mean ‘iPhone’ or ‘iPad’, because; frankly, PCs won’t talk very nicely to my son. But Macs do! Other phones won’t talk very helpfully to my son, but iPhones do!  Only Apple devices have this free in-built feature – it’s called Switch Control.)

With the little blue and orange box in his wheelchair backpack, my quadriplegic son is enabled, through Apple Switch Control, to make connections with the world…literally. Without the use of his hands, he nevertheless opens and closes doors,  edits video, turns on his office air-conditioner, chats to friends, makes phone calls, listens to music, completes university courses, runs his own business, etc, etc, etc.

The Tecla Shield – a cute little box with a funny name. Where would we be without it!

Getting to Know Switch Control

Just a placeholder for now while I work up some short learning packages to help parents, carers and other professionals involved in the lives of people with disabilities to get the hang of Switch Control.

In the meantime, have a look at some examples of what Switch Control has made it possible for my son, Christopher to achieve. He produced and edited this 3 minute video using a single switch. (Link shared with permission).


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