Paul Natsch using iPad mounted on the arm of his power wheelchair with a hand splint and stylus.

Accessing the iPad: Mouthsticks, Head Pointers, and Styluses

When Apple announced the iPad the first thing I thought was “how, as a quadriplegic with limited use of my arms, will I be able to use this device?”. Fortunately I immediately already had a pretty good idea on how this could be accomplished being that I’ve been an iPod Touch user for almost 18 months. Ultimately the iPad is probably going to be able to do quite a bit more than the iPod Touch but the iPod Touch is still essentially the iPad’s “little brother”. So I thought I’d share the methods I use to access my iPod Touch in hopes that these ideas may be useful for people with physical disabilities hoping to get an iPad.

This is an article by Paul Natsch that we originally published in 2010, before the iPad was even available! I am making it available again as the information is still applicable – the touch screens Apple is using in 2014 still work the same way and a stylus, mouth stick, or head pointer still has the same abilities and limitations as it had then. – Ricky

I can move my right arm reasonably well but I have no triceps, wrist, or finger movements. I can use an iPod Touch with one of the knuckles on my right hand but not very well as it isn’t particularly precise. This is where the Pogo Stylus comes in handy. The body of the Pogo Stylus uses what appears to be some type of aluminum that detects the electrical impulses that the skin produces. So as long as your skin is making contact with even the smallest portion of the stylus it will work perfectly fine with an iPod Touch (or an iPhone and iPad) in the same way the tip of a finger would. For able-bodied people this offers more precise control than what a finger can provide, particularly if you have thick fingers. However if you can’t hold the stylus what are you to do?

If, like me, you have some movement in your arms you need to find a way to attach the stylus to your hand so at least a small portion of it makes contact with your skin. In my case I have splints that I wear on my hands at all times. So I basically had somebody attach the stylus to a part of the splint where it barely touches part of my hand but at the same time points straight down. I then mounted my iPod Touch on my armrest using industrial strength Velcro (the Velcro is attached to the case that the iPod Touch is in so I didn’t have to stick it directly onto the iPod Touch itself). It’s important that you have whatever Apple touchscreen device you’re using mounted on a flat, hard surface. Because of my limited motor control I never had much success using a mounting bracket with a rotating arm. Your mileage may vary. Now obviously I don’t really get much use out of the accelerometer nor can I do complicated multi-finger gestures. Nevertheless I can still control my iPod Touch fairly well and it has been incredibly useful to me. Check the pictures below for a better idea of my set up.

iPod Touch mounted to the armrest of Paul's wheelchair. You can see his arm and the pogo stylus at the top of the picture.
iPod Touch mounted to the armrest of Paul’s wheelchair. You can see his arm and the pogo stylus at the top of the picture.

When I first had my iPod Touch I also experimented with using a mouthstick to control the iPod Touch. Being that your skin has to touch the stylus for it to function this was a difficult challenge. With the stylus at one end of the mouthstick and my mouth at the other end it just wasn’t working. After an extensive amount of Googling I did find out that aluminum foil might do the trick. So I got some aluminum foil and a friend of mine put three layers of it over the tip of the mouthstick then flattened out the tip on a hard surface. Even with no skin contact this method did work but unfortunately it didn’t work particularly well. I either had to press harder than what should have been needed to make the iPod Touch recognize it or half the time it didn’t even work at all. Needless to say I got frustrated and completely stopped trying to use my iPod Touch that way entirely. This wasn’t that big of a deal for me as I could use the iPod Touch while sitting in my wheelchair with the stylus attached to my splint. However, I sometimes like to get in bed a little bit early and therefore would have liked to have a way to use the iPod Touch while laying down.

A mouthstick with the tip covered in aluminium foil.
A mouthstick with the tip covered in aluminium foil.

A couple weeks ago I decided to revisit this idea. I figured maybe something had changed in all those months so perhaps a Googling session now might find something. To my surprise it did find something! I found a match to a YouTube video that showed this guy using a mouthstick to control an iPod Touch! The guy’s name is David Wallace and his website turns out to be a really good resource for assistive technology ideas. So before I go on I want to give David Wallace full credit for this idea. His site is “lifekludger” so please check it out if you can.

He discovered that copper wiring conducts those electrical impulses that come from human skin. So he took a mouthstick and attached a Pogo Stylus to the tip, wrapped some copper wire around it so it’s touching the stylus, then had the other end of the copper wiring go along the mouthstick shaft all the way up to the mouthpiece. So when he’s holding the mouthstick his lips are touching the copper wiring which sends electrical impulses from his skin all the way down to the stylus which allows the iPod Touch to detect the stylus touching it.

[Note: This same idea would work with a head pointer or pointer mounted on any other body part, there’s nothing special about the wiring touching your lip – it just has to touch a piece of skin somewhere on the user. Be creative! – Ricky]

A mouthstick, with aluminium foil on the tip and copper wire wound up the shaft.
A mouthstick, with aluminium foil on the tip and copper wire wound up the shaft.

I immediately attempted to replicate this with a plastic mouthstick, some copper wiring from the hardware store, and some aluminum foil. I do not currently have an extra Pogo Stylus so I figured I could just use aluminum foil at the tip instead. The finished product took literally less than five minutes to throw together and would you believe that it works perfectly! So well that I can control my iPod Touch better with the mouthstick than I can with the stylus. Now I don’t really want to carry a mouthstick around with me all of the time so since I can use the stylus attached to my splint method while I am up in my wheelchair I will continue to do so. But when I’m in bed I now have a way to use the iPod Touch very effectively. I’m able to read this way before I go to sleep or even check Facebook, Twitter, and my RSS reader. It’s awesome! Bare in mind this mouthstick was thrown together in a few minutes. There’s lots of other better ways to attach the copper wiring and so forth.

So if you have a physical disability which prevents you from using your hands effectively or at all then rest assured that you’re going to be able to use this neat-looking device regardless. And the bigger screen alone makes the iPad immediately more accessible for people with physical limitations. If and when any of our readers get an iPad I’d love to hear your experiences in using the device with the Pogo Stylus, mouthstick-attached method or not.

– Paul Natsch

8 thoughts on “Accessing the iPad: Mouthsticks, Head Pointers, and Styluses”

  1. Hey…

    Ricky, David and Paul… I should tell you all that three yrs. ago, I found a wonderful man from UK who makes special stylus for people with disability. I received several conductive sock plugs for my own headpointer and they are perfect for any iDevices. Ivo Becker (“ShapeDad”) has made several pointers as well for our needs. Check his page at etsy.com… https://www.etsy.com/shop/shapedad.

  2. Yes thanks so much Leigh-Anne! I actually purchased one of the mouth stick styluses from here a while back. Great stuff!

  3. Anyone know of a head pointer that doesn’t have a knob behind it, sister is on her back most of time this head pointer looks to be very uncomfortable after a few minutes of use?

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