AbilityNet Factsheet - December 2021

How technology can help you if you’ve had a spinal cord injury

Last updated: December 2021

Shows the spinal cord. Illustrative style.Every four hours, someone in the UK has a spinal cord injury that permanently paralyses them. Each year, 2,500 people in the UK are injured or diagnosed with a spinal cord injury.

Around 50,000 people are living with a spinal cord injury across the UK.

It’s a life-changing scenario and while technology can’t solve all the issues people face, using tech is a part of everyday life.

This factsheet will inform you how to adapt your existing technology so that you – or a loved one – can continue to use it. We’ll also explore Assistive Technology (AT) that can support you in your daily life.

Illness and injury are common causes of spinal cord injury.

The damage disrupts messages between the body and the brain, which results in partial or total paralysis in parts of the body.

The location of the injury impacts the level of function. So, if you damage or break your spinal cord close to your neck, this will result in loss of movement throughout more of your body than if the injury was lower down.

Whatever the effects, there are many ways that assistive technology can help to improve the quality of life for people affected by spinal cord injury

1. How can technology help someone with a spinal cord injury?

The location of your spinal injury and whether it is complete or incomplete will determine your physical function and what support you will need. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are easily adapted to suit individual needs:

  • You can adjust your existing devices
  • Dictation or ‘speech-to-text software allows you to input words onto the page quickly and to control your computer using your voice
  • Use your voice to control lights, plugs, heating and other devices in the home
Find out how to access text to speech on your device using My Computer My Way


In addition, there are peripherals you can add to your device to help.

2. Changes that you can make to your device

Some people may find that they can continue to use their current devices with minor adjustments, e.g. slowing down the double click speed on the mouse may allow you to select items if you’ve got reduced finger control. In addition, using the sticky keys feature will allow you to type commands such as ctrl-alt-del using just one finger or a stylus, and your computer responds as if you’ve pressed the keys simultaneously.

New tablets and computers can be controlled using voice control. Apple-based computers’ more recent operating systems also allow you to control the screen using a head pointer and facial expressions.


My Computer My Way
provides step by step instructions on how to adapt your phone, computer, or tablet to meet your needs. You can search for a specific need (e.g. using voice control) or filter the guides based on your symptoms (e.g. poor grip) or condition (e.g. spinal injury)
 

3. Keyboard and Mouse alternatives

Ergonomic keyboardYou do not have to use a physical keyboard to control or type on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Possible alternatives include:

  • Using an on-screen keyboard – this can be operated using a touchscreen, mouse, or switch.  Based on the first few letters, you can also use Word prediction to predict the word you may be trying to write. Word prediction can speed up the typing process.
  • Voice recognition (speech-to-text) – this is a practical way of controlling your computer and dictating text. For more information on voice recognition, see My Computer My Way; Talking to your device.

 

  • A switch – this is a button that you press to send a signal to a computer.
    • You operate it with various parts of the body, e.g., hand, elbow, head etc. Or you can replace the switch with a sensor that detects an eye blink, a sip/puff down a tube, or any reliable body movement.
    • An on-screen keyboard, word or pictogram board is used to highlight rows, columns, or groups, gradually narrowing down a selection with each activation of the switch until the desired word or letter is the last option left.
    • Switches work well with cause-and-effect programmes that require simple choices but are by no means limited to this; skilled operators have few restrictions to what they can do.
  • Eye-tracking and head tracking systems tend to operate an on-screen keyboard using the mouse, so we’ve included these below.

Alternative styles of mouse you can use with a spinal injury

JoystickIf you do need a different type of mouse, there are many alternatives. It is essential to choose one that feels comfortable and easy to use. Possible options include:

  • Ergonomic or vertical mouse: some are shaped to reduce the requirement to grip it, e.g. handshoe mouse
  • Bar mouse: to eliminate the need to reach sideways and can be used with either or both hands
  • Trackball mouse: to minimise shoulder and wrist movement
  • Joystick: with buttons for left, right and double clicks
  • Touchpad: like those often found on laptops
  • Touchscreen monitor or computer

Using head or eye movement to control the pointer, together with an on-screen keyboard, can also be an effective solution if you have very little or no use of your hands.

Mounting equipment may be required to raise or tilt a keyboard (or tablet) or attach it to a wheelchair (or another surface).


Arm and wrist support

Wrist and arm supports are available if you are unable to support the weight of your arm. These supports can be static or articulating and clamp to the tabletop.

Environmental controls/Smart home

An Alexa Echo. Heading reads Alexa smart home monitoringMainstream devices such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa can be used to control devices in the home, e.g. lights, plugs, heating etc.

Watch the webinar on Smart home: tech tips for independent living or read our blog about how Alexa can change the life of a disabled person for more information about using smart devices.

You may qualify for a referral for an environmental control assessment, which your occupational therapist or another health professional would manage.

4. Communications Devices

If you have a high-level spinal cord injury, you may need support with communication. There are communication aids available such as Grid Pad, which you operate using eye gaze. The Sequal Trust is a good source of information and potential funding if a communication aid is required.

5. Useful contacts

Below is a list of charities/companies with specialist knowledge who may be able to offer additional advice if needed: 

6. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet, or smartphone. We update the site as new features and changes occur to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS, and Android operating systems. The site has four sections:

  • Vision: computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing: computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication, and speech
  • Motor: computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina, and dexterity
  • Cognitive: computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory
Use it for free at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk


Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

IT support at Home

If you’re looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.

https://abilitynet.org.uk/at-home

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