Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Accessible toys help disabled

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

As the Christmas rush goes into top gear for the final week of shopping, spare a thought for those who have a disabled child to buy for: many of the hi-tech toys available are unsuitable - or at least they were until now.

Photo of disabled children at a nursery
Switches are important for some children's development

AbilityNet - a charity whose mission is to make technology accessible to people with all sorts of disabilities - has launched a range of toys suitable for children whose motor skills and dexterity are limited.

They range from a collection of soft toys that sing songs and move in time to the music to a head-mounted controller for games consoles and battery-powered cars and boats.

There is also a range of arcade-style computer games that can be played using a single key or an external switch.

Inclusive Christmas

AbilityNet has formed a partnership with Excitim Ltd - a company that uses technology originally created to help a young boy who was paralysed from the neck down in a car accident.

The Dream-Products range is being marketed through the charity's website, and it uses any money it makes to subsidise its free services for disabled people.

"For many children, play options are severely limited by their condition," said AbilityNet's development director, David Banes.

"Play is critical to the social, psychological and educational development of our young people, as well as their well-being and self confidence."

Mr Banes - a former special school headteacher - says that he hopes the toys will create "a truly inclusive Christmas for disabled youngsters".

The soft toys - which cost just under 40 - are brought to life by using an external switch.

Mastering consoles

For children who are non-verbal, switches are likely to play an important role in their ability to interact with the world around them.

So establishing a link between cause and effect at an early age is crucial to a child's development.

At the Willow Dene special school in south-east London, the children in the nursery class use switches for a variety of activities - interacting with a computer, operating a fan or a lamp and animating a toy in a group storytelling session.

Assistant-headteacher, Claire Barnes, says that the soft toys are a welcome addition.

"At this level, a lot of the children are developing an understanding of cause and effect...and that's a really key part of learning to communicate," she told the BBC.

"They [the soft toys] are fantastic - they really motivate the children...almost all of them can gain something from the responses the toys make when they hit the switch."

Older disabled children have often found computer and console games difficult to master because several buttons have to be operated simultaneously.

Barrie Ellis from Billericay in Essex runs a website called that is a resource for developers of one-switch games and those looking for new titles.

He says that, all too often, games publishers adopt a "one size fits all" approach.

"It is a fairly common problem that a lot of game developers don't give a lot of consideration to," he said.

"But there are certainly a lot of alternatives out there now."

One-switch PC titles include Frogger, Whacka Monty Mole (which should appeal to those who like hitting things) and an "on rails" space shoot-em-up called Aurikon.

Mr Ellis also believes that, with a bit of imagination and perhaps some help from friends or family, games consoles also lend themselves to use with a switch interface.

"You can play as a team - you could have one person using the traditional joypad controller while another person uses a switch."

Fancy headgear

The Dream Gamer incorporates tilt switches into a baseball cap to provide a joystick-type interface for the Playstation. With the right adapter, it can also be used with other consoles.

And the same concept is behind the Dream Racer: a tilt of the head - up, down, left or right - will operate a remote-controlled model car or boat.

At around 160 for the Dream Racer (depending on which radio-controlled model is chosen) and 120 for the Dream Gamer, these are certainly not cheap options.

But for disabled children who have had to watch as friends and siblings enjoy the fun, there is now an alternative.

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