"Tecla, my Tecla. I seriously couldn’t imagine my life without it right now."

This post was written by Tecla user Stuart Turner and originally published by Robots and Cake!

What is the Tecla?

Tecla hooks up your wheelchair and your iPhone, how great is that? I’ve got one plugged into my chin controller, and it connects the joystick to the iOS Switch Control Interface. You can just plug a Buddy Button straight in as well - it’s not just for wheelchairs. It works pretty well, I’ve got to say. On my previous chair I’d had the Dynamic iPortal, which accesses Assistive Touch and gives you a cursor on your screen, which is not possible with the Tecla; on reflection, as the iOS Switch Interface has been so developed since then so I don’t feel any loss for using the scanning cursor interaction over the mouse mover. I was sent this device to test, full disclosure, but not in exchange for a positive review.

Tecla Shield is developed by the Komodo OpenLab in Toronto, Canada. Their blurb runs thus:

Tecla gives access to iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android devices to […] anyone who, due to disease or disability, finds it difficult to use a touch-screen. The Tecla Shield DOS™ allows you to explore the Home screen and launch applications just like anybody else. You can also navigate and interact with the built-in apps on iOS® or Android™ devices to take photographs, listen to music, browse the internet, make phone calls and watch videos. With the Tecla Shield DOS™, you will also be able to access the on-screen keyboard to compose e-mails and messages, or enter text whenever you need to. On iOS®, DOS takes advantage of VoiceOver or Switch Control, Apple’s in-built access technology, to enable control of the iPhone®, iPad® & iPod Touch®. On Android™, DOS works in combination with the Tecla App for Android™ (available for free from the Google Play store). (I use the Tecla Shield to control my iPhone and iPad. I don’t have any Android devices, yet…). What can the Tecla do? With the Tecla Shield DOS™ you can control every aspect of iOS. To be clear: every function of the operating system is accessible, which is huge. So I can make and receive calls, listen to my music and most importantly use Tweetbot to keep up-to-date with the gigantic important goings-on with my @robotsandcakes Twitter. :-) The Tecla Shield DOS™ and iOS Switch Control is possibly the best solution for using a mobile phone for those of us with motor function problems in the world today, I certainly haven’t come across anything comparable.

The killer feature is that you can do everything with one switch. I have head control and some limited use of one finger, so in my wheelchair I can use a number of different inputs like a chin controller, single switch or both. But out of the chair - and I’m out of the chair for large blocks of the day at the moment - I really just have one switch. I can’t move my finger between two buttons so that one switch has to give me full access. I have full access to the iPad with the Tecla Shield DOS™ and just one Buddy Button.

I’d mention again as well that it’s great that you can manually unhook the Tecla really easily (it’s just a serial cable) from your chair and use it with a button. It’s much less great that it’s a pain to pair the Bluetooth with another device. If you have, say, an iPhone you use with your chair and an iPad you use in bed, you’re going to need an able-bodied person to unpair from the iPhone and then connect to the iPad via Bluetooth for you. It would be awesome if it could be connected to two devices at once. It’s also been my experience that if the able-bodied person isn’t technically minded, they quickly get frustrated and give up trying to do the reconnection at all. I have NO IDEA why people do this, but it’s a common enough reaction amongst carers that it’s definitely worth mentioning.

Another niggle is that you can’t (seem to) power the device from your chair, so you’ll have to get someone to unscrew it every few days and charge it overnight. Considering I’m sitting on what is essentially a car battery, this seems like it could be designed out. It’s possible to use an [external battery] which will extend the life of the Tecla but still, it would be great if we could power it from the chair. What is iOS switch control?If you haven’t used a newer iDevice, you might be wondering what the hell iOS Switch Control even is. It came in with iOS7 and it was pretty revolutionary for quadriplegics and other people with no hand use. I was lucky enough to be on the beta test (with an iPhone 5) so I got a great chance to bash around before it came out and what made this software stand out is that you get full use of the device. That was unprecedented and made it possible for me to really go ahead and design my smart home around my phone, using it as the controller (more on that another time). Usually the accessibility options for touch devices are subsetted, limited options that might give you phone access and a few global preferences. You don’t normally get the keys to the kingdom! Access to touch-interface devices (smartphones and tablets) for people who can’t touch things is probably a harder problem than access for Deaf or blind people, so we tend to be last in the development path, if we are there at all.

[Note: You can connect to your wheelchair battery if needed. That is why we have the DC port! Each wheelchair brand uses a different cable so it needs to be custom. Check with your wheelchair tech!]

So with iOS Switch Control you can use every function of the phone, with a well-thought-out modal menu interface. It’s an excellent little overlay, which pops up when activated by the (Tecla) switch. I’ll do a longer post on this another time.

How does the Tecla connect to a wheelchair?

The only requirement for the Tecla Shield to work with your wheelchair controls really is that it has an Environmental Control Unit. The folks at Tecla say they haven’t found an ECU that hasn’t worked with the Tecla shield so far. I didn’t have one on my Permobil M400, but once I had it added to the chair, setup was an absolute breeze.

Next you will need a DB9 Serial Cable, which is just called the Wheelchair Cable in the Komodo store. This connects the ECU to your Tecla shield. I keep the ECU, cable and Tecla in a small backpack on my wheelchair and it keeps everything nicely out of the way, yet accessible if I want to unhook it. I tried out the [wheelchair clamp mount] but honestly I was afraid of getting it wet, smashing it inadvertently when driving backwards – it just didn’t seem that secure or useful a mount to me, so I’d say just shove it in your backpack. If you don’t have one, I’d further say: get a wheelchair backpack! The last part is your normal wheelchair controls; this will vary massively depending on how you control your chair. I use the Compact Joystick Chin Controller. It sits on an swing-away arm directly under my chin. But you can hook this up to a headrest array or any specialist interface.

What do I think of the Tecla?

I seriously couldn’t imagine my life without it right now. I’m using it to: make phone calls, keep up with meetings while I’m temporarily stuck in bed (via Facetime on the iPad), listen to audiobooks in the park under the trees, and do, well, everything that everybody else does with their mobile phones all the time. (Including spending far too much time on Twitter.) I’ve got to say it’s superior to the iPortal from Dynamics, which was pretty revolutionary itself at the time. It can’t hurt that the Tecla costs £225, compared to the £1125 I ended up spending on the iPortal (that could not then be ported to my new chair, obviously, ouch). So I’m (fairly) unreservedly recommending it.

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