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Mobile Devices Empower Students With Special Needs

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Luis Perez, author of Mobile Learning for All: Supporting Accessibility with the iPad; Betsy Furler, a speech language pathologist; and Cristen Carson Reat, co-founder of Bridging Apps, a community of parents, therapists, teachers and doctors who share information on using mobile devices with people who have special needs. This article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by the Texas Computer Education Association. To join or for more information, visit

One of the great challenges confronting teachers is addressing the unique needs of students with varying abilities. In the world of special needs, professionals often refer to such abilities as “scattered skills.” Such challenges bring opportunities for educators to explore new techniques for engaging learners, finding creative methods of modifying curriculum, and employing a range of materials – including technology tools – to help students succeed.

The good news is that with the advent of touch tablets and their ubiquitous use in schools, there are more opportunities than ever to leverage the power of technology to help a variety of learners. When it comes to technology, we want to help professionals go beyond “which are the best apps” and focus instead on “how can I best support learning with the tools at hand?” In addition to these ideas, we have included names of particular apps for the iPad, and in some cases the Android platform, that we find particularly useful when it comes to supporting students who have special needs.

A growing collection of apps provides options for parents and educators looking for a solution to address a specific need. New apps are released every day, and many of them have been developed by parents of children with special needs who were not satisfied with the other apps on the market. The variety of apps that are available gives the iPad a degree of flexibility that is often missing in other technologies.


The iPad (and similar tablets) are unique personal computing devices that can be customized through the inclusion of apps and built-in accessibility features to meet a wide range of special needs. The number and variety of apps and accessories available for it have helped make the iPad the market leader in the tablet category, especially in education. Along with the robust ecosystem built around it, a number of other factors have drawn educators and other professionals who work with individuals who have special needs to the iPad, including:

  • The iPad is a consumer device aimed at the general public, and as such it benefits from economies of scale that help to keep its cost lower than traditional assistive technologies.
  • The device is lightweight enough for young children and those with motor difficulties to handle and operate on their own.
  • The touchscreen interface is intuitive and easy to learn for even the youngest child and those with cognitive challenges. Why? A person does do not need to understand the concept of a separate mouse and cursor before they can start using the iPad.
  • The iPad’s long battery life (about 10 hours) makes it ideal for individuals who rely on their device for communication and other needs over the course of a typical day.
  • The device enjoys a high degree of social acceptability that appeals to students and parents. With the iPad and similar consumer devices, individuals with special needs are using the same technology as their peers. The importance of this dimension cannot be underestimated, as it can dramatically impact the level of device use.


The iPad can be used as a communication device. It could be a dedicated device for a student who is nonverbal, but it could also be used as a choice board in a classroom for multiple students to express their needs. Even with the relatively high price of communication apps, the iPad still provides a less costly solution than similar communication devices costing in the thousands of dollars. Some of the more popular communication apps for the iPad include:

  • Proloquo2Go ($219.99): allows those who are nonverbal to speak by tapping buttons with symbols, selecting buttons with an adaptive switch, or typing their words with the onscreen keyboard and built-in word prediction.
  • Scene&Heard ($49.99): supports the creation of Visual Scene Displays, where scenes can include hotspots linked to actions such as playing back an audio message or video.
  • Verbally (available in a free version and premium $99 version): a text-to-speech app with word prediction and the ability to save and organize spoken phrases.
  • SpeakIt! ($1.99): This inexpensive text-to-speech app also does word highlighting and allows phrases to be saved and shared as audio files.
  • SoundingBoard (free, designed for iPhone, but runs on the iPad): a free app from AbleNet for creating custom communication boards with the included AbleNet symbols or photos taken with the iPad’s camera.
  • NeoJulie, NeoKate, and NeoPaul (free, designed for iPhone, but runs on iPad): This series of free text-to-speech apps provide basic functionality with just one voice per app.


Many students face significant challenges when it comes to expressive language and writing. So much of school life and preparation for the next educational environment centers on expressing oneself orally and in writing. Students with special needs, especially those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, often get turned off of writing at a young age and experience failure with the writing process. It’s vitally important to give them the support they need to make writing an enjoyable task and offer opportunities for success.

Mobile devices can be quite helpful for students with special needs when it comes to writing, as such technologies can level the playing field for students by offering alternative ways to express themselves with easy-to-use tools. Apps and mobile devices offer support with spelling, grammar, and word finding. Apps can also walk a child through the storytelling process and make it easier to put thoughts into words.

Several apps that are helpful for storytelling and narrative writing are My Storybook Maker ($3.99), PicCollage (free), and Toontastic (free). Apps with speech-to-text capabilities, such as Dragon Dictation (free), can help a student who is overwhelmed by a blank page get their words onto paper. (A student must have reasonably good articulation to benefit from this app’s use). The student can then go back and then edit his or her work using tools built into the word processing app.

Storybook Maker helps a student build a story, whether fiction or non-fiction. It allows users to import pictures as well as text and audio to develop their own customizable storybooks. Support can be scaffolded easily with this app, as some children can develop an entire book independently, and others can choose their own pictures and record audio as a peer or teacher puts in the text. The possibilities are numerous, and it is appropriate for many levels of students. Toontastic can also help students develop a story sequence by walking the student through the story-building process.

Likewise, using apps with text-to-speech functions can help with the editing process, as students can listen to what they have written. An amazing writing platform that gives students access to literacy is Abilipad ($19.99). It features word processing capabilities, text-to-speech, and also word prediction. Word prediction capabilities help students by allowing a student to type faster. Abilipad is also fully customizable with the availability of different keyboards (ABC, QWERTY, pictures, symbols), different languages, and downloadable activities.

Educators have been using Inspiration software for years, but accessing their apps can be a revelation in using a flexible graphic organizer. Kidspiration Maps ($9.99) for younger users and Inspiration Maps ($9.99) for those in higher grades are helpful tools for getting a student organized and ready to write a narrative. Using Inspiration Maps, a child can brainstorm ideas, make a mind map or web of ideas, and then, with the click of a button, transform his/her work into an outline that s/he can then use to create a narrative.


While most educators focus on the many apps available for the iPad and other tablets, they may not know that many of the accessibility features their students need are already built in to their devices and just need to be activated in the settings. Out of the box with no additional purchase, Apple provides the following built-in accessibility features on the iPad, right at your fingertips:

  • VoiceOver is a gesture-based screen reader that allows individuals with visual disabilities to have content displayed on the touchscreen read aloud to them. VoiceOver also supports output to refreshable braille displays for those who need information in that format.
  • Zoom can magnify what is shown on the screen up to 500%, and Invert Colors displays light text on a dark background for improved contrast. These features make it easier for people with low vision to see the information on the iPad’s touchscreen.
  • Speak Selection provides text-to-speech with word highlighting (introduced with IOS 6) to aid with comprehension for struggling readers and those with processing disorders.
  • A built-in dictionary allows learners to look up unfamiliar words without having to exit the current app or book, thus helping them stay on task. This feature can be especially helpful for students with dyslexia or those who are easily distracted.
  • Dictation (available only on the iPad 3 or later) allows struggling writers or those who find it difficult to type to enter text with their voice instead.
  • Support for closed-captioned videos ensures that students who need auditory support can understand the audio portion of the content when the captions are made available by content creators.
  • The built-in FaceTime video chat app allows individuals who are deaf to communicate with each other using sign language. Similarly, the Messages app allows individuals who are deaf to communicate with hearing peers using text messages.
  • Guided Access (introduced in iOS 6) can help learners stay on task by disabling the Home button and limiting use of the device to a single app. Frustrated with students “escaping”an app to go to another one? This feature is for you. It can also be used to disable touch in certain parts of the interface you don’t want learners to access (such as the settings for an individual app).
  • AssistiveTouch makes many of the multi-touch gestures used on the iPad available with the touch of a single finger, ideal for those with motor challenges. Is the home button too difficult for your student to push? Use AssistiveTouch to create a home button in a different location that is easier to access.
  • AirPlay allows iPads to connect wirelessly to an Apple TV (or a computer running an app such as Reflector or Air Server) for screen mirroring. This feature makes it easy to display the content from the iPad on a larger screen for those with low vision, and it provides an easy way to present content to a large group (such as in a classroom) and for student groups to present to each other.

Accessibility on the Android platform is not as robust, but it has improved significantly in recent versions (the latest of which is 4.3, code named Jelly Bean). Android tablets now have support or a gesture-based screen reader called TalkBack (free), and with the installation of a free service called BrailleBack, they can connect to a number of Braille displays.

Screen magnification is also supported with a triple-tap gesture. While a feature similar to Speak Selection is not available on Android tablets, a free app called Easy Text to Speech provides a workaround. When this app is running in the background, any text that is copied to the clipboard will be automatically spoken aloud using the built-in text-to-speech voice. Android tablets are often available at a lower price than the iPad, but their adoption in education has been slowed by the limited selection of apps.

These devices provide a flexible toolkit educators can leverage to empower students of all ability levels. The challenge now is to navigate the many available options. Our goal has been to help you stay out of the “app race,” a phenomenon where the number of apps becomes more important than our reason for selecting the technology in the first place: empowering students to realize their full potential in order to live self-determined and fulfilling lives.


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