Special Education

iPads Become Learning Tools for Students with Disabilities

March 01, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read

Corrected: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized AssistiveWare’s reason for creating Proloquo2go. It did so as an alternative to traditional assistive devices.

When a speech therapist suggested last fall that it was time for 4th grader Sloan Brickey to use a device to help convey her sometimes-garbled words, the first option was a 2-foot-long board that offered a choice of six words at a time.

Sloan, 11, has Down syndrome and already sticks out enough at her elementary school in Powell, Tenn., said her mother, Kelly J. Brickey.

So Ms. Brickey did some research and found a different solution: a list of applications for the Apple iPad that work well helping children with autism communicate.

Sloan’s mother happened upon a tool that has made its way into schools in big numbers less than a year after its debut. But iPads and other tablet computers are more than a novelty for many students with disabilities, including deaf students in Pennsylvania, youngsters with autism in Southern California, and children like Sloan with Down syndrome. They are tools that pave a fresh path to learning.

A combination of Down syndrome and apraxia—a sort of disconnect between the brain and the mouth that results in slow or jumbled speech—makes it difficult for Sloan to form words that others can easily understand.

In the past, after a few unsuccessful attempts at making someone understand what she was saying, her mother said, Sloan was likely to stamp her foot and leave the room.

Now, Sloan is using a tool that attracts other students, has boosted her self-confidence, and offers a means of communicating in greater depth with peers, her mother said.

Using an application on the iPad called Proloquo2Go, Sloan can scroll through pictures or choose from phrases and sentences she uses often, and the computer speaks for her.

“She’s able to tell them about things she’s done on the weekend, like ‘I went sledding and I liked it’ or ‘I went out on the lake,’ ” said Ms. Brickey. “She’s never been able to do that.”

Ease of Use

Tablet computers are useful for students with disabilities because some of the applications available for them easily and cheaply replace bulky, expensive older forms of assistive technology. For children with poor fine-motor skills, the touch-screen design is easier to use than a desktop computer with a mouse or a laptop with a touchpad. The screen’s size makes the gadget user-friendly for students with vision problems.

Eleven-year-old Chance Connors helps classmate Jessica Ramsey, 14, work on a writing tutorial on one of the Apple iPads in their classroom at High Road Academy of Baltimore County, West, in Dundalk, Md. Tablet computers are becoming a popular assistive-learning device in special education programs across the country. When Chance uses the iPad, he likes to practice his mathematics skills with the Math Ninja application.

“For a child who may be a little slower learner, struggling with reading, has an arm that doesn’t work, the [tablet-style] computer has all these modalities, sound and touch. The technology can compensate for the special-needs kids in a way that traditional media cannot compensate,” said Elliot M. Soloway, a University of Michigan professor of education as well as of electrical engineering and computer science.

The machines offer a sense of independence many children, especially those with disabilities, may never have experienced before.

“When you find something, you tend to remember it. That’s exactly what will happen: When the kids find it as opposed to being told it, everything changes,” Mr. Soloway said. “The technology makes it possible to shift the control, easily.”

But he cautioned schools from falling in love with the iPad before looking into other tablet computers on the market that may cost less.

“Schools are getting killed right now. To buy a very expensive device when you’re really trying to get finger-touch technology seems to be irresponsible,” he said. “They all have app stores.”

The first generation of iPads start at $499 and can cost nearly twice that, depending on their features, although many applications are free or available for less than $5. The one Sloan uses, Proloquo2Go, is $190. A ViewSonic ViewPad 7 is available online for $460. And archos makes several models, with some starting at $180.

At High Road Academy of Baltimore County, West, in Dundalk, Md., Chance Connors arrived with a fear of math, an inability to sit still, and a deficit of patience, said his teacher, Jennifer Langmead.

These days, the 6th grader, who has been labeled as having an emotional disturbance, is happy to spend hours working on math problems on one of five iPads the students at his school share, she said.

Chance’s private school is for students with disabilities who are referred by public schools.

‘Math Ninja’

Looking at a textbook page or worksheet of math problems might prompt Chance to give up and shut down before he’s even begun, Ms. Langmead said.

“He’s very intimidated by math,” she said. But an iPad application called Math Ninja—as the app puts it, “You aren’t just a normal kid. You’re a math ninja,”—starts off with a brief game, then presents one problem at a time.

While Ms. Langmead finds the electronic jingle that plays in the background mind-numbing, Chance hardly seems to notice it as he adds 10 and 6, 7 and 4, and then gets a chance to save his treehouse from a pack of robotic dogs.

He said he’s asked his mother to buy him his own iPad. “That’s the thing I dream of at night,” he said, “playing Math Ninja.”

High Road student Tev Boyd, 19, plays a math game on his iPad. His teacher, Kelly Mlynski, is reflected in the computer's screen. She says students are careful with the devices, which can be expensive, because "they want to be able to use" them. Educators have also found the computers themselves to be sturdy.

Specialized Education Services Inc., based in Yardley, Pa., operates High Road Academy and more than 40 other schools in 11 states, Chief Executive Officer Mike L. Kaufman said. As a test, it bought 50 iPads and put them in schools across the country.

“Especially when you work with the special-needs population, you really need to find ways to reach out to the kids,” Mr. Kaufman said.” Anything that will reach a kid and make them excited about learning, let’s try it.”

After experiences such as Chance’s, Mr. Kaufman said, it’s almost certain his company will put more iPads in students’ hands next school year, especially since educators no longer have concerns that students will break the devices, which have proved sturdy.

“They want to be able to use it,” Kelly Mlynski, the head teacher at the Dundalk school, said of the iPad. “They care for it, understanding it won’t be replaced.”

Some school districts are being more cautious, however, recognizing that it is likely the device will benefit their students in special education, but waiting to see the best ways to use them.

“It’s so engaging. We want to make sure we’re capitalizing on the functionality—not just the engagement,” said Brian M. Engle, the executive director for education technology for Glenview District 34 in Illinois. He’s on a committee with other districts exploring iPad’s uses for students with disabilities.

Beyond Academics

Other districts that have taken the plunge are pleased with the initial results.

In Orange County, Calif., school psychologist Bill L. Thompson said that while students with disabilities have used laptops for years, tablet-style machines offer a new options for his students.

About 100 iPads are being used by some of the 550 students with disabilities he oversees through the Orange County department of education. They include students working on life skills who are using iPad applications to order food at restaurants and buy things at the grocery store. Students who need extra help managing time outside school also can use the iPad as a timer.

“To carry [a laptop] around with you to a restaurant is not practical,” Mr. Thompson said.

Other advantages of tablets are their simplicity and the ease with which they can be customized, important for all students, but especially those with special needs, he added. The touch screens offer instant gratification for students with limited patience or those who can’t understand the connection between a mouse and computer screen.

“It’s so intuitive,” Mr. Thompson said. “For a student that might have trouble, whether it’s the dexterity, or something else, it’s a pretty concrete concept.”

‘A Piece of Cake’

At both campuses of the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, in Scranton and Pittsburgh, middle school students have been working with iPads most of the school year, and recently they were given permission to take them home each day.

Students have used laptops, wheeled from classroom to classroom, on carts for several years, said Linda A. Burik, who oversees technology at both of the public school’s campuses.

“Some of them wouldn’t be charged,” Ms. Burik said, “Some had keys missing. No one had responsibility for them.”

But the iPad’s 10-hour battery life means the newer devices are ready to use whenever they’re needed. And because they cost less than a laptop, each middle school student—24 in Pittsburgh and 10 in Scranton—has his or her own iPad.

The school’s students need as much exposure to learning English as possible, said Cathy L. Rhoten, the interim director of the Scranton campus.

Many deaf students, for whom American Sign Language is their first language, graduate from high school with reading skills at a 4th grade level. While Scranton does better, with students reading at an average 7th or 8th grade level by graduation, Ms. Rhoten said, the iPad will help them progress further.

For example, there are iPad apps that connect the dots between an English idiom and the sign-language equivalent in a uniquely clear manner.

“It will give you, ‘It’s a piece of cake,’ in a paragraph that describes how you would use that in English,” Ms. Burik said. “Then they sign it in ASL.” Otherwise, she said, “the first time they encounter that in a novel, they would think out of nowhere someone’s eating a piece of cake.”

Special education applications have been in such demand that Apple created a page within its apps store to showcase them. The application Sloan Brickey uses, Proloquo2Go, is now on every iPad on display in Apple stores, said David Niemeijer, the CEO of the Netherlands-based AssistiveWare, which created the app as an alternative to traditional assistive devices.

He said stand-alone products are still necessary, though, for people with certain kinds of needs, such as those who cannot move their limbs or fingers.

“It shows that Apple is interested in this market,” Mr. Niemeijer said, although “when they developed this technology, it was probably not the first thing they thought about.”

Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Special Ed. Pupils Find Learning Tool in iPad Applications

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