What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Apps in the Special Education Classroom

iDevices with special needs students... What do we need to know and consider? (This is a living document. It will change as this world of iDevices grows, expands and we learn more about the world of mobile devices and what they may provide.)

Parents, Speech and Language Specialist and teachers are developing programs specifically for the disabled population. Some may not be designed for the disabled but have become a great tool for them anyway. Special Education even has its own category in the Apple store as Apple has also realized the power they are providing to this population. Included in this category is: communication; hearing; supports for vision impairments, language development; literacy; learning and organization.

Are you questioning: To iDevice or to Android?  Patrick Black has provided a comparison if you are in need: Independence for All.

Choosing Apps
It is easy to get lost in the app world. To provide specific apps is somewhat crazy as the world of apps changes daily. How do I find the best apps for education, for my classroom, for my program, for my child? This is always the first question I'm asked. I am the proud owner of hundreds of apps yet there are so many, I cannot honestly keep up. There are many sites out there which provide app resources. If this is an area you will be exploring for classroom use,

I strongly recommend that you begin with a purpose.
  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • What are your needs?
There are several rubrics out there now to help you narrow down the best apps for your purpose. Here are a few to explore:
  • Harry Walker has developed a rubric to help you make decisions about quality and effectiveness. The use of a rubric will help everyone to go into this process without blinders on.  Click here to view the PDF.
  • EdTechTeacher has a different approach and one worth paying great attention to: " In order to help educators integrate iPads effectively, we have compiled a list of apps focused on learning goals consistent with the CRCD framework.  ...this list is driven by specific learning goals that promote critical-thinking, creativity, collaboration, and the creation of student-centric learning environments."

Gayle Browser has developed a Mobile Tech Feature Match Chart. Her way of trying to help us through this decision making process is to "start with the tasks that the student needs to do and then discuss what features a tool would have if it was used to support student achievement for those tasks." From there you would look at and talk about the tools and the features needed to support the student's needs. Thank you, Gayle!

I absolutely love this philosophy and cannot stress it enough: “We believe that it is more important to focus on the person who will be using the technology, rather than the device itself.” I think it is easy to get lost in the technology and forget the purpose. Something to be aware of…

Focus on the Student
The site Bridging Apps is there to help you do exactly that: Focus on your student. "Finding apps is just the first step in an exciting journey of discovery with your students that will involve trial and error. All of the app reviews on our website have been conducted by therapists or special education teachers, and they have been trialed with someone who has a disability."

In this article, Harry Drover Tuttle discuses the importance of choosing apps considering what we are trying to teach: Aim For Real Learning With Apps Harry Grover Tuttle teaches English and Spanish college courses at Onondaga Community College and blogs at Education with Technology. He is also the author of several books on formative assessment.

"During the Olympics many athletes told about their training. For example, swimmers lifted weights to develop stronger arms. They watched tapes of their turning around and made adjustments. They stressed that the most important thing that they could do to improve their swimming was to swim.

Do we use apps in our classrooms to do developmental drills or do we use apps to allow students to swim? Students can do math app after math app of math drills without ever doing real world math;  can the students figure out how much they are spending in a store and how much change they are to get back? Likewise, English students can do grammar drill after grammar drill on various apps; can they write a persuasive essay about preventing the destruction of a forest for a shopping mall? Again, modern language students can do vocabulary drills on food in many different apps; can they, in the target language, order a meal and tell what is wrong with the meal?

Our students will use some developmental apps but then they have to move up to real life or simulation apps where students use the learning in real experiences. For examples, you can give your math students a certain amount of virtual pretend money such as $150.00 and tell them to go clothing shopping at an online store on their mobile device. What can they buy? How much will they have left? Modern language students can visit a restaurant in their target language and explain to the waiter what they want to eat for each part of the meal.

Let’s use apps to do real world uses of the subject area and not to drown students in developmental apps."

Great food for thought: Are we going to use our iPads to continue what we are already doing or do we look for apps that support what we are teaching in a broader way?

Using iPads in Class - Hints and Tips
October 2013 by the Bridge London
  • Check that everything is working (especially sound) before you start.
  • Think about what you want your pupils to learn and how you are going to record this. (The ‘Using iPads to Support Learning’ model may help you.)
  • Set up the iPad with the apps you want the pupils to use before you give it to them. (Use guided access to help them to stay focused.)
  • Interact, model and comment to encourage pupils to extend their learning. (Look out for opportunities to do this.)
  • Encourage pupils to use expressive language while they are using the iPads. (See the ‘Using iPads to Support Learning’ model for suggestions.)
  • If you know that there is an app a pupil finds very rewarding save this until the end of the session and give it as a reward. (That includes just letting them explore all the apps on the iPad.)
  • If a pupil is becoming fixated on a particular picture or sound use guided access to deactivate it then encourage them to look at or listen to other things.

Yes, switch access on the iPad! Nice things happened with OS 7. Check out AbleNet’s comprehensive guide. In iOS 7 has a switch control built into the operating system. This offers people with physical disabilities some great options. You can find this option in the Settings app under General, Accessibility and then Switch Control.

Apps in Special Education - explore these wonderful resources:
Why reinvent the wheel when there is already such wonderful resources available regarding apps for fun and education for various special needs kiddos? Check out these resources for more information as it is easy to get lost out there in app world. (Know that these were most likely outdated the day they were posted. Be sure to check the date that they were updated.)

  • Apps4Stages takes a research-based approach. The recommendations and information gathered is facilitated by the students and faculty of the Simmons College Assistive Technology and Master of Arts in Teaching Graduate Programs. Specific apps recommendations and tutorials are primarily contributed by students who are supervised. This is a very rich site with apps aligned with stages, tutorials, an app recommendation wheel, and providing a list of sites that specialize in specific types of apps in education. A very rich site!
  • Apple offers a pretty good listing of apps for educational purposes, broken down by subject matter, including a section on Accessibility. This site is worth exploring and should not be taken lightly.  
  • AppleVis is a site discussing apps for students with Visual Impairments.
  • Apps for Autism - Apps for ASD iPod Touch Project is designed for children with Autism, broken down into categories, including quick and easy description and cost for each app makes it easy to find what you may be looking for.
  • Apps for Children with Special Needs (A4cwsn) is dedicated to serving children with special needs and the associated communities who work with them. Not only do they provide listings of recommended apps, by categories with descriptions, but A4cwsn has created videos to demonstrate how APPS that have been designed for children with special needs really work.
  • Apps for Education by Compiled by Carolann Cormier, MS, CCC-SLP, ATP is kept up-dated and broken down into categories. This is one of my favorite listings. Bookmark this one and you are pretty set.
  • Apps for Learning Social Skills - as this site states, "One of the three core symptoms for an autism spectrum disorder is social impairment. People on the autism spectrum learn by association rather than by observation. An iTunes app can be used as a teaching tool for the purpose of making associative connections (visual clues) by pictures or stories showing what social skills are supposed to look like so that the person with an autism spectrum disorder can learn (by visual association) and model (by imitation) these social skills in the context of real life social scenarios." This is an extensive listing of apps for developing social skills- worth exploring!
  • Apps for Literacy Support provided by Greg O'Connor, offers a wonderful listing which is provided by Spectronics. It is divided into apps for reading, writing, reference and organization/study skills.
  • Curious about the use of iPads with children on the spectrum? See more about the use of iPads and apps worth discussing on the Autism Programs and Supports posting. (Scroll to the bottom.)
  • Babies with iPads is a blog designed to document infants/toddlers with disabilities using an iPad to promote their development.
  • The Best iPhones 4 Kids apps has let us know that Apple has finally organized an ‘Apps for Kids’ category on the iTunes App Store. When you are in iTunes , look in the category section and you will see a section labeled, "Apps for Kids".
  • CALL Scotland has produced a 'wheel' of apps for learners with dyslexia, as an A3 poster that can be downloaded free. (Note that thay are based in Scotland, the links accompanying the apps are to the UK iTunes site, but it should still be easy to find apps that you may be interested in wherever you are.)
  • On your device when you go to the App Store icon, be sure to check out the Education category! Lots of great educational tools, learning apps and fun goodies are listed there for you to peruse.
  • On iEAR (Education Apps Review) be sure to look at the left column for whatever your interest in skill development might be!!!
  • EUSD iRead has provided some great lists broken down by subject matter with direct links provided. (Scroll down a little on their page to view.)
  • Explore the iKids Blog which discusses all the angles of those numerous apps designed for keeping your kids interested, entertained and involved.
  • Insignio is about "Bridging Apps - Bridging the gap between technology and people with disabilities." The site is broken down by category and provides reviews of apps.
  • Eric Sailers has published an extensive list of apps entitled, "iPhone and iPod touch Apps for (Special) Education" that is broken down into categories, including: Communication, Organization, Reading, Writing, Math, Music, Songs, Art, Games, and AT. This is a great listing to print out and take some time to explore.
  • KinderTown is an app that you download that will help you with finding and organizing the best educational apps for kids ages 3-6 years old.
  • Mobile Learning 4 Special Needs is a great site to stay in touch with. This is a place where people will share all those helpful hints and answers to any questions  that you might have. "This site is brought to you by a group of Apple Distinguished Educators who focus on the inclusion of students with disabilities through the use of Apple technologies."
  • Moms with Apps is also an app, that includes a special needs section. Moms with Apps is a collaborative group of family-friendly developers seeking to promote quality apps for kids and families.
  • Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence has a list created by Heather Bridgeman on apps, broken down into categories, providing information that includes price, description and format. This is a nicely laid out listing.
  • One Place for Special Needs acts as a bridge between families that are looking for resources and professionals/organizations that offer programs and services to the disability community.
  • 50 Resources for use in the Classroom can be invaluable in promoting more interactive classrooms and understanding how best to use and control the iPad in the classroom. This is a collection of tutorials, lesson plans and applications for educators to utilize.
  • SNapps4Kids stands for Special Needs Apps for Kids. They have broken down their listing into 3 categories: Device, Assistive Technology and Independent Apps.  
  • SpedApps2 is a contributing wiki and is beautifully broken down by categories: communication and Language, Reading, Writing, Math, Science/Social Studies, Art/Creativity, Music, Games/Social, Motor, CVI, Accessibility and Data. They hope that people will use this site to make informed decisions before downloading.
  • This page does not have a title but is still rich in its resources. It is broken down by low vision, hearing, cognitive, mobility and communication with a final category discussing hardware and adaptations. If you can't find what you are looking for on this blog, take a look at the listings provided here.
  • Apps that can be used on an I-device to help develop visual skills necessary for learning and success in the classroom.

The website Free App Alert provides information on free apps. This website is updated on an on-going basis, as apps may only be free for a period of time. Free is not always great but could fulfill a need. Again, use your rubric and download with a purpose. Some of these are just pure junk. Look for the pearl and don't forget how to delete. If it is junk, just get rid of it! Don't clutter your device or you'll lose what is good amongst the rubble. (It is not a competition to see who has the most but maybe who can find the best:-)

Fine Motor Challenges
Does your child struggle with fine motor? You might want to explore OT (Occupational Therapy) iTool Kit Apps.

Just for fun- Never thought your child could have the opportunity to play a musical instrument? There are many apps out there that help to turn your device into music to the ear. Be sure to look into the wide variety available and allow your child the opportunity to develop in this area. For a little fun, just to really see the possibilities, check out this video of an iBand Christmas.

Note Taking
If you have a student with note taking challenges due to fine access issues or executive functioning concerns, an iPad could be the ticket for success. "Taking notes isn’t limited to putting pencil to paper and writing in outline form. There are plenty of other ways to take notes, especially when a student is equipped with an iPad. An iPad can help learners capture, organize, store, find, and share their notes. And those notes can be a combination of typed text, handwriting, photos, drawings, flowcharts, audio, and video. Let’s explore apps that can enable learners to capture and process information in ways that make sense for them. We’ll compare some of the most useful note taking apps for iPad, including Evernote, Notability, AudioNote, Skitch, and Pic Collage. In addition to apps, we’ll discuss keyboards, styluses, and cases that can help turn an iPad in a super duper digital notebook." Learning in Hand provides a look at the apps available to support note taking.

Developing Access Skills
Just a few Apps to mention when learning to access an iDevice:
  • Angry Birds - works on sliding finger, controlling movement.
  • BubbleFree (also known as Bubble Wrap) - for working on finger isolation and a pointer finger.
  • Drawing programs (just a few listed here) are great for learning to point, isolate a finger, drag, etc.
  • Photos - works on sliding finger to change pictures (scroll) "Tap, pinch, and flick through your photos."
  • Pictello by AssistiveWare is an application for developing a viewing visual stories. Once a story has been developed, what a great way to learn some basic skills while turning pages. (Better yet, Picle is free and everyone can access it without an iDevice!! It works well for putting images and audio together to create digital stories or multimedia projects. It’s hard to imagine an app that’s easier to use.)
  • Slide 2 Unlock - simple yet and fun game which tests your speed and unlocking prowess.
  • Spin Art - helps to develop the tap, hold down movements along with a quick spinning motion.  

Emergent Literacy with Universal Design Considered by Erin Sheldon:
I have specific work I do with specific students and their specific adults. My apps need to be fairly easy for the adults to learn, especially if the task is difficult, because everyone struggles to learn a complex tool with a complex task. If the task is difficult, the tool should be simple or should build up to greater value as the tool is used more.

I need a reliable way for students to read and write texts, share them, print them, and export them. I use Pictello because it meets all my standards and allows many more students to receive, engage, and present information. For example, it has the option of recorded voices or high-quality Text-To-Speech (often the same voices in a child's AAC); the option of video clips on each page; text highlighting; word prediction; export to PDF; sequenced presentation; easy sharing. I use it for reading, writing, video modeling, and presenting information. I don't bother following what other story apps are out there because I lost too many hours of my work on other apps that are less robust, have weak technical support, or don't easily export and share. My time is too precious to use unreliable apps or learn a new one if I already have one that meets all my needs.

I use the app Explain Everything on a daily, even hourly basis. It is a screencasting app. There are many screencasting app options but none others that meet all my standards. I use it as a PDF annotation tool, to use and add multimedia elements to any print or PDF or PowerPoints, etc. Converting printed or visually static information to video with recorded audio dramatically increases access to information for many of my kids.

I use Go Talk NOW for a huge range of tasks because it allows so many forms of media to be organized and accessed in so many ways. I rarely use it as AAC and use it more as a way to structure and scaffold access to information, engagement with information, and the presentation of information.

My kids need writing support. Here, no one app meets each kid’s needs. I use Co:Writer (especially now that there is Co:Writer Universal), Abilipad, and Clicker Connect, depending on the writing task and the needs of the student. I'm very excited about the new option in iOS 8 to use 3rd party keyboards and I'm eagerly waiting for Assistiveware's keyboards to be released because it's going to create so many options for writing.

I use Keynote and Pages extensively, largely because they are flexible, multi-media, reliable, stored in the cloud, and free to new devices. Now that PowerPoint has such a smooth interface with the iPad, I'll be using that one a lot. (With PowerPoint and Office 365, I can finally download and edit a Tar Heel Reader story directly to my iPad. This is a Hallelujah moment for me! This is a task I have not had a tool for, for a long time.)

Finally, my kids need lots of word work. I use the app Word Wizard for letter by letter exploration and learning, the wring apps above to generative writing, and the apps Go Talk NOW, AAC apps, and Clicker Connect for word-by-word exploration.

And that's it. I'm sure there are many more great and amazing apps out there but if I can't quickly see how an app lets me do something completely new for students in a remarkably more effective way then I don't bother. I don't have time. What drives my app exploration is what tasks I am currently struggling to do. I don't otherwise explore apps because apps are like window-shopping; of course you will find stuff you like but best to simply focus on what you need.

YouTube has a little video demonstration that will take you through a glimpse of 10 good cause and effect apps. Remember, these are probably out-dated the day I listed them but they should help you get started.

Do you have an Android system? Check out:

Many apps that are not designed for people with special needs are perfect for our use. One great example is the Photo Grocery List. Remember to always think outside the box.