iPad Is a Great Learning Tool for the Visually Impaired

It offers greater flexibility, compatibility, and social mainstreaming

Apple’s iPad is proving especially accessible to students who are blind or visually impaired. According to Tara Mason, who trains teachers of the visually impaired (TVI) at Texas Tech University, the tablet is also becoming a crucial low-vision aid for the one-to-one teaching models many school districts are adopting. Here's what she had to say about what she likes about the iPad, how it meshes with other assistive devices, and the many ways it can benefit visually impaired students.

Why iPads Are so Well Suited to Blind and Visually Impaired Students

iPads come with built-in accessibility applications relating to vision, hearing, mobility limitations, and learning disabilities. Previously, users with visual impairments would have had to purchase a screen reader such as JAWS to access their computer. Many personal devices may not have even supported a screen reader. But now, this game-changing tablet provides immediate access to applications and the Internet.​

The iPad is also cheaper than devices built for the blind, such as the BrailleNote Apex 32 BT. A Bluetooth keyboard or display (e.g. BraillePen 12 or Focus 14 Blue) connected to an iPad can be a far more cost-effective solution for braille users. Bluetooth devices enable users to read what’s onscreen or what they’ve typed as well as listen to it via the screen reader. Finally, the uniformity of iOS accessibility enables blind and visually impaired students to use all Apple products, including MacBooks, iPhones, and the iPod touch.

Recommended Third-Party Apps

It's recommended for teachers, parents and educational teams to look to Apple-made apps first before downloading third-party apps, as first-party ones will work best with VoiceOver, Zoom, and other accessibility features. Teaching students apps such as Calendar, Notes, Email, Pages, Keynote, and Safari will familiarize them with the device and will promote accessibility. Screen readers, for example, cannot read unlabeled objects such as graphics.

Apple labels all of its apps to make the screen reader compatible. Third-party apps may or may not be, though most developed specifically for the blind and visually impaired are compatible. One app we recommend to educators and families is the ViA app from the Braille Institute, which includes a list of blindness-specific apps with links to download sites.

Using the Expanded Core Curriculum is also highly recommended to connect students with the right apps. For example, the ECC includes direct teaching of both career education and independent living skills. So we might teach a student how to create task lists using “Reminders” to have VoiceOver automatically read pop-up reminders. For busy students, I might help them practice using Calendar.

Robust Enough to Replace or Be Equivalent to a Computer

The iPad is a great personal device for any student with a visual impairment. A student could potentially get away with just an iPad, as it can connect them with others via the Internet. An iPad + a Bluetooth keyboard may be enough for completing schoolwork as well. For the college-bound student, I’d recommend both a personal device and a computer. Neither the iPad nor the iPhone or iPod touch is a computer. They’re great for input and output, but their operating system is more simplistic. A key factor in decision making is considering what critical tasks the student needs to accomplish.

Changing Attitudes

iPads offer several communication options, such as FaceTime, which can support sign language during video chats, or HIMS Chat, an app, which, when combined with a BrailleNote, enables educators to converse with deafblind students. For reasons such as these, funding has become more readily available. Additionally, since iPads can fulfill many independent living and career needs, educational programs can more easily justify funding.

Getting an iPad at the Best Possible Price

Teachers, parents, and students should check the Apple refurbished store before purchasing. Educational teams may be able to purchase Apple iOS devices at a reduced price with higher storage capacities this way.

The iPad Mini for Visually Impaired Students

Each model may have benefits over another depending on a student’s needs. Apple minis are good for younger students who usually have smaller hands. An iPad with a retina display may better accommodate a low-vision student using the device as a CCTV. Students who could benefit from voice recognition apps may be happier with a newer iPad that includes Siri.

The Bottom Line Benefit for the iPad in Today’s Wired Classroom

iPads offer visually impaired students greater flexibility, compatibility, and social mainstreaming than most other devices. If something goes wrong with an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, an Apple store can usually fix the device in less time. iOS devices may also provide the easiest way to access the Internet. Additionally, many school districts are adopting one-to-one teaching models. Apple devices are at the forefront of this movement and can help narrow the achievement gap for visually impaired students.

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