iPads bring students with disabilities new ways to participate, excel in education

Last modified: 8/16/2013 10:02:04 AM
Using an iPad, blind students can now translate written words to verbal with one touch; students with dyslexia or other reading disorders can complete work using only their voice; and students with autism can find alternative ways to express their thoughts and feelings.

These are just a few reasons why Therese Willkomm, an expert in adaptive technology, thinks that when it comes to expanding educational opportunities for students with disabilities, the iPad is the best tool that’s ever been created.

“It does everything – it’s a memory device, it’s a reading device, it’s a computer device, so it has more accessible features and capabilities for people with disabilities than any other device we have ever been exposed to,” said Willkomm, a clinical professor with Assistive Technology in New Hampshire, a program within UNH’s Institute on Disability.

Willkomm shared these thoughts with educators and parents yesterday during a daylong workshop on using iPads to aid students with special physical and mental needs. It was part of a four-day iPad boot camp in Concord that drew participants from across the state as well as Vermont, Massachusetts and even Georgia. During the session, she highlighted dozens of applications that can aid students with hearing, vision and speaking impairments, autism, and other physical, emotional and communicative issues.

“The iPad has been a revolution in inclusive classrooms,” said Cat Jones, events coordinator for the Institute on Disability.

The built-in camera and microphone are used in many applications to aid students who are visually impaired or have trouble reading. One app is called TextGrabber, which takes photos of written words and dictates those words out loud. Willkomm, who is known as the “MacGyver of Assistive Technology,” created her own stand that aids blind students in making sure the camera lines up with the document. She folded an old campaign lawn sign into three sections, then placed a piece of acrylic Plexiglass on top. She then created a space for the iPad or iPhone to slide into on the Plexiglass so it is centered over the piece of paper below.

A handful of other apps help students who struggle with memory or organization. One, called ReQall, records voice memos that act as alarms later. This app can be used to remind students to complete a certain homework assignment. It also benefits students who struggle with writing and those with speech impediments because it can play back the recording later for parents.

Maura Pennisi, a Salem resident, attended the conference because she is taking courses with Willkomm and has a son who is disabled. He is no longer in school, but she said many of the reminder apps such as ReQall could help him become more independent. Chuck Mahoney, a parent from Penacook, said he thinks the iPad is a tool that will be used more and more in education. Both declined to say which specific disabilities their children have.

The use of iPads in classrooms is spreading quickly, Willkomm said. Last school year, for example, the Concord School District provided an iPad for every student in each of its three new elementary schools. But not all districts have reached that point. April Beauregard, a second grade teacher with special education certification in Farmington, said she uses a laptop in her classroom, but she came to the session because her district is eager to explore new technology. There is one student entering second grade this fall, she said, who is confined to a wheelchair and struggles with physical movement. Some iPad apps recognize eye movement, which would greatly help that student complete work and communicate better, she said.

That’s just one example of how iPads can aid students with physical disabilities. If a student is hurt or too fragile to attend school, for example, he or she can connect to the classroom over FaceTime. FaceTime, Apple’s video calling app, is compliant with federal privacy regulations because it uses a secure connection, whereas other video applications such as Skype do not, Willkomm said. She’s created and patented an iPad stand that brings the iPad up to face level with other students, so that students who attend class through video can interact in the easiest way possible.

Purchasing iPads can also eliminate costs of other pieces of classroom equipment, Willkomm said. For example, there are apps that allow the iPad to work as a document camera, which eliminates the need for other projectors. Or bulky pieces of equipment used to enlarge text for visually impaired students can be replaced with an iPad and a low-cost television screen, Willkomm said.

To Willkomm, the investment is worth it because the iPads and apps are continually creating new resources for students. In her eyes, the iPad is a revolutionary invention that has and will continue to change how educators operate.

“It is the one device, the one technology that keeps improving, improving, improving to support all learners,” she said.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated April Beauregard’s teaching position. She is a second grade teacher at Valley View Community School in Farmington who also has special education certification.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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