Apple’s iPad can improve the accessibility of content for students; here’s how

ipad-tabletOne of the signature findings of the cognitive revolution of mind, brain and education research over the last few decades has been the overwhelming recognition of the tremendous diversity of human brains. In our population of students, there is a stunning variety of talents and capacities, and some of our peculiarities are both great strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, an incredibly high proportion of the world’s leading astrophysicists are dyslexic. As it turns out, in the complex architecture of the brain-eye connection, some of us have very strong central vision, while others have very strong peripheral vision. Those with strong peripheral vision often have trouble with dyslexia, slowed down by the distraction of words scattered all over a page. However, this strong peripheral vision is a critical asset in finding patterns in wavelength images, which happens to be the core competency of astrophysicists.

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Despite the great diversity in our capacities, our curriculum materials often are narrowly constructed, with a focus on static text. Some advocates have gone so far as to call the curriculum “print disabled”—incapable of supporting learning from people who struggle with decoding print. Note the important shift there: It is not the child who is disabled; it is the published materials that are incapable of doing their job of supporting learning.

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Fortunately, an iPad helps support learning for all. A simple step is enabling the iPad’s “Accessibility” features. Located under “Settings” on the iPad, Accessibility provides access to various features that can help meet the needs of those with learning differences or delayed development of motor skills.

One such feature is “Speak Selection.” This is especially useful for language development, as it enables the iPad to read text aloud from web pages and certain apps, as well as eBooks and iMessages. It also can read text in multiple languages. Furthermore, the speaking rate can be adjusted to suit an individual student’s needs, and users even can choose a particular dialect. For young students who are learning to read and write, those with learning differences (such as dyslexia), and those learning a new language, Speak Selection is invaluable.

Students can speak to the iPad as well. With “Dictation,” students can take notes, search the web, write a report, and answer eMail, simply by using their voice. Apple’s built-in, voice-activated personal assistant, Siri, also can help students by answering questions, providing reminders, and scheduling activities and events.

What’s more, Siri is integrated with a feature called “VoiceOver.” Whereas Speak Selection only reads selected text, VoiceOver enables visually impaired students to touch an object on the screen to have it read out loud—so low-vision students can ask questions, hear the answer read out loud, and otherwise interact with the screen. It also can speak each character a student types, as well as entire words, by entering a space or punctuation. VoiceOver currently “speaks” dozens of languages, making it a great resource for language learners of all levels.

There are several eReader platforms for the iPad—such as Apple’s iBooks, Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes and Nobles’ Nook—that can be used to read free downloaded books, purchase books, and even PDF files, ePUB files, and other documents for the web. Each of these eReaders also has built-in accessibility features.

A simple, but useful, option is to change the font size. For students with vision impairments, or for those who want to make it easy to see a sentence or passage, increasing the font size provides greater flexibility. Another option is to change the background color. Looking at screens for too long causes eye fatigue, so changing the background color to black or sepia can be less tiring. In addition, reversing the font and background for black and white allows students to read in low-light situations.

These are just a snippet of the features that can help overcome the print disabilities of our curriculum, opening new learning pathways for students with special needs. At the same time, these features have the potential to benefit all learners, make reading more accessible and comfortable, support reading endurance for longer sessions, and provide in-text scaffolds to understand difficult words or passages.

I hope that teachers will work with all student readers to customize their iPads and address these important learning needs.

Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization. Find out how EdTechTeacher can help with staff development at www.edtechteacher.org.