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From Issue #9 January 31, 2013

Re-Enabled

iOS’s impact on those with impairments isn’t just a marketing slide; it’s profound.

By Steven Aquino Twitter icon 

Scott Forstall, then Apple’s iOS chief, stood onstage at the WWDC keynote last June and showed the audience a series of slides illustrating the many uses to which an iPad could be put. The one that resonated with me appeared for just a moment: It showed a boy with autism using an iPad.

That scenario plays out for me every day. I work with special-needs children, and I also have a severe visual impairment. The situation depicted is part of my every working moment. But I wondered if Forstall’s slide was just another marketing bullet point to those outside our community. Do other people know about the profound changes iOS has brought to those with disabilities?

iOS’s profound assistance

The accessibility technologies built into iOS — things like VoiceOver and Guided Access — let those with disabilities use their devices with as much wonder and enjoyment as the fully abled. VoiceOver describes aurally every object onscreen and its placement, as well as reading sequences of text aloud. Guided Access limits a device to a single app by disabling the Home button and limiting which onscreen areas can accept touch input.

Accessibility, as I relate to it, is best framed in the context of my visual impairment. Being born three months premature left me legally blind. In my case, that means “low vision”: I can see — just not clearly nor at a distance (certainly not well enough to drive, for instance), and I benefit greatly from accommodations like large-print books.

What large text means to me in 2012 is worlds different than when I was growing up. I was born in 1981, and accessibility was a far different beast during my formative years. Larger text meant more pages, resulting in thick and heavy books that I had to lug around in my backpack. The books were big and ugly, and I hated them with a passion. The price of accessibility sucked.

iOS has made those books into nothing more than distant memories. Large print is just a gesture or tap away on a device that fits into my pocket or my beloved Café bag from Tom Bihn. For someone like me, iOS is nothing short of a godsend. That I can pinch-to-zoom to my heart’s content in order to get my daily dosage of Daring Fireball, or tap once in Tweetbot to make the font bigger, makes my iOS devices all the more usable. More importantly, it makes iOS and the content I love all the more delightful.

On task

My day job has me working as a paraeducator (the more professional term for classroom aide) to preschoolers with special needs. The iPad is a huge success with them. My students’ disabilities are moderate to severe in range, and because they’re developmentally delayed to varying degrees, they need activities precisely tailored to suit their needs.

The iPad’s power for these children lies in the fact that we don’t need to teach how to use the thing. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given an iPad to a student who’s fairly cognitively delayed and watched them tap and swipe like a pro. I’ve even had students master the advanced multitasking gestures (e.g., five-finger pinch to close an app) without any demoing or prompting whatsoever. In addition, I’ve had students ask for apps by name — Angry Birds and ABC Food being popular requests.

Furthermore, the iPad has changed the way we in the classroom view instruction. One of my daily tasks is to lead a small group session in which we work on pre-academic skills such as identifying colors, shapes, and the alphabet. Before the iPad, I used traditional, analog tools like flash cards, puzzles, and other manipulatives. While these tools still do (and should) have their place, the recurring question among staff is whether we need as much of the old-guard stuff in our curriculum.

The iPad is such a hit, in fact, that it serves as a motivator for our students to “use their words.” When one of our students wants to use the iPad, he or she has to ask for it; it requires using expressive language. Saying “iPad” or “I want iPad” or some approximation thereof (depending on ability, of course) is a win-win situation: Not only does the child get what he or she wants while practicing the use of language, but we as staff gain insight into their language and social-emotional development — as well as the pleasure of seeing a face light up.

You might suspect that the iPad’s whiz-bang interaction would distract our kids. But we’ve found that it keeps our students attentive and engaged far better and longer than any of our conventional tools. And with Guided Access, I can ensure that they stay on task by locking them into the app I want them to use. Moreover, the iPad is a tool they want to learn on and use. The iPad has nearly obviated the need (and the desire) to keep utilizing older materials, because the iPad is capable of helping our students grasp the necessary concepts in a modern, engaging way.

I work with two speech and language pathologists (SLPs) who are assigned to my classes. Once a week, they perform a “push-in” (large group) circle time in which they lead my students in singing songs, reading stories, and the like. The SLPs use the iPad to play music and show pictures of concepts related to the day’s lesson. This is reinforced in the small-group sessions that occur outside the classroom.

Beyond the benefits the iPad brings our students, it’s also been wonderful for staff. They buzz about the tablets in the hallways and staffroom. I hear conversations all the time about which apps work best for what activity, and how much the kids enjoy using the gear. And the parents have offered similar feedback.

Many of the parents own iOS devices, and they ask teachers and support staff for tips and tricks on how to make use of an iPad at home. We’ve even had parents who didn’t own an iPad buy one because they were so excited by our reports that their child’s learning progressed because of it.

Apps such as Notability and Dropbox are great for taking and storing assessment notes, while Safari is the gateway to our district’s Web service for keeping track of daily attendance. So not only is the iPad changing the way our students learn and access information, but it’s also helping the staff provide the best possible support in ensuring our students reach their highest potential.

Pocket full of superpowers

Every time I pick up my iPhone or iPad, I feel extremely fortunate that I’m living in this time. Being able to manipulate content with just my fingers, allowing me to get as close (or as far away) as necessary, feels genuinely magical to me. I often wonder how I made it through 12 years of schooling without multi-touch gestures and VoiceOver. The resources that are available now are spectacular.

A few months ago, Matt Gemmell had a great insight into what iOS means for disabled individuals, and it resonates with me still: “iOS devices are a lifeline. They’re a bionic enhancement — a pocket full of superpowers. The difference that they make to the life of a blind person is truly profound. They’re tools of independence, and of participation.”

If Apple strives for the intersection of liberal arts and technology, as Steve Jobs said, then the words you’ve just read epitomize that vision. It makes Forstall’s slide meaningful, because it’s no longer just a superficial marketing point. My experiences and those of my students personify that slide. We’re much more than feel-good marketing.

Steven is a freelance technology writer. His work has appeared in Macworld, TidBITS, The Loop magazine, and Tech.pinions. He's co-host of the Accessible podcast, a weekly show about accessibility on iOS. You can find him on Twitter and on his personal Web site, Steven's Blog.

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