Virginia Commonwealth University
September 26, 2011
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Traci Brown, Lori Prendergast and Lindsie Woodfin
Matoaca High School, Chesterfield County Public Schools

As special education teachers we have always dreamed of having access to the most cutting-edge teaching tools to facilitate learning for all of our students. Over the past couple years there has been much written in the media about portable tablet devices, like the iPad, and its use in the field of education. As teachers of students with severe intellectual disabilities, we wanted to explore the use of such a device with our students. In considering which portable tablet to explore with our student population, we looked for sensitivity of the touch screen, the availability of appropriate educational applications and the availability of accessibility features for our students with disabilities.


The iPad can be attached to a table or wheelchair using an articulating arm for individuals to access the screen without holding the iPad.

In our research we discovered the iPad uses multi-touch sensitivity that enables the user to lightly tap the screen to receive a response, other tablet devices also use similar technology but may require sustained touch contact or require the use of a stylus. When we investigated software applications that would be appropriate for our student population, we found on a brief search that there were over 50,000 educational applications available for the iPad, while the Android marketplace had 6,000 educational applications listed. We explored further into the applications, and looked for ones that could be customized to meet the needs of our students. Again, we found more options for our population of students in the iPad library. Finally when we considered the accessibility features of the tablet devices, we discovered most of the portable tablet devices made accommodations for enlarging text, changing font, and background color. The iPad additionally offered the availability of screen reading technology.

Once our consideration process was complete we decided to investigate using the iPad with our student population. We approached the Virginia Department of Education’s Training and Technical Assistance Center at Virginia Commonwealth University and inquired about the possibility of checking out an iPad through the Assistive Technology Library. Once we established a goal for use of the iPad, we were able to check out one for use in our classroom. We agreed to collect data regarding the use of the iPad, the applications we incorporated, and the impact the technology had with our students.

When the iPad was introduced to our students with severe intellectual disabilities (many with limited motor skills, speech and language deficits, sensory impairments and developmental delays) the response was phenomenal! It allowed them to play games, communicate, and learn like the other students at Matoaca High School. Students who used to have difficulty using a mouse on a computer were able to interact with the programs by light touch. The iPad allowed for multiple learning opportunities for all of our students regardless of their disabilities. As we began this iPad project, we narrowed our focus and primarily used the iPad during mealtimes, structured classroom activities, IEP meetings and community outings. We used applications that required cause and effect, initiated language, reinforced positive behavior, told stories and maintained schedules.

One of the most important advantages of the iPad was its use as a communication device. Not only was it the cool rage for high school aged students, but it also allowed the teachers quick access to communication boards that were changed on the spot for any situation. This was very important because students with severe intellectual disabilities learn best when a teachable moment presents itself. The communication applications that we trialed were: Proloquo2Go, iConverse, Look2Learn, Tap to Talk and TapSpeak Button. These applications allowed the students to communicate at varying levels and were used to make choices at mealtimes, participate in instructional activities and life skills training, as well as interact with staff and peers. Proloquo2go was the most used communication application because it was customizable to best fit the students’ needs.

Another use of the iPad was to create picture schedules and social stories. We used First-Then, iPrompts, Tap Speak Sequence, Story Robe and Visules to create individual schedules and stories. We were able to take digital pictures of our students, classroom and activities and have these pictures available for use within the application. We found that learning to customize the applications required minimal investment of our time. Once we learned the customization process, the principles were easily applied to all of the applications. We discovered that some of the applications quickly scanned through a number of screens and proved to be a distraction for students who only wanted to swipe through the pages of the application instead of using it in a purposeful and productive manner. An application with distinct pages or using a program designed to work with a switch interface would be beneficial for these individuals.

Another area in which we used the iPad was during the student’s IEP meetings. While keeping a focus on Virginia’s State Directed “I’m Determined” project, the students were able to be active participants in their IEP meetings for the first time in their school careers! With the use of the Tap Speak Sequence application a visual story was created which discussed what their day was like at school, what goals they were working towards, their likes and dislikes, and their transitioning plans post high school. Since the iPad allowed for the recording of audio, we had peers add a voiced component to the stories. The students presented their story to the IEP team by tapping the screen to change the pages. All IEP team members felt that the iPad was an awesome tool to facilitate the students’ ability to take an active role in their education versus the tendency for them to always remain the “silent” participant.

As it is with all new technology, there were a few technical bumps that we encountered on this journey. One of the most challenging things to resolve was how to position the iPad for students with more physical disabilities, especially the students with spasticity issues. Since the iPad required a person to physically touch the screen some of our students with limited fine motor skills had difficulty accessing the full capabilities of the device. At the time we used the iPad, a switch interface had not been developed that would allow other accessibility options. We would welcome the opportunity to try a Bluetooth switch that would work with specialized applications that allows for scanning of content on the iPad. We utilized a wheelchair mount for the iPad with some of our students but as with all positioning devices we found the assistance of our related service providers to be valuable in achieving the proper position.

Overall, we were grateful for this opportunity to expand our knowledge and the educational value of the iPad. We invested a lot of time and energy into discovering how the most cutting edge teaching tools could facilitate the diverse learning styles of the many students we serve with significant intellectual and physical disabilities. The capabilities of the iPad as a teaching medium gave us a better understanding of the necessary modifications needed in order for the technology to be implemented effectively with this student population. The availability of many diverse applications allowed for our students to learn at their level of interest and ability. We felt that the iPad could be a revolutionary tool that could change the future of special education technology for students with significant intellectual disabilities.



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