Category Archives: Assistive Technology

Christmas iPad, Digital Books Open New World of Learning

Last Christmas, one of the presents Connor Meadows unwrapped first was an iPad and within days this 7th grader with cerebral palsy was reading digital books on his own. He didn’t have to worry about the book falling or asking someone to turn the page for him. “The learning process took on a whole new meaning,” said his mom, Casey Meadows. “We cannot download digital books fast enough and he loves to read now!”

Free Online Resources for Disabled Children

In 2012, Connor’s mom learned about a free online library, Bookshare and a portable reading app called Read2Go, for Apple devices (under $20). She began downloading digital accessible books on behalf of her son through an individual membership.

Accessible books enable learners like Connor to more easily follow highlighted words on a computer screen and listen to text read aloud. Readers can use the technology device to navigate through chapters, bookmark pages and select preferences such as background colors, male or female voice and size of fonts.

Bookshare is federally funded through awards made by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. The service is free for U.S. public schools and students who qualify with print disabilities. His mom says, “Connor has more freedom to learn anywhere and fewer physical burdens. He also gets his school books on time!”

Digital accessible books can transform the learning experience for students who are blind, have low vision, a severe reading disability or physical disability. The multi-modal (to see and hear) experience allows readers to take in more complex information in middle and high school. “As Connor’s reading skills improved, so did his ability to communicate,” shared Meadows. “His sentences got longer using his Dynavox and head switch.”

Utilizing Digital Books in the Classroom

In the past, Connor depended on his mom or an aide to hold a book steady or turn a page. His reading assignments had to be requested in large print, but that often took weeks – which left him always in catch up mode. Now, he doesn’t rely on others much and reads digital books from a stationary stand on his wheelchair from his iPad. “He can follow the text and has better eye tracking,” adds Meadows.

Last year, Meadows met with her local school to talk about the advantages of digital books and technologies. She shared information about a local Bookshare training program, Accessible Books for Texas (ABT) and encouraged the school to apply for an Organization Membership.

The Texas school ran with the suggestion and worked with an ABT Outreach Coordinator who demonstrated how the library worked. Educators learned how to download eBooks in formats such as DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) and Braille (BRF) and how text-to-speech (TTS) worked. There are several free reading technologies with a Bookshare membership.

“Digital books and technologies can improve the learning experience for any child – whatever their reading level or disability,” said Meadows. “Some educators think that if a student hears text read aloud, they aren’t learning, they are just listening, but this isn’t the case. When Connor listens to an e-book, he follows along with the highlighted text and understands the story. He also uses the navigation tools to review school reading assignments for reinforcement.” She recently downloaded three novels for Connor’s English class from Bookshare: Lawn Boy, by Gary Paulsen, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Cay, by Theodore Taylor. Now, he doesn’t worry that his book will fall off his stand or he’ll lose his place due to lack of eye coordination. “Just when I think that he isn’t learning, I’ll ask him a question and he recalls the information,” said Meadows, “That’s what I call opening up a new world of learning!”

About Bookshare

Bookshare is an online library of copyrighted digital accessible books and textbooks, free for U.S. K-12 and postsecondary students with proof of disability.

Students who typically qualify for Bookshare have an IEP (Individual Education Program) or 504 Plan that requires accessible (digital) materials and reading technologies to access the general curriculum, as required by IDEA 2004 law.

Bookshare offers a vast collection (173,000+) of novels, teacher recommended reading, periodicals, best-sellers and over 7000 K-12 textbooks; many with image descriptions.

Members can download free reading technologies to improve reading comprehension and fluency, increase their independence and make easier transitions to college. Learn more at

About the Author

Valerie Chernek is an education technology PR specialist and disability advocate. She shares best practices about digital learning and accessible books to support children with special needs. Follow her on Twitter @valeriechernek or on Facebook.


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Tips for Getting a Free or Low-Cost iPad

Free iPad
It wasn’t long after the iPad first came out that it became clear what a powerful tool it can be for special needs kids. Easier to manipulate than a computer mouse or keyboard, the iPad is able to provide help with communication, motor control, spatial reasoning, and education. Unfortunately, all those benefits come with a hefty price tag. A new iPad plus a good protective case and apps can come out to around $750-800. If you think your child could benefit from this technology but you don’t want to break the bank, check out these ways you can go about getting an iPad completely (or mostly) free.

Ask Your School or Insurance

If your child would benefit from an iPad for communicating or taking notes in school, the school may be happy to provide one. Talk to officials for getting it put in your child’s IEP, and make sure that s/he can take it home from school, too. Other assistive devices can cost ten times as much as the iPad and are far less versatile. Emphasize this in your meeting and come prepared to support your claim that iPads are uniquely beneficial to special needs children (especially yours).
Your insurance company may consider covering an iPad under the category of Durable Medical Equipment. Call them and ask for a case manager who is experienced with special needs children and iPads. They may require that you get letters of medical necessity from experts who work with your child (speech therapist, pediatrician, neurologist). Show the insurance company that there is a real need for this tool and it is not just a toy. If you get denied the first time, apply again. If you get denied a second time, get a letter of rejection that you can provide to charities or in grant applications that request it.


There are plenty of foundations out there who provide financial assistance to families with special needs children. Some organizations specifically give out iPads. All you need to do is apply! Do some research on foundations in your area. The list of available grants is constantly changing (with deadlines passing and new funding opportunities arising), so you should definitely do some poking around to find out good places to apply. Below is a list to get you started. Note that they all have different deadlines, and some of these have requirements including financial need, specific geographic region, or they are only for children who are non-verbal. Make sure you qualify before spending time on the application!

*Note: There are a number of organizations that give iPads specifically to children with autism. If your child has been diagnosed with autism, you may want to look into those.

Tips for Completing Your Grant Application

All of these organizations receive many, many more applications than they can fill. Do what you can to make your application stand out as much as possible. When it comes to grant applications, the little things can cost you an iPad!

  • Do your research. Highlight specific apps that you plan to get and how they will help your child in a way that other devices can’t.
  • Back it up. If you can find data supporting the benefits of a certain app, provide them.
  • Show both the problem and the solution. Your grant proposal should leave the reviewer understanding how bad things are now and how great they will be once your child has an iPad. Include specifics about your child’s situation and health, including the struggles you have had and how you have worked to overcome them.
  • Proofread. In fact, do it twice. And then ask your smartest friend to proofread it too. A well-written application with short, clear sentences will win over your reviewer; an application riddled with spelling and grammatical errors will go straight in the trash.



When looking into help from charities, it is generally more effective to stay local. Look into groups in your area who might be interested in sponsoring you and your child. There are tons of service clubs and organizations looking for projects. When you contact them, keep in mind the same tips as for your grant application. Here are a few examples of the kinds of organizations you should consider contacting:

  • Lion’s Club
  • Rotary Club
  • Kiwanis
  • Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts (especially if your child’s classmates are involved)
  • Church groups or other religious organizations
  • Local high school or university service clubs
  • Fraternities or sororities at nearby universities

This list is just to start you off – there are many more, and if you get in touch, they may be eager to help you!


There’s no shame in asking your family, friends, and community to help you towards your goal. If you make clear the benefits of an iPad to special needs kids, it will feel less like they’re financing an expensive toy. You can use websites like Fundrazr to help. Facebook is a great way to get word out about your fundraising efforts. You might be surprised by contributions from old friends you’ve lost touch with, or, if you have some good friends who re-post about your cause on their wall, you might even get donations from compassionate strangers!
There are tons of ways to go about fundraising. Raffle off donated items. Bake sales are great (especially if you can get others to bake for you, too), but don’t be confined by baked goods; if you’re crafty, sell your crafts instead! You can also put on an event where you charge an entrance fee ($5-10) and have a big jar out for donations. It’s usually easy to get food donated for charitable events by calling or walking into restaurants, bakeries, or even grocery stores. For entertainment, set up face painting and game booths, ask local bands to play some music, or borrow a projector and show an outdoor movie on the side of your house. Just find a low-cost way to attract community members (and their wallets) to your event, and remind them that it’s all with the goal of helping your special needs child get an iPad. If you get the word out and plan well, this can potentially take care of the entire cost in just one day.
Call local news stations or community papers and websites and ask if they want to do a story on you and your fundraising efforts. This is a great way to get exposure and donations. The internet is also full of fundraising ideas, so do some quick googling and you’ll find something that works for you.


Saving (Without Hurting)

  • After each cash purchase, put your loose coins in a special iPad savings jar. You won’t miss it, but it will add up.
  • Have your bank start a separate savings account by withholding some money from each paycheck. If you can put aside $10/week, it won’t be long before you’re holding that new iPad.
  • Ask that birthday and holiday gifts from family and friends be in the form of iTunes or Apple gift certificates.
  • If your credit card offers rewards, points, or miles, put them towards the iPad.
  • Find your costly habits, cut them out, and put that money towards the iPad. This includes expensive coffee drinks, movie theater visits, eating out, fancy cocktails, and splurgy shopping trips. If you get a $4 latte every morning and see a movie in theaters once a week (for a family of four = $40), you could be saving $68 per week and have your iPad (plus apps and accessories) in less than three months. The next time you catch yourself about to buy a pair of shoes you don’t need, skip the shoes but add the cost to your savings account. Small sacrifices can go a long way.

Everyone’s situation is a little different in terms of what they can afford and what their child’s needs are. Hopefully this list has an option for everyone interested in getting an iPad for their child with special needs. If you have the drive and are willing to put in some effort, your child will be on that iPad in no time!

For More on the iPad

10 Ways to Optimize Your iPad for Kids with Special Needs
iPhone and iPad iOS6 Disability Features Overview
iPod and iPad May Ease Transition into Workforce for Those with Disabilities
More on Getting your iPad Funded


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The Best Apps for Children with Cerebral Palsy

By Casey Daniel

Having trouble deciding which apps are worth purchasing for your child? While it’s fantastic that so many special needs apps are available, it can be tough to decide which ones are the most beneficial. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best special needs apps out there – and written a quick synopsis of how each one works! Read on to learn about some of the best assistive communication and educational apps available.

AAC Apps

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) apps are useful for children who are nonverbal or who have speech impairments. They assist communication and language comprehension with a variety of tools, including text-to-speech voices.

Speech Hero AAC – “The Ultimate Speech Board and Communication Tool” ($99.99)
This iPad app is designed for untrained AAC users, so its use is largely self-explanatory. Speech Hero uses a system of “tiles” to help users construct sentences. Each tile has an illustrated word or concept on it – everything from articles of speech (like “the”) to complex ideas (like “fold a piece of paper”). You can import images to create your own tiles; for instance, a photo of the child’s mother can be labeled “Mom.” Drag and drop tiles around the interface to assemble sentences, which are then read aloud by text-to-speech voices. This app is great for aiding independent communication, language comprehension, and purposeful touch. Read a review and see screenshots of Speech Hero.

If you need a little inspiration, take a look at the winning entries from previous World CP Day competitions.

Scene Speak by Good Karma Applications ($9.99)
This app runs on the iPad and is ideal for preschool-aged children, or kids whose cognitive faculties are around a preschool level. Scene Speak is a customizable platform for creating “visual scene displays and social stories.” This means you can upload images from a computer – such as a picture of your child’s classroom – and personalize the image with “hotspots.” (A hotspot is a section of the screen to which you can add audio samples, text labels, or links to different visual scenes. Scenes can also be grouped thematically into “books.”) Scene Speak helps children connect related ideas, enhance receptive language skills, expand vocabulary, and communicate needs. Get more information, including video tutorials.

SonoFlex Lite by Tobii Technology (free trial version of full SonoFlex app)
SonoFlex Lite is available on multiple platforms, including IOS (iPhone and iPad), Android, Kindle Fire, PCs and SGDs. This app is appropriate for both children and teenagers, but is geared towards individuals with higher-level cognition and language skills. SonoFlex Lite displays a grid of buttons and symbols used to assemble sentences, which are then read aloud by text-to-speech voices. Users also have the option of typing on a keyboard or selecting phrases from a “quick phrases” menu. This app can increase social engagement, fine motor skills, and language abilities. If you find this app useful, consider purchasing the full-version SonoFlex app; it costs $99.99, offers a wider array of features, and is more customizable.

iCommunicate by Grembe, Inc. ($49.99)
According to Grembe Inc., iCommunicate is a customizable iPad app used to “design visual schedules, storyboards, communication boards, routines, flash cards, choice boards, speech cards, and more.” Ideal for speech pathologists, this app uses an image library to assemble visual representations of schedules (like “Go to the park at noon”). Audio messages can be attached to any image within the image library. iCommunicate helps regulate routines and enable nonverbal users to indicate their wants and needs. This app is appropriate for both children and adults. Read more information and reviews.

I Can Speak by Lazy River Software ($29.99)
This iPad app is designed to be simple and intuitive. A nonverbal user can install it and be communicating in sentences moments later. When using I Can Speak, there are two primary areas of the screen – a “static area” and a “dynamic area.” The static area contains phrases with which sentences commonly begin (like “I am”), as well as common words like “and” or “with.” The dynamic area is divided into two lists – Words and Activities. The Words list can contain up to 5,000 different words, while the Activities list holds collections of words needed for different activities (like “using the bathroom”). Once a user has assembled a sentence, an automated voice reads it aloud.

Education Apps

The following education apps are designed to help children learn and practice speech, reading, and even math. Our top picks for educational apps:

ArtikPix by Expressive Solutions LLC ($29.99)
ArtikPix grants kids the opportunity to practice speech articulation using flashcard and matching activities. Some perks of this app include a built-in scoring system and the ability to create and share your own cards, as well as audio and visual options to customize the app to your child’s specific needs.

Bob Books #1 – Reading Magic by Learning Touch ($3.99)
This interactive reading app “introduces and reinforces beginning reading concepts.” Recommended by reading specialists, Bob Books #1 uses phonics-based vocabulary and drag-and-drop tiles to teach phonemes and word recognition. Difficulty levels are easily adjustable, and this app may be used in conjunction with standard, paper-based books from Bob Books.

First Words Deluxe by Learning Touch ($4.99)
First Words Deluxe teaches letter and word recognition to toddlers. This app combines all words from earlier FirstWords apps – Sampler, Animals, At Home, and Vehicles. There are over 100 words for toddlers to learn, as well as two new categories, Colors and Shapes.

TeachMe – Kindergarten by 24x7digital ($1.99)
This versatile app has won awards from,, and the Best App Ever Awards. Like a portable kindergarten classroom, it teaches sight words, spelling, basic math, and more! Parents can choose subject matter and adjust difficulty levels. Versions of TeachMe are also available for toddlers and children in the first through third grades.

Montessori Crosswords ($2.99)
This is a word-building game that uses a phonics-enabled alphabet to develop spelling, reading, and writing skills. Montessori Crosswords contains 300+ word-image-audio combinations and interactive visual effects to teach children about language. It is available on both iPad and Android. Check out a review.

Share Your Thoughts

We love feedback, so please let us know how you like any of the apps listed above. Sharing your experiences can help other families make constructive decisions about their own app purchases. We’d also love to know about any special needs apps you would personally recommend, so don’t hesitate to drop us a line – your recommendations might be featured in a future blog!

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