The first in a series on Apps as tools universal design for learning and living.
By Joan Guthrie Medlen, M.Ed, RD, LD
Healthy Lifestyle Coaching for All Ages & Stages
In the past year or two, Apps developers for iPod, iPhone, and now iPad have changed the landscape of assistive technology and augmentative communication. So much, in fact, it is overwhelming.
There are Apps for communication, schedules, data tracking, advocacy, social stories, visual timers, medication reminders, and more. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families are joyfully included in this market. We, too, can laugh when someone says, “Did you know there’s an App for that?”
Not only is there an App for that, they are affordable! This alone changes the power struggle over assistive technology and augmentative communication families and people with disabilities experience. Why? Because the tools are available through an inclusive market, not a specialized or segregated one.
It’s about time.
This inclusion does come at a price: shopper overload. When I started researching for this article, I expected to find just a few Apps to highlight. What I found is quite different. There are many Apps for different purposes with a new one popping up almost every day. There is even a “Special Education” category in the App Store. It’s exciting, yet overwhelming. How to choose?
This article will focus on a handful of Apps that support communication. By the way, I have not been paid by any of these companies, and I have not received any specialized services related to the products.
I believe that assistive technology choices are best made with the person and their family leading the way and making the choices. This is easy to do when purchasing an iPod, iPhone, or iPad. Just go to the Apple store and play. Just like everyone else. Before starting your search, have a clear idea of the strengths and challenges the person who will use the App experiences when communicating and using technology.
The person I shop for mainly uses gestures facial expressions and one verbal expression to communicate with others. He is adept at using a modified picture exchange method for making choices, comments, and sharing feelings. He learns by watching others. For example, he learned to use an exchange system communication book by watching his direct support provider use hers to share with him. He thrives with joint attention and problem solving. He does not point well, though, uses his index finger to push buttons if they do not require a strong push. He prefers a combination of photos and drawings. He is able to consistently make choices from a group of six options if he is motivated to communicate. He is motivated to communicate when the outcome is a personal connection and interaction. Less is more. The more he can say with one push or selection, the better.
With that in mind, I went App shopping. Here’s what I learned:
- There is a special education category.
- Some very good Apps are not in the special education category.
- Many have a free version or free trial.
- The reviews and websites are very valuable for making choices.
Here are some of the communication-related Apps I found:
(Descriptions with images are available on the App page to this blog – see tab at the top of the page or link to the right)
Answers “yes” or “no” in a male or female voice. Could be used with people learning to use the iPod/iPad/iPhone as a communication device, to teach yes/no preferences and cause-and-effect.
Grace – Picture Exchange for Non-Verbal people
This APP is designed to be an electronic picture exchange system. The user selects what they want to say from the screen (there are some ways to structure conversations). The user shows it to another person who reads the message with them. It allows 8 symbols/icons per message.
iMean is designed for the iPad. It turns the iPad into a letter board with large, easy-to-read keys and word suggestions.
iCommunicate is one of those App finds outside of the special education category. It is filed under “Medical.” It’s App Store page shows it with photographs only, but drawings or icons could be used if saved in the appropriate file format. iCommunicate is designed for creating pictures, flashcards, storyboards, routines, and visual schedules. “Storyboards’ can be used as social stories or pre-teaching stories. iCommunicate uses audio recorded by you.
At first I thought this was overpriced. Especially if it was merely going to provide prompts. The program is endorsed by Autism Speaks and does far more than provide picture-based prompting. Uses include: Picture Schedules, Visual Countdown timer, Choice Prompts, and an image library. If you have a fourth generation iPod or IPhone, you can take photos for the program using the camera in the device. It is designed to communicate TO someone or WITH someone, not for spontaneous communication FROM someone. Audio is recorded.
Look 2 Learn
Look2Learn is designed for early communicators providing a method for basic choice making and learning to pair an image with a word. The photos and button sizes can be adjusted for best results for the person using the program. The App allows for a statement and a choice such as , “I want…” or “I like…” The number and types of messages a person can use to communicate with this program is limited. It is essential to have a plan for the next step when using this program for teaching early communication methods. The website offers instructions and lesson plans for using the App. This program is being used in Orange County, CA Schools as part of a teaching strategy for students with autism called Touch 2 Learn. (They have also developed a Stories2Learn App for social stories).
My Talk Tools
Moble App: $39.99
Desktop WorkSpace: $9.95 for subscription
Mobile Lite: Free
My Talk Tools is able to use photos and images to create menus and layered levels of communication menus. It uses recorded voice and photos or drawings that are uploaded either to the device or to the My Talk Tools Workspace. The App provides 1-8 squares for communication selection. In addition, space can be built between the photo options for new users. My Talk Tools provides a one message at a time button system rather than a system to build a sentence. Users can string messages together. Users can also select one button to share a complex message that is recorded. My personal favorite feature is an online workspace to create the communication boards and upload pictures. The iPod or iPad then syncs with the workspace so you can record the voice output for each button. The workspace is optional and is offered as a subscription-based service rainging from $9/mo to $175 for 3 years.
This program is one that appears to have the broadest support in schools. Keep in mind that does not mean it is the best choice or the easiest to use. The program works similarly to a Dynavox. The communicator builds sentences using symbols and then plays the sentence back. The system uses digitized speech for voice output, which can be difficult for some users to understand.
With the rate of development for Apps, this is only a few of the more popular Apps that are available for communication. This wide variety of affordable choices is something that has been missing for those who use augmentative communication systems. It is stil very important to consider how the person who will use the App uses technology, their learning style, and their preferred method of communication before investing. There is also the risk that education professionals will provide an App because it is familiar. This is no longer acceptable.
The good news is you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to be able to provide a communication device for your child.
Have something to say? There’s an App for that!