iPads for the disabled

By Grant Jacobs 19/04/2010

The touch interface of the iPad opens opportunities for affordable assistive devices for some disabled people.

In a funny way it’s appropriate following my recent posting of a video of a cat interacting with their owner’s iPad. If a cat can interact with the device, so could some disabled children. In the video below, a 2.5 year-old tries the iPad for the first time.

Young children find the interface natural, which is being exploited by companies producing interactive ’books’ and teaching aids for young children.

I’m showing you this video because of a comment by sarahcooley to a blog post hosting the video:

This is amazing! When my mother first saw the iPad she immediately thought of my youngest brother who is developmentally disabled. She said “I wish people would create software for kids like Philip who are smart, but their fine motor skills are not the best, a touch screen would be perfect”

I wanted to thank you for sharing this video because it really demonstrates the power of the device and how simple it is to use!

The iPad’s touch interface makes for a direct interaction with objects on the screen.  Others have noted this and are developing applications for disabled users. One thing that occurred to me is that this direct interaction requires less associative learning, or at least a more direct association.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Take for example Asher Moses’ article about Grace Dominican, an autistic child with language difficulties, featured in a recent Christchurch Press article. His article prompted this blog post. Grace uses an iPhone rather than an iPad, but the concept is similar. She uses a collection of images that she can point to on the iPhone’s touch interface to communicate. She is able to add to the photo collection herself by taking pictures. (The iPad lacks the built-in camera of the iPhone.)

With a keyboard, you need to learn an association of letters to words and then to objects. With a mouse you need to learn an association of the device and the pointer. With a touch-screen, you just point at the object.

Other individuals that might benefit such as stroke victims and individuals with palsy are mentioned in Chris Lefkow’s article in the Washington Post. There is discussion (YouTube video) of the use of the iPad as notetakers for the blind, an application you might not at first thing of for a device with a screen.

One thing that will appeal to those developing applications in this area, is that the physical interface is already provided; new applications rest only on new software.

As both writers’ articles point out, these devices provide affordable alternatives to expensive special-purpose devices.

Chris’ article notes that some of the more complex gestures may prove limiting. I don’t have first-hand experience of the iPad, but from what I have seen in videos, I can imagine that this is true.
(The graininess is due my scaling the image.)
(The graininess is due my scaling the image.)

Apple has in the past been good about providing controls to adapt it’s interface to disabled users. The control panel of Mac OS X, for example, features a Universal Access’ control panel (shown to the right) that allows users to activate features that may benefit some users with visual, audio and motor control difficulties. These features in various forms have been on Apple’s operating system for many years.

(These features can also be useful for non-disability reasons. I can’t stand computers beeping at my frequent blunders, so I have the screen flash in lieu of a beep. I find a silent computer much more restful…)

Hopefully Apple will note developments in this area and provide options to adapt the touch interface for disabled users.

It’s encouraging to see new applications for the disabled emerge from this device; it’s a wonderful use of the technology.

Other posts on Code for life:

Minorities, disabilities and scientists

Earthquake warning systems (and twitterers)

The iPad: a cat toy?

A plastic ocean

The iPad: a device to consume, not produce

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