First Thoughts on iPad Potential for People with Intellectual Disabilities

I am intrigued by the iPad’s potential as a computer for people with intellectual disabilities (ID). It could be set up as a Web-access only device, and essential functions could be Web-based. This could be done with computers, but the iPad has at least two distinct advantages.

  • no or low hardware-maintenance
  • minimal management of software updates and installation

These advantages alone are enormous in terms of overall ease-of-use. They are also great for dramatically reducing long-term technical support- and training costs compared to those needed for computers.

I think that to make an iPad truly useful for people with ID, an even simpler interface could be developed for it. I imagine that, upon being turned on, the iPad could present three or four buttons.

One button could start a Web-based e-mail app, such as CogLink that is designed for people with ID, or one with which a user is already familar, such as Yahoo Mail.

A button could start a Web browser app, like Web Trek, which is designed for people with ID.

Another button could start an augmentative-communication app. They exist already. Jane Farrall recently posted a list of iPhone/iPad augmentative communication apps on the Spectronics Blog.

An iPad, with a simple-to use interface similar to those presented by augmentative communication apps, would be a lot less expensive than single purpose AC devices or multi-function computers.

Readers may be interested in these articles:

Note: For the purpose of exploring the iPad’s potential for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities, one was generously provided to me by the project for which I work, New England INDEX at the Shriver Center, part of The University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Conferences Related to Technology, Web Accessibility and Cognitive Disabilities

Two upcoming- and two recent conferences are listed below along with their related topics and presenters.

Upcoming Conferences

All Together Now: The Power of Partnerships In Cognitive Disability & Technology

  • October 21, 2010 – Westminster, Colorado, U.S.
  • Forty Years after PARC v The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Is there a right to technology access? – Gilhool, Thomas
  • A Partnership for Technology to Improve Quality of Life – Pietrangelo, Renee
  • Accessible TeleMEd and eHealth Strategies for People with Cognitive Disabilities – O’Hara, David
  • Technologies to Improve Quality of Life for People with Cognitive Disabilities – Kautz, Henry
  • Developing an Accessible National Information Infrastructure for People with Cognitive Disabilities – Coleman, Bill

Web Accessibility London 2010 Unconference

  • September 21, 2010 – London, England
    • “The unconference will have a motor impairment theme … ” but “… will also consider cognitive impairments and the wider-disability population.”

Recent Conferences

12th International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs

  • July 14 to 16, 2010 – Vienna, Austria
  • Track IV, Session C: People with Specific Learning and Cognitive Problems: ICT, AT and HCI
    • Developing a Multimedia Environment to Aid in Vocalization for People on the Autism Spectrum: A User-Centered Design Approach – Al-Wabil, Areej
    • EasyICT: a Framework for Measuring ICT -Skills of People with Cognitive Disabilities – Dekelver, Jan
    • Involving users in the design of ICT aimed to improve education, work, and leisure for users with intellectual disabilities – Gutiérrez y Restrepo, Emmanuelle
    • Methodological Considerations for Involving SpLD Practitioners in the Design of Interactive Learning Systems  – Karim, Latifa
    • PDA software aimed at improving workplace adaptation for people with cognitive disabilities  – Ferreras, Alberto
    • The Performance of Mouse Proficiency for Adolescents with Intellectual Disabilities – Wu, Ting-Fang
    • Towards an Interactive Screening Program for Developmental Dyslexia: Eye Movement Analysis in Reading Arabic Texts – Al-Wabil, Areej
    • When Words Fall Short: Helping People with Aphasia to Express – Al Mahmud, Abdullah
  • Track IV, Session D: Easy – to – Web
    • Adaptive Reading: A Design of Reading Browser with Dynamic Alternative Text Multimedia Dictionaries for the Text Reading Difficulty Readers – Chu, Chi Nung
    • Easy-to-web search for people with learning disabilities as part of an integrated conception of cognitive web accessibility – Erle, Markus
    • EasyWeb – A Study How People with Specific Learning Difficulties Can Be Supported on Using the Internet – Matausch, Kerstin
    • In-Folio: An Open Source Portfolio for students with learning disabilities – Ball, Simon
    • Supporting the web experience of young people with learning disabilities – Weber, Harald
    • The need for Easy-to-Read information on web sites – Bohman, Ulla

Annual Conference of The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Know of another such conference? Please post a comment.

My Current Cognitive Web Accessibility Projects

The following are brief descriptions of projects I have undertaken to help make the Web more accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.

Note: If you would like to help with any of these projects, please post a comment or contact me.

New Readability Tool Built Into Safari 5

Reader, a new feature of Safari 5, removes visual distractions from Web pages. This is a boon for people with cognitive disabilities, indeed everyone distracted by advertisements, contextually-irrelevant images, etc..

How Reader Works

For any Web page Safari 5 recognizes as an article, a gray button labeled “Reader” appears to the right of the Web address at the top of the screen. (The button is indicated by a red arrow in the image below of a Wikipedia page.)

Wikipedia page displayed within Safari 5.

Clicking the button, which changes its color to purple, activates Reader. The following image shows the result: a view of only the page’s primary text.

Three columns. The middle one contains the article's text. The others are black bars that mask distracting elements.

Clicking the button again or pressing the “Esc” key deactivates Reader.


  • A toolbar appears near the bottom of the screen. It presents options to reduce- and enlarge text size, forward the article via e-mail, and print it.
  • Safari 5 remembers the selected text size the next time the article is viewed.
  • Every page of the article is displayed within Reader.


  • Neither the toolbar nor the Reader button are keyboard accessible.
  • The toolbar appears for just seconds, so using it means acting fast and with accuracy.
  • Clicking a link to an external page, even if Safari 5 recognizes it as an article, displays it outside of Reader.


This is the first time such a readability tool has been built into a popular Web browser. I hope it is adopted by all the others. For now, equivalent tools can be added to browsers via plug-ins.  Three I have reviewed are listed below.

I also hope these readability tools show Web designers how difficult the reading experience can be. Large- or animated advertisements and other distractions can drive people from Web sites. Simple page layouts designed for readability can have the opposite effect. An example of this is Craig’s List.

Other Readability Tools

Free Readability Tool for iPhone & Desktop Web Browsers

Readable Tool Better Than One David Pogue Says Is Best Tech Idea Of 09

Readability: Free Tool Strips All Distractions From Web Pages

Note: The version of Safari referenced above is 5.0 (7533.16). No endorsement of it is intended or implied.

Helping a Nonprofit Provide PC- & Web Access to People with Intellectual Disabilties

Yesterday, I visited a nonprofit that serves several hundred people with intellectual disabilities. I met with the executive director, the director of information services, and a representative of the people being served. We discussed setting up a computer lab, providing computers to people living in their residences, and training.

Generally, the people being served do not possess computers. There is a small number who use the computers of public libraries. A poll taken by the representative indicated significant interest in acquiring and learning to use computers, with e-mail being the main purpose. The executive director expressed the need for people also to learn basic employment-related skills, such as word processing, spreadsheet use and job finding.

About computers in a lab and in residences, identified questions included the following.

  1. Should and could technical staff resources be extended to set up and maintain computers, related infrastructure, and end-user support?
  2. Which other resources should and could be provided: e.g., Internet connections, computers, software, training?
  3. How could the agency help protect people from nefarious activities such as scams and malware infestations?
  4. What assistive-technology hardware and/or software might be needed? Who would purchase and support it?

I suggested an overall approach. We brainstormed about some potential solutions.

  1. Have the three groups (executive, information technology, and the people being served) work together to develop policies. The policies would both offer and reasonably limit:
    1. hardware and software installation;
    2. maintenance and technical support;
    3. services such as broadband Internet connections, and how they could be supported financially;
    4. minimum security standards;
    5. end-user training;
  2. Start with setting up a computer lab in part to train people who want a computer in their residence.
  3. Set up central management of the computers, as schools and businesses do, to:
    1. prevent installation of rogue software;
    2. keep operating systems and applications up-to-date; and
    3. revert computers to a previously-stored state either regularly or if trouble occurs.
  4. Consider router / firewall services:
    1. requiring computers to meet minimum standards before attaching to a network or to the Internet; and
    2. providing anti-virus, anti-malware and, perhaps, Web site-restrictions.
  5. Install on computers exclusively a Web browser and software ancillary to it.
  6. Train people on the basics of Web-based applications such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office Live.
  7. Show people how to use Web-based e-mail or perhaps an e-mail product designed for people with intellectual disabilities.
  8. Develop training not only for the people being served, but also for support staff who could help them maintain newly-acquired skills. The representative of the people being served expressed ideas for related funding.
  9. Perhaps bring into the residences, after the work with the computer lab has gone well, sharable broadband connections and/or computers.
  10. Consider, instead of computers, a device such as the Apple iPad. Potential advantages are:
    1. low purchase cost, especially if it could be used in place of very-expensive assistive technology;
    2. low maintenance, in part because hardware support would be provided by the manufacturer, not by the agency’s technical staff;
    3. a simple-to-use interface that would not require learning how to use a mouse or a (external) keyboard;
    4. built-in connection to the Internet via a wireless- or cellular network.

I agreed to continue in a technical-advisory role. I also committed to work directly with people to learn about their difficulties using computers and the Web, and to help train them to overcome those problems. Such training would be passed on to support staff so long-term assistance could be provided.

I will post updates about the project as it progresses. Have advice? Want to get involved? Please post a comment or contact me.