Why iPad is the Ideal Learning Tool for the Blind & Visually Impaired

Apple Tablet is Wholly Accessible, Says TVI Trainer Tara Mason

Built-in accessibility apps make the iPad ideal for students with visual impairments.
The iPad is providing a robust tablet for teaching students who are blind or visually impaired. Tara Mason

Apple’s iPad is proving especially accessible to students who are blind or visually impaired.

According to Tara Mason, who trains teachers of the visually impaired (TVI) at Texas Tech University, the tablet is also becoming a crucial low-vision aid for the one-to-one teaching models many school districts are adopting.

In this interview, conducted via email on February 7, 2013, Mason discusses what she likes about the iPad, how it meshes with other assistive devices, and the many ways it can benefit visually impaired students.

Q. Commercials for iOS Devices are so Visually Stunning--So What Makes Them So Well Suited to Blind and Visually Impaired Students?

T.M.: What I like about iPads is that they come with built-in accessibility applications relating to vision, hearing, mobility limitations, and learning disabilities. Previously, users with visual impairments would have had to purchase a screen reader such as, JAWS to access their computer. Many personal devices may not have even supported a screen reader. But now, this game-changing tablet provides immediate access to applications and the Internet. The iPad is also cheaper than devices built for the blind, such as the BrailleNote Apex 32 BT. A Bluetooth keyboard or display (e.g. BraillePen 12 or Focus 14 Blue) connected to an iPad can be a far more cost effective solution for braille users. Bluetooth devices enable users to read what’s onscreen or what they’ve typed as well as listen to it via the screen reader.

Finally, the uniformity of iOS accessibility enables blind and visually impaired students to use all Apple products, including MacBooks, iPhones, and the iPod touch. 

Q. What Third-party Apps Would You Recommend be Installed on a Visually Impaired Student's iPad?

T.M.: I always recommend teachers, parents and educational teams look to native Apple apps first before downloading 3rd party apps, as native ones will work best with VoiceOver, Zoom, and other accessibility features.

Teaching students apps such as Calendar, Notes, Email, Pages, Keynote, and Safari will familiarize them with the device and will promote accessibility. Screen readers, for example, cannot read unlabeled objects such as graphics. Apple labels all of its apps to make them screen reader compatible. Third party apps may or may not be, though most developed specifically for the blind and visually impaired are compatible. One app I recommend to educators and families is the ViA app from the Braille Institute, which includes a list of blindness-specific apps with links to download sites.

I also highly recommend using the Expanded Core Curriculum to connect students with the right apps. For example, the ECC includes direct teaching of both career education and independent living skills. So I might teach a student how to create task lists using “Reminders” to have VoiceOver automatically read pop-up reminders. For busy students, I might help them practice using Calendar.

Q. Is the iPad Robust Enough to Replace, or Be Equivalent of a Computer?

T.M: I think the iPad is a great personal device for any student with a visual impairment. I can see good reasons for having an iPad, iPhone, and a laptop computer.

A student could potentially get away with just an iPad, as it can connect them with others via the Internet. An iPad + a Bluetooth keyboard may be enough for completing schoolwork as well. For the college-bound student, I’d recommend both a personal device and a computer. Neither the iPad nor the iPhone or iPod touch is a computer. They’re great for input and output, but their operating system is more simplistic. A key factor in decision making is considering what critical tasks the student needs to accomplish.

Q. Some Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors Won’t  Purchase iPads. Has this Changed?

T.M.: I do not know much about this as I’m not a vocational rehabilitation counselor. When I worked as a teacher, vocational professionals usually couldn’t purchase BrailleNotes unless it met a student’s work-based need.

I think this is changing. iPads offer several communication options, such as FaceTime, which can support sign language during video chats, or HIMS Chat, an app, which, when combined with a BrailleNote, enables educators to converse with deafblind students. For reasons such as these, funding has become more readily available. Additionally, since iPads can fulfill many independent living and career needs, educational programs can more easily justify funding.

Q. What Advice Can You Offer on How to Get an iPad at the Best Possible Price?

T.M.: What I advise teachers, parents, and students to do is to check the Apple refurbished store before purchasing. Educational teams may be able to purchase Apple iOS devices at a reduced price with higher storage capacities this way.

Q. Does the iPad mini Offer Any Advantages to Visually Impaired Students?

T.M.: Each model may have its’ benefits over another depending on a student’s needs. I like Apple minis for younger students who usually have smaller hands. An iPad with a retina display may better accommodate a low-vision student using the device as a CCTV. Students who could benefit from voice recognition apps may be happier with a newer iPad that includes Siri.

Q. Is There a Bottom Line Benefit for the iPad in Today’s Wired Classroom?

T.M.: I believe iPads offer visually impaired students greater flexibility, compatibility, and social mainstreaming than most other devices. If something goes wrong with an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, an Apple store can usually fix the device in less time.

iOS devices may also provide the easiest way to access the Internet. Additionally, many school districts are adopting one-to-one teaching models. Apple devices are on the forefront of this movement and can help narrow the achievement gap for visually impaired students.