Assistive technology products can enable people with disabilities to accomplish everyday living tasks, help them in communication, education, work, or recreation activities. They help them achieve greater independence and enhance their quality of life. These devices can help improve physical or mental functioning, help overcome a disorder or impairment, help prevent the worsening of a condition, strengthen a physical or mental weakness, help improve a person's capacity to learn, or even replace a missing limb. Many of these assistive technologies are quite expensive and are often out of reach for a lot of families.
Enter the tablet!
Last October, 60 Minutes ran a segment where touchscreen devices and apps were hailed by parents, therapists, and teachers who found that applications on tablets -- both Android and Apple -- helps children with learning disabilities express themselves and develop important daily skills. Because of the customization options and because the iPad is a "cool tech device" that doesn't immediately mark a child as different, many see it as a more attractive option than the more traditional devices. This is of huge benefits to a child's self-esteem. Some children have been captivated by the iPad, finding the motivation to master quite a few new skills in a short span of time.
The touch screen and layout make a tablet more accessible for children with coordination or learning difficulties; these children may find sliding and tapping easier than either typing or writing. Moreover, a tablet can be easily carried, and is helpful for calming and focusing children who are on the go. The low cost of these devices is quite family-friendly.
The hardware is certainly impressive, but it's only as good as the applications that are on it. Luckily there is a growing list of apps that cover a wider range of topics. Apps can help children who have trouble with stressful social situations, such as large crowds, develop the proper communication skills. They have also provided children with autism who cannot speak or experience language delays as a form of communication. There are also apps that help with fine-motor skills like holding small objects and writing.
The site "Moms with Apps" has a long list of apps available. One of my favorites is the "Grace App" by Steven-Troughton Smith (See Demo Video) A simple picture exchange system developed by and for non-verbal people allowing the user to communicate their needs by building sentences from relevant images. It can be customised by the individual using their picture and photo vocabulary with the user taking and saving pictures independently to the app. For a first person account, there is an amazing blog entitled "The iPad: a Near-Miracle for My Son With Autism" by Shannon Des Roches Rosa who is the BlogHer.com Contributing Editor on parenting children with special needs.
I believe that we have only scratched the surface of harnessing technology's amazing power to help children overcome cognitive and mental health challenges of all types. While certainly not a cure, technology's ability to create differentiated learning environments and to create exciting simulations and virtual environments will go a long way in helping children with learning disabilities succeed.