Supporting Children with Special Needs and SEN at Home Using Smartphones and Tablets

Posted in: Learning, Pedagogy and Diversity

Simon Hayhoe, University of Bath

With children being kept at home because of the Coronavirus, one thing that hasn’t been talked about much is how to support children with special needs or special educational needs at home. Often, these children will have specialist teaching support and technologies at school that need to be substituted at home.

Not many people think of their smartphones or tablets as being a way to access educational support. Yet, nowadays these technologies can be amongst the best ways of teaching your children, and enjoying learning as they do so. My smartphone, for instance, has many accessible functions my desktop computer had five years ago. It also has several times more the computing power, memory and functions than the desktop computers I used as a teacher.

This blog introduces ways your smartphones, tablets and their apps, have helped to transform access to education. For practical reasons, in this blog I focus on the accessible apps on Apple and Android (the latter is produced by Google), which covers most devices.

First, where to find access settings on your smartphone or tablet. On Apple devices, the access settings have an icon shaped like a stick person with arms outstretched in a blue circle. On Android devices, this is a green person with their arms outstretched. Below is information on how to use these settings:



Second, in my own work supporting students with physical and learning needs, my colleagues and I found that accessible settings on smartphones and tablets are best at four tasks, which are outlined below:

  1. accessing writing and typing
  2. recording voices and sounds
  3. taking photographs and recording videos and images
  4. touch and gestures


Accessing Writing and Typing

There are many ways of using smartphones and tablets for note taking and organising, something that is particularly useful for people with learning difficulties such as dyslexia and other communication difficulties. During our work to provide support, my colleagues and I found that people like to type quick notes into memoing apps.

For instance, regular book text, icons, menus and note taking in memoing or word-processing apps can be increased through accessible preferences. These functions often take a little time to be setup, but they can be easily customised for individual children’s needs. Similarly, Braille options through different wireless networking functions, such as Bluetooth devices, allow for contracted and eight-dot-Braille.

Similarly, color inversion options that are in the accessibility preferences menu and through novelty apps such as Photo Booth, can make it easier to read text and some images. For instance, changing light coloured backgrounds to darker colors and darker colored text to lighter colors can make reading or recognising text easier. You can also use an x-ray option to invert the colours of text and its background, making hand writing photographed using such apps more readable.

Smartphones and tablets also have magnification gestures. This function allows you to pan across an image or a page by dragging across the screen with your fingers. It can also help to zoom into an image or page by pinching with your fingers and returning to the regular view by lifting your fingers off the screen. With Android and Apple, you can also magnify standard sized text through repeatedly tapping the same point of the touch screen gently.

Apple and Android also provides accessible text for people with hearing impairments. For instance, Google subtitles, which are a form of closed captions for videos that support this feature when played through an Android app, such as YouTube. The language, text size, and colour of text and background can be adjusted for this setting by means of a slider.

Recording Voices and Other Sounds

Perhaps rather obviously most speech-to-text functions we use are useful for those who have visual impairments and learning difficulties, who often prefer voice notes to written notes. These options include the speed of speech, with many people with visual impairments preferring faster speech and some people with learning difficulties preferring slower speech. You can also use dialect and language options such as different English language dialects and accents. Usefully, we also find that we can adjust the phonetics and pitch of apps to make voices more pronounced – this is especially helpful for children with certain hearing impairments.

Both Apple and Android have their own voice recording apps. For example, Quick Time Player and Android’s sound recorder app is useful for recording long notes and on-line classes to hear them over and over. The files from these recordings can also be easily transferred to other devices if these machines have better speakers.

During projects, my colleagues and I also trialled extra apps such as Evernote to record notes, and this can be used to record online classes. This app was especially useful as it filed and displayed sound recordings, and could be used to store graphics and make written notes too. Many note taking apps also have the advantage that they can store a certain amount on cloud-based files. Apps can also be used to organise files in folders or upload to regular cloud apps, such as Google Drive.

Taking Photographs and Recording Videos

My colleagues and I find photography can be particularly helpful and enjoyable during support sessions as a way of learning, recording information and memories, and for teaching soft-skills. Apart from reversing the colors as per the text settings, the regular camera app or Photo Booth are again largely accessible without making too many changes. These apps also have powerful regular functions for those with visual impairments, and can help zoom into books, artworks or regular graphics. Images can also be shared by social media sites with parents’ help to keep in touch with classmates and friends.

Regular camera apps also have video and time-lapse options built it in to record children’s thoughts and send messages for those who find written communication harder. Students find they can also zoom into these images on-screen later for revision. These recordings and images can also be accessibly edited using video recording and editing apps, which again allow those we support to zoom into details of graphics or pause educational videos.

During our work, we’ve also found that video conferencing allows easier communication between classmates to get peer support. Children with some learning difficulties can also video themselves doing tasks and get feedback of their practice during tasks. Videoing is of course especially useful for sign-language conversations, and makes it easier to lip read when playing back conversations.

Using Touch and Gestures

Gestures provide help with sensory motor skills and are a powerful skill that encourages children to learn more skills through mobile technologies. Assistive touch features can also allow users to design their own custom gestures. This feature particularly supports people with a lack of mobility or use of their hands to record simple gesture to replace complex ones. We also found this feature is useful for people with learning difficulties, who find sensory motor skills more difficult.

If you record simpler gestures to substitute more difficult gestures, these gestures can be made available through favourites on the device menu, and provide an easier means of apps and devices. It’s also possible to set up guided access that locks a multi-use tablet on a single app. This function ensures people with learning disabilities and young children have access to a small number of apps without having to tap an icon over and over. You can also use Siri to ameliorate certain gestures and make accessing certain functions easier.

Some Final Thoughts

Finally, it should be borne in mind that these mobile technologies are evolving. The more you use these systems as a means of support now, the more likely you will have the skills and be able to take advantage of new technologies when they appear. So, learning all these functions at home now will greatly benefit children with special needs as they age.

The younger you start them, the better it is!

Posted in: Learning, Pedagogy and Diversity

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