Touchscreen Tech Helping People With Disabilities

Sarah Collerton

Updated September 23, 2011 07:38:39

Sophie now regularly uses programs and games on a tablet to help improve her literacy.

Sophie now regularly uses programs and games on a tablet to help improve her literacy.

When Kirsten Deane started to teach her daughter Sophie to read, it was harder than it needed to be.

It wasn't so much that Sophie, 10, has Down syndrome and a hearing impairment that makes speech quite difficult for her. Ms Dean found there was a lack of technology to assist.

"When I started a reading program with her five years ago, I was making up books for her using photos of our family and then matching them with symbols - a whole way of reinforcing literacy," Kirsten Deane said.

"I spent a lot of time printing out photos, laminating them and having them bound."

But technology, like tablets and smart phones, now offer an easier alternative to making these books.

"Having a tablet would have made it extraordinarily easier," Ms Deane said.

"If I'd been teaching her now, I would've done it on the iPad for her and it could have included me reading to her as well."

Sophie now regularly uses programs and games on a tablet to help improve her literacy, which in turn helps her speech - and she enjoys it.

"Sophie is very highly motivated to use a spelling program on her tablet because it's so much fun - that's really helping her literacy and also her speech," said Ms Deane, the executive director of National Disability and Carer Alliance.


"There's no problem in getting her to do it; she thinks it's a hoot.

"For children with a disability, doing some literacy work or communications on a device like a smart phone or a tablet is very highly motivating and fun. Children are quite keen to participate.

"It's something that they see the other kids doing, and it gives them a sense that they're just like other kids."

But it's far from being a device just for kids - the advent of smart phones and tablets is offering people with disabilities of all ages a much easier way to communicate.

Ms Deane also finds tablets and smart phones much cheaper and easier than previous equipment on offer for people with disabilities.

"Instead of having these specialised often very large and cumbersome - and expensive - communication equipment, they can be replaced with a relatively inexpensive smart phone or tablet," she said.

Ms Deane says tablets and smart phones are replacing older techniques too, such as carrying around a large folder of symbols.

"For people who find communication difficult, we've used a lot of visual symbols before and quite often what would happen is that people would have to carry around either a very large folder with their most common symbols," she said.

"They would have to lug that folder around when they wanted to communicate. And if the symbol you wanted to use wasn't in the folder, then you had a problem.

"Now there's a couple of fantastic programs that have those symbols on a tablet and you can set them up in situations."


Leah Hobson, acting CEO of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, says smart phones and tablets benefit people with a range of disabilities.

"For children with autism, tablets are a very good way to engage in communication with those children," she said.

"For adults who are signing deaf, it's often a very good way for them to communicate via things like FaceTime on the Apple tablets, where you can actually have a signed conversation privately with somebody else who signs in a portable.

"People who are blind or vision impaired find them great because they can get directions on the go for a GPS.

"People with physical difficulties might find them better because it's easier than using a keyboard; it's more lightweight and easier to carry."

But Ms Hobson says more needs to be done to make these technologies available to more people; she says the costs are still too great for many to bare.

"The cost is a huge barrier for some people with disabilities," she said

"It can be cheaper in some instances; certainly people who are blind or vision impaired who use screen-reading software might find that if they buy a smart phone that has inbuilt software that will read what's on the screen and tell them what's appearing, they pay $1,000 upfront for the phone and the software is already there.

"But if they buy a tablet or a phone that doesn't already have that software installed, they are paying $1,000 for the phone or tablet, and then another $1,000 at least on top of that for the software.

"So in some ways it can be a cheaper option for people with disabilities, but there's still that immediate barrier that you need to be able to pay upfront, and if you're on disability support pension, that can be quite difficult.

"For people who are unemployed and on disability support pension or Newstart or families with younger children, it can be a real struggle to pay for that kind of technology."

Ms Hobson wants to see the Government helping out more.

"At the moment, the Government will fund some specialist equipment for landline phones, but the policies around that haven't caught up with funding equipment like mobile phones and tablets," she said.

"It would be fantastic if the Australian Government helped out and looked at what people with disabilities need to communicate with the world in the way everyday Australians do."

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