With the introduction of the first iPad in 2010, Apple began nudging its lineup of mobile devices into the hands of students. During the last four years, the company has steadily improved the accessibility features of iOS, its mobile operating system, to the point where an iPhone or iPad can be considered an indispensable educational tool for students with dyslexia. At the same time, third-party app developers created assistive technology ("AT") which is invaluable to those with reading and writing difficulties. iDevices have become multisensory learning tools that follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning ("UDL"), and students with dyslexia are better equipped to be independently successful in school.
The latest iteration of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 8, is loaded with enough built-in accessibility features that students with dyslexia can use an iPhone or iPad to deal with the reading and writing demands of modern education. To hear a textbook chapter, worksheet, or website read aloud with text-to-speech technology, students have three options in iOS 8. They can use a feature called Speak Selection to choose specific text that they want read out loud, or they can use VoiceOver or the new Speak Screen to have text read continuously over multiple pages. In addition, many apps are compatible with the option to highlight content as it is read. In terms of providing help with writing and spelling, iOS 8 has dictation and word prediction (QuickType) built right into its keyboard. The dictation is incredibly accurate, and the word prediction gets better over time as iOS learns what words a user commonly includes in different types of writing (e.g., email, word processing documents, textbook notes). In all, Apple has put a great deal of work into developing the accessibility component of its mobile devices, which is a huge boon for students with dyslexia.
The overall success of the iPhone and iPad is, of course, dependent on the apps that are available to users. Fortunately for students with dyslexia, developers have shown a tremendous interest in creating apps that assist with language-based activities. Beyond just the basic productivity apps that are useful to all students, there are AT-specific apps that help with reading, writing, and study skills. Students with dyslexia can go beyond iOS text-to-speech with reading apps like Voice Dream Reader, Learning Ally Audio, and Prizmo. They can get advanced assistance with their writing by using Inspiration Maps, Ginger Keyboard + Page, and Co:Writer. Finally, they can work on their study skills with multisensory apps like Flashcards Deluxe and Mental Note.
Multisensory learning is at the heart of the Orton-Gillingham approach, as well as other successful methods of teaching language skills to students with dyslexia. Teachers design activities that simultaneously address visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning so that students develop a deeper knowledge of the language. In that spirit, Apple devices also provide multisensory experiences. Students can see learning material on a screen, listen to it using text-to-speech or recorded audio, and manipulate it with their fingers using the touch-screen interface. That kind of interactive learning makes an iPhone or iPad a valuable educational tool for all students, particularly those with dyslexia.
Universal Design for Learning
One of the most important characteristics of Apple products is that they offer multiple ways for students to receive information, demonstrate their knowledge, and stay engaged in learning. They can read literature with either their eyes or ears, type or dictate essays, and research online encyclopedias or watch videos while preparing a report. Thus, iPhones and iPads follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning. As a result, all students, regardless of language skills, are using them; effectively eliminating the stigma dyslexic students may feel while using "special" assistive technology.
In fairness to the more powerful desktop computers, iDevices alone are likely not going to be enough to get dyslexic students through high school and beyond. There are going to be academic tasks that require more robust technology. Nevertheless, an iPhone or iPad, with its available AT, lower price point, and mobility, should be the first thing in every dyslexic's tool kit.