We need to remind ourselves that ‘Accessibility’ needn’t be a term reserved just for physically disabled. Those with dyslexia or other learning disabilities face real challenges navigating the world of printed words. It’s largely inaccessible to them because it’s often incomprehensible. However, new accessibility apps from Apple and others, are beginning to give these people the access that most of the rest of us tend to take for granted. While they may not have been the targeted market or driving force behind the design, it’s clear these apps benefit those with dyslexia and related disabilities.

Accessibility Apps help students with dyslexia or other learning disabilitiesFor someone with Dyslexia, reading a simple paragraph or even a couple lines of instructions is a tedious and frustrating process. This makes everyday activities difficult and learning from textbooks or other dense, voluminous material is nearly impossible. Spelling and written expression can also be very difficult.

 Dyslexia does not impact intellectual ability but it will prevent these bright people from acquiring information as others do in the typical learning environment.

 So what do people who have dyslexia do when they encounter printed text? Sadly enough, some simply avoid it or give up. Others find or create methods to help them succeed.

Thanks to accessibility technologies built into Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and Mac, more and more people with dyslexia and other disabilities are finding they can readily access the information in books, newspapers, websites, email, and more. Using devices to help people adapt the world to their needs is not a new paradigm, but having inexpensive, easy to use, readily available tools (these apps!) is what success is all about these days. Below I’ll highlight a few of my favorite apps for use on Apple devices. Visit iMore to find out about these and others from Apple. Of course there are plenty of more universally applicable educational tools and resources out there that have been around for years. I’ll mention some of them as well because of their proven positive impact.

Speak Selection
Speak Selection reads aloud any text highlighted on the iPhone or iPad. Having the words spoken really improves understanding of students. The app can even be set to highlight words as they’re read to help the reader follow along. We also use it to highlight text so the highlighted part can be read back again to the reader to aid in comprehension.

The Dictation feature allows students to get their ideas out so they can freely and fully express themselves; returning later to work on fine-tuning the written script. Writing can be painfully frustrating for students with dyslexia since they often end up forgetting their overarching thought or stream of consciousness as they struggle with the task of spelling and writing individual words.

iOS 8 brings with it the option to activate this feature — a predictive keyboard that gets smarter as you use it. It helps with poor spelling by suggesting words based on the first few characters.
With these types of integrated technologies and apps, people with disabilities can have access so they can readily use their creative and intellectual abilities rather than being held back by their disabilities.

Apple device users can also enjoy services offered by third-party apps developed with the Apple devices as the foundation.

One of these services, Bookshare, offers over 280,000 books that can be downloaded directly and read with text-to-speech. The combination of text-to-speech and highlighting greatly improves readability and comprehension for qualifying students. Thanks to a grant from the United States Department of Education Bookshare is free to U.S. students.

Voice Dream Reader is a super-cool text-to-speech app for iOS. It allows students to input text from a variety of sources (Bookshare, web, clipboard, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, Project Gutenberg, etc.) Once the text is loaded, it can even be read with a number of different text-to-speech voices (albeit at additional cost). The app includes highlighting, note taking features, and students can customize the look of their text as well. This app is a great pairing with Bookshare for reading books on the go.

Another service, called Learning Ally provides human-narrated audio books that can also be downloaded to a wide variety of devices such as Android, not just Apple. Learning Ally is a national nonprofit with resources designed to support students with learning disabilities and their families. Of note, the highlighting of feature of this service is not word by word as in Bookshare and Kurzweil (see below), but rather is paragraph by paragraph.

Prizmo is an especially powerful app that uses optical character recognition (OCR) to recognize and read back text in a matter of seconds from a picture of a text document. So if a student is having a tough time reading through something, they can take a picture and have Prizmo read it back to them. Though not the strongest OCR engine in the industry, it is ideal for use with mobile devices.

Individuals with dyslexia and other learning disabilities have already given these apps and services positive reviews – explaining that these apps level the playing field for them, and encouraging developers to come up with even more life-enabling tools. Hopefully, the increased focus on accessibility from sites such as iMore will help push innovation even further.

All the above are apps and services oriented to mobile users and more specifically Apple devices. With the school year already in swing, I’ll mention a number of other powerful applications and sites that are available for the home, office, and school and can be accessed and used across just about any platform, Mac or PC.

Kurzweil 3000
Kurzweil 3000 is a reading and writing program for scanned and digital documents so students can benefit from high quality text-to-speech and synchronized highlighting. Mrs. Kurzweil was actually the name of my sweet and wonderful teacher in first grade so I’m more than just partial to this one. Students can annotate documents with text notes, audio notes, highlighting and circle functions. Even test taking is simplified since students can fill in the blanks on documents – answering directly on the digital document. This powerful tool has additional writing help such as mapping and word prediction features mentioned above.

Khan Academy
Khan Academy is a fantastic free service providing video tutorials for students in just about any subject. Enthusiastic scientists and teachers walk students through difficult concepts step-by-step in a way that is easy to understand and follow. The video tutorials cover an enormous range of content ranging from algebra to zoology and is helpful for learning new subjects as well as reinforcing material that may not have been fully grasped in the classroom. And at the end of many lessons students can even take a short quiz to reassure themselves that they have understood the content. Visit Khan Academy at khanacademy.org.

The last items I want to share are devices that once again, help level the playing field for those with learning or hearing disorders.

Phones and tablets are convenient tools for recording classes and lectures but unless the speaker is consistently close to the device, the built-in microphone may do a poor job of isolating the speaker from surrounding noise. The resulting recording may be filled with background noice making it difficult to hear and virtually useless for those with hearing disorders. MightyMic from Ampridge is a discreet, compact microphone that plugs into the headphone jack on any portable device and then angled toward the part of the room that has the most important sounds to be captured. When recording in a classroom or lecture hall environment, it has the effect of reducing the nearby background noise resulting in capture of ideal recordings of the speaker.

The Sky Wifi Smartpen from Livescribe is a computerized pen for note taking. The way it works is that students take notes on special notebook paper their written notes are synchronized with an audio recorded from class. Revisiting this synchronized audio and written material helps students review and fill in gaps of information they may have missed. Many students within the spectrum of learning disabilities find it’s frustratingly easy to miss important content while trying to focus on writing everything down. Amazingly, the Sky Smartpen can also wirelessly synchronize notes to Evernote or even to other students who need audio and digital notes provided.

It bears repeating that while these tools and apps may not have been created specifically for those with dyslexia and related disabilities, the benefits for them are clear. What’s your experience? We hope you’ll share with us any discoveries you’ve made about technologies or resources that you’ve found helpful (or not!) for students facing learning challenges due to dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, or any other learning disability.