The iPad: A Disability Friendly Device?

A writer with muscle weakness borrows an iPad, and evaluates the pros and cons of this innovative technology

Article Highlights:
  • The iPad has many pros — and a few cons — notes the author, who has weak hands due to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.
  • The device comes with several built-in accessiblilty features and there are a variety of useful "apps."
  • For some, the iPad can be an effective and low-cost augmentative alternative communication (AAC) device that looks cool instead of geeky, says an assistive technology specialist.
by Barbara Twardowski on October 1, 2010 - 4:55pm

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 4
The iPad is extremely thin and portable. But at 1.5 pounds, it was still a bit heavy for the author to hold easily.

Apple’s latest product, the iPad, is touted as “magical and revolutionary.” For people with disabilities, this might not be exaggerated advertising copy. The iPad has been described as something between a smartphone and a computer. Is it for you? You decide.

With an iPad, you can surf the Internet, listen to music, watch a movie, send e-mail, play games, type notes, read a book and access your calendar. In addition, there are thousands of apps (applications) you can download that make it possible to do even more.

What is it?

Apple introduced the iPad in April 2010, selling three million iPads in 80 days. Not bad for a new product — especially one that seems to defy being labeled. As a writer, I was able to borrow an iPad from Apple for several weeks in order to review its features. Because I have extremely weak hands due to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, I was eager to see if the iPad could replace my laptop.

Apple’s latest gadget is a bit smaller than a sheet of typing paper — about 7.5 by 9.5 inches (the screen measures 9.7 inches diagonally). Lighter than a laptop, it weighs 1.5 pounds and is a half-inch thick. The creators have designed a tool that is intended to be extremely portable.

For someone who has weak hands, however, I still find the weight of the iPad too much for me to hold. It needs to be flat on a table or propped on a pillow if I’m using it in my bed. The size is about the same as a large notepad, and I would suggest buying the optional case that folds vertically or horizontally so the iPad can be held at an angle for easier viewing or typing.

The iPad's multitouch screen is very responsive and easy to use, the author says.

The screen is an IPS (InPlane Switching) backlit LCD display. Forget about the acronyms — what you need to know is that pictures and movies are incredibly crisp. This is the same high-quality screen found on the newest Macs. I love watching movies on the iPad. For me, it’s much easier than manipulating the two remotes of our television and DVD player. The one place I can’t use the iPad is in sunlight — it’s impossible to read the screen.

The iPad can be viewed in the horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) position. Depending upon what you’re doing, you rotate the pad. Read a book one page at a time in the portrait view or turn the pad and see two pages of book side by side in the landscape view.

No mouse or track pad is used with the iPad. Instead, it has a multitouch screen. Simply touch the screen, and it responds. Although it uses the same technology as the iPhone screen, it has been re-engineered to work with the larger surface. The larger size requires gross motor skills versus the fine motor skills needed on smaller screens. While it’s very difficult for me to use an iPhone, I had no trouble using the iPad. It’s incredibly sensitive to a light touch; I actually enjoyed playing a video bowling game. Enlarge the screen by “pinching,” and scroll up and down with a finger.

What it doesn’t do

  • It’s not a phone. You have to carry your cell phone and the iPad.
  • It’s not a camera. You can’t take pictures or iChat.
  • It doesn’t have multitasking capabilities. You can’t open more than one app at a time. You can’t type a document and grab information off the Internet at the same time. Nor can you listen to music while sending an e-mail. Only one function at a time can be open.
  • It doesn’t have a DVD or CD drive. You can watch movies and television shows either by renting or buying them from iTunes or via apps offered by Hulu and Netflix — the latter two require subscriptions.
  • It doesn’t have a USB port.
  • It doesn’t have a standard-size keyboard and typing on a touch screen is very different from typing on a keyboard.You can buy a full-size keyboard as an accessory, but that hampers the portability of the iPad.

The iPad is not meant to replace your computer. In fact, you need to synchronize the iPad with a computer (Mac or PC) to register the product. Whatever you do on the iPad (for example, update your calendar) can be synced with your desktop or laptop. The iPad, by the way, stays charged for up to 10 hours.

Built-in accessibility features

The iPad has accessibility features built into the product to aid access for people who have visual impairments, are hard of hearing, physically disabled or have learning disabilities. With VoiceOver, touch the screen and it describes the item under your finger. Tap, flick or drag the item to control the iPad. To achieve greater screen contrast, use the White-on-Black feature in any application. Mono Audio allows users with hearing loss to route both left and right audio channels to each ear. Zoom allows magnification up to 500 percent of anything on the screen. For links to detailed iPad accessibility information on Apple’s website, see the sidebar Useful Websites for iPad Owners.

Disability expert’s opinion

Eric Sailers is a speech pathologist and assistive technology specialist working in a San Diego school district. He evaluates children with special needs.

The author found the fold-back case handy for viewing the screen more comfortably.

His passion is using technology to help students with speech and language skills. “The iPad,” he says, “is a terrific device for individuals with disabilities.

The most sophisticated app available for augmentative alternative communication (ACC) is Proloquo2Go, Sailers says, which allows communication through text-to-speech. "The portability of the iPad makes communicating at school, home and in the community easier," says Sailers. "When you consider most commercial ACC devices cost $8,000 — the iPad with Proloquo2Go is remarkable.” More simplified (and less expensive) AAC apps are the TapSpeak Button and TapSpeak Sequence.

Another benefit of using an iPad is the acceptability factor, says Sailers. “The iPad is cool and peers are more apt to approach someone who is using it as a communication device. The iPad is more compelling than a computer because they can touch it." In addition, many people with special needs have trouble using a mouse, and Sailers calls the touch screen "more intuitive.”

Eric Sailers’ blog can be found online at

What does it cost?

The iPad starts at $499. It’s available in Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi + 3G. The Wi-Fi version works anywhere there is wireless Internet available such as in your home or at Starbucks. The Wi-Fi + 3G enables the Internet even when you aren’t in the range of a Wi-Fi network. There are six versions of the iPad with 16, 32 or 64 GB capacity. The most expensive model ($829) with 64GB and Wi-Fi + 3G, requires the user to sign up for a monthly AT&T data plan.

iPad gear

Here are some optional accessories you might find useful:

  • The iPad Keyboard Dock ($69) combines an iPad charging dock with a full-size, cable-free keyboard.
  • The iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29) allows you to import photos and videos from a digital camera.
  • The iPad case ($39) that I mentioned above has a soft microfiber interior and reinforced panels.

Should you buy an iPad?

If typing on-screen isn't for you, an optional, wireless keyboard is available. This cuts down on the iPad's portability, however.

That depends on what you already own, what you want an iPad to do and your particular disability. The iPad is many amazing things combined in a fairly small package. Sure, I’d love to have an iPad, but I won’t buy one right now because I own a laptop, subscribe to cable TV and the local library is a block away. Before you buy an iPad, read the reviews and, if you can, go to an Apple store and test one out. If you are considering an iPad specifically for disability features, talk to professionals, such as your speech pathologist.

Do not assume that a feature on your computer, iPod or iPhone is necessarily on the iPad. For example, I watch Hulu (free television and movies) on my computer, but the only way to use Hulu on the iPad is to pay a $9.99 subscription fee. You can watch a movie on the iPad, but your only options are to rent or buy them from iTunes, or stream them using a subscription service such as Netflix. Remember, the iPad doesn't have a DVD drive.

Apple is constantly tweaking the iPad. New features and upgrades are sure to be available on the next model. This is a company that listens to consumers. There is an old saying, “You can’t be all things to all people,” but the iPad is trying. And for people with disabilities, it’s rather “magical” and “revolutionary” that a company has designed a mainstream product with so many inclusive features.

Barbara Twardowski is a freelance writer and artist who lives with her husband in Mandeville, La. She has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT).

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