The disruption from policy changes and rampant technology advances presents a unique challenge for the UK's special needs community, says Martin Littler

AMDiInnovative iPad case for SEN from AMDi“We have just bought 40 iPads – what can we do with them?” came as a surprise question from the special school head. At Inclusive Technology we have had many similar queries since, and our American company, Inclusive TLC, hears the same from school boards in the States.

The iPad has probably had as much impact on educational ICT spending as school budget cuts or the strangulation of local authority SEN services by Academies and Free Schools. But between them these three phenomena have caused a 'perfect storm' for assistive technology companies.

First, don’t be too sniffy about the head’s question. iPads are exciting. Back in 1982 I remember Pam Fiddy, an early “Micros” pioneer saying how, when she saw a shiny pebble on her way to school, she would take it into her primary classroom – for her, computers were just as exciting.

Special needs companies have been touting touch-screen entry for 20 years as a route to simple and direct learning and there appears to be a wealth of material via the Apple Store. But it is early days. The thousands of “educational” apps are currently of very variable quality and value and it is near impossible to search, sort or choose.

Specialist companies are sprinting to keep up with developments

Take AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) speech output devices. There are coming on for 200 apps to turn your iPad into a Voice Output Communication Aid (VOCA). The only way, currently, to find out which one to get is to buy them all! I’m told this would cost £64,000 but I’m not sure I believe it can be that much. Once you have found the right one you may still have a device which is too delicate, too quiet, has too short a battery life to be your “voice”, or has no connectivity for switch access to help you and no cursor to scan.

All of this is currently being addressed. The best way to choose an app is via the supplier’s website. Then, and only then, go back to the Apple Store. Special needs programs which are programmed in Flash (most are) are now being converted for Apple while we eagerly await competition from Amazon’s Kindle Fire and other Android tablet devices to hopefully force the iTunes Store's 'take' below the current 30 per cent. Boffins are working late at Inclusive Technology and elsewhere to overcome connectivity deficits in these tablets so that switch users can join in too. Specialist companies like AMDi, who already provide robust cases (see photo above), amplifiers and power supplies, are sprinting to keep up with ever changing models and dimensions.

Some will be too late. More than one company has experienced monthly drops in sales of more than 40 per cent! Public sector cuts are part of it – schools are sitting on what budget they have. Local authorities always dealt with the bigger SEN picture and the many children with expensive, low-incidence disabilities. Their spending is being decimated as schools go the Academy or Free School route.

Mr Gove’s Department for Education is seen as the most Luddite department

Meanwhile Government thinking (and spending) on the “hub and spoke” model of providing AAC is moving money toward health authorities who never had much interest in children without speech – and completely away from the special schools, teachers and local authorities who care for them now.

Special schools featured in almost all BSF projects. The trashing of this programme has reduced RM’s share price by 62 per cent in months (see "Grief for RM with more sell-offs and more redundancies"). But behind RM and the other giants were cascaded a myriad of specialist suppliers – particularly in the special needs area.

Technologically, we have been here before. The introduction of the mouse to schools in the mid-80’s by Apple and then RM gave many children with special needs new problems but also led to the rise of solution-providing companies like Penny & Giles (now Traxsys) and IntelliTools. However in the 1980s there was strong Government interest in educational ICT, particularly for learners with special needs.

Mr Gove’s Department for Education is seen as the most Luddite department in government and has not seen ICT as a priority. Special needs spending is suffering severe collateral damage from school autonomy too. As familiar ICT outfits disappear one by one like the stars at Doomsday, our headteacher may need to wait a little longer for something to do with his 40 iPads.

Martin LittlerMartin Littler is CEO of Inclusive Technology, was director of Northwest SEMERC from 1986 to 1996 and is the founding chairman of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA).