'With iPads and other tablets we have the beginnings of the dream device,' says Martin Littler
iPad  at Woodlawn School, Whitley BayEasy touch: iPad in action at Woodlawn School, Whitley BayiPads are the biggest “big idea” in special needs since the personal computer. I know that I’m supposed to say “tablets” or “mobile technology” – but actually, at the moment, it’s iPads.

iPads are making us think about all aspects of assistive technology and are bringing change at an amazing (or even alarming) rate. We hear of shares in communication aid companies going from more than $25 to less than 10 cents! We hear of special schools buying iPads in dozens. Meanwhile, most companies selling CD-based software into the SEN sector are seeing their sales decimated.

iPads are inclusive. Chat with people in the street and you can pick up a story of an iPad-savvy two-year-old grandchild or 92-year-old grandmother.

Kids choose a tablet 'even if it does not work as well as a dedicated AT device'

iPads are cool. They raise your social capital whereas so much assistive technology picks the user out as strange. This effect is so strong that those with a disability will choose a tablet even if it does not work as well as a dedicated AT device.

At Inclusive Technology, and at the North West SEMERC centre before that, I have been working for almost 30 years to make the standard PC (or before that Acorn computers) accessible to leaners with severe and complex special needs. In the early days it was keyboard shortcuts and the ease of connection of the early Acorn machines. Alternative keyboards could be connected, bigger keyboards, smaller keyboards, Delves keyboards with just eight keys, and switches (effectively one or two keys) gave learners access to simple, enjoyable software.

The Concept Keyboard (a free-form keyboard with up to 128 keys) allowed learners to point at what interested them on an 'overlay (an A4 or A3 piece of paper, usually with appealing graphics) and interact with the computer. we might forget but he human finger was one of the first computer “pointing device” – and now it is back in a really big way.

In the mid 1980s two more pointing devices appeared in schools. The mouse had been around since the early 1960s but it arrived in British schools at the same time as the rather clumsy Microvitec “picture frame” which turned a standard computer monitor into a touchscreen. The assistive technology industry focused on making the mouse accessible, with rollerballs and joysticks. Good as these were there was not the direct link with what you touched and what you wanted to happen. Only the human finger did this – and devices like IntelliKeys were prominent in special needs right into the current millennium.

In the late 1990s the touchscreen (which had died with the Acorn Computer) resurfaced. The direct link between what you touched and what you got was so important to the education of children with severe cognitive problems that 17-ich touch monitors at £2,000 each were sold in thousands! The monitors got cheaper and the screens much bigger, with large touch-sensitive interactive screens and whiteboards appearing in most classrooms. But universal touch technology is still so recent that even many the ATMs outside nearly all banks (an obvious touchscreen application) still rely partly or wholly on keys adjacent to the screen.

The resolution of the human finger has been a problem with touch devices. However the dynamic nature of the computer screen meant that screens did not need to be crowded with everything at once, and targets could be bigger. Multi-touch helped too, giving instant magnification of content and targets.

After a 30-year wait, 'What's not to like?'

So now we have the most powerful, versatile user-friendly devices we have ever had with touch – the access method that we have been working toward for 30 years. What’s not to like?

iPads at Woodlawn SchoolWell some users do not have the accuracy or range of movement to use the device directly; and battery life is not really up to 24-hour use if the computer is your voice and some amplification is needed. Solutions are on the way but Apple can be a paranoid gatekeeper when it comes to adapting its technology, while Android devices are not one standard format and this discourages third-party developers.

On top of this, management of multiple iPads (even just keeping them charged) can be a nightmare. There is so much low quality software in the form of “apps” that it can be hard to find the good stuff. Finally the devices themselves are both too portable and too desirable! They are delicate too.

We shouldn’t worry about any of this. With iPads and other tablets we have the beginnings of the dream device from the standpoint of accessibility and inclusion. Why would any learner with cognitive difficulties want to be “wired up” to a PC when everything they could want to do is so easily accessed on such a cool device?

There are access problems for some users and tablets are still well short of what can be achieved with dedicated VOCA devices (voice output communication aids). Third-party switch access, protective cases, amplifiers, mass charging and syncing systems are already available. I expect these adaptations will improve over time as competition forces the tablet makers to be more open to developers. The underlying technology is now there, and becoming more of a commodity too, so expect some new proprietary VOCA devices with many more features and at less cost.

'Tablets with touch are a disruptive technology. They are a force of nature'

Although tablets are a great “user” tool, they are still not great for authoring. While you can give brief answers to emails, writing a long document or creating a spreadsheet is not their forte. That's one good reason why the laptop is here to stay. With ChooseIt! Maker 3 my own company, Inclusive Technology, has created a program which allows teachers to create individual and accessible personalised activities on a computer which the pupils can then download as apps on their tablets. You can expect more innovations like this as software companies embrace the tablet (or die).

Tablets with touch are a disruptive technology. They are a force of nature and great news for children with cognitive difficulties. The education software and hardware industries are sprinting to catch up and some will drop out of the race. For years people have toured education technology trade shows saying that “there is nothing new”. Now everything is new. Exciting but scary!

Martin LittlerMartin Littler is CEO of the Inclusive Technology Group and HelpKidzLearn Inc. He was founding chairman of BATA (the British Assistive Technology Association