iPads and Preparing for Productivity

Woohoo! I just got an iPad! This is awesome! Err... wait a second, is this it?  What do I do now?

The above is likely to be something all of us have thought at some point when dealing with some sort of new technology that has been much hyped for a while.  Indeed, the iPad is a star device in educational circles, known for its versatility across various subjects and student populations, as well as great features built in.  However, users may find that simply having an iPad is not the complete solution to their perceived needs.  Rather, there are a few more considerations that should be taken into account.

In the context of being used by students with visual impairments, there are several things that I think users would be wise to consider when they get started with their iPad and look to use it for the purposes of educational productivity.  These considerations include physical add-ons, apps that will help you get started on the right track, as well as making sure you are familiar with basic device use (including accessibility features).  I can't say that these recommendations are exhaustive or necessarily the best, but I think they will get you started on the right track to being a productive iPad user.  If you think of any useful tips or apps, etc. that you use, please share them in the comments below!


When you open up an iPad's box, it gleams out at you like candy at the grocery store.  However, you need to remember that the iPad does not ship with any forms of protection or productivity hardware besides some headphones and charging cords.  The two primary things users should consider purchasing additionally are 1) a protective case, and 2) a keyboard.  Better yet? Many companies make all-in-one keyboard cases. 

You might be asking right now, why invest in a case and a keyboard?  I don't know the last time you've been in a school, but I can assure you that school-aged kids just don't treat things with the care adults might.  Books and binders get dropped, backpacks are stuffed in lockers, and things get stolen, among other potential issues; it is best practice to take steps to protect the device you will be using in school, and hopefully using for a long time! 

As for a keyboard, some might say that it isn't too hard to type using the on-screen keyboard, or that Apple provided a way to use six-key braille entry on the screen.  However, such methods are arguably less efficient for inputting one's thoughts.  As a student with low vision, you will be forced to type visually using the on screen keyboard, as there is no physical cue for properly aligning your fingers over the keys; you'll probably type with your pointer fingers exclusively.  As a braille user, you may find that positioning your hands and the screen such that you can input in braille is awkward, and tapping on a flat screen does not give the same tactile feedback that you may be used to on a refreshable braille display.  Thus, a physical keyboard case is recommended that can provide nearly all of the benefits of a computer's full-sized keyboard: comparable size, tactile cues for home row orientation, and clicky keys.  Proficient touch typers who have low vision or are blind will find that they can input information to the iPad with greater efficiency than if they tried to use on-screen methods.  Keyboards can be wired or wireless, though all-in-one keyboard cases are typically wireless through bluetooth technology and will need to be charged periodically independent of the iPad's charging.

One last note on hardware is that if you are a braille user, I highly recommend acquiring a refreshabraille display to pair with your new iPad.  iPads are great on their own, but having the ability to read physical braille will give you insight to literacy conventions like word spellings; physical braille input allows for chord commands and efficient navigation about the device without needing to swipe on the screen.

Software and Applications

iPads come pre-loaded with Apple's basic suite of starter apps.  Some of these apps include Mail, Notes, Pages, and iBooks.  These are pretty functional apps with useful features, but you may find that you prefer or need the additional functionality of more commercial or well-known apps, especially in the realm of accessibility for individuals with visual impairments.  Below are some apps you might want to use instead.  In a nutshell, you will want to make a plan for determining what apps you will use for common tasks like checking and sending email, notetaking, and producing work for turning in. Furthermore, as a user with low vision you may want to explore a solution involving scanning in a teacher's print document for digital completion.  If you have many a reading assignment from a book or need to study for a test, perhaps you want to consider an audiobook service's app that can let you listen to materials without fatiguing from reading visually or in braille.

Apps to try using with an iPad
App Alternatives
Mail Gmail, Outlook
Notes OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep, AccessNote
Pages Word, Google Docs
Additional apps to try, with details
Adobe Fill & Sign Scan print documents and complete with typed text and check marks
Voice Dream Reader ebook reader, plus reads PDFs and allows for saving webpages for later reading, also allows for plugging in services like Bookshare
BARD Mobile Access the National LIbrary Service digital downloads catalog
Noteability Annotation app, many options for marking up scanned documents in handwriting, including highlighting
KNFB Reader OCR app for accessing print documents auditorily, can also open and read PDFs
Seeing AI Auditory description app, reads short texts, full documents, identifies people and scenes, money reader, light detection, color detection, and handwriting reader

Device Use and Accessibility Features

I hope you don't roll your eyes at this last section, where I explain some basics to make sure you or your students have a basic mastery of.  Even in this age of young kids having a "digital literacy" that is foreign to older generations, I have found that you cannot assume that all basic skills are intuitive and known to everybody.  Furthermore, students with visual impairments and other disabilities often need the extra, explicit instruction that concretely teaches them how to perform various functions.

So, let's start with some basics.  Make sure you have established how to swipe!  What I mean is, can you with a single finger flick on the screen?  This is important for basic use, but if you are planning on using VoiceOver to have auditory feedback about screen contents, swiping is a big deal as well.  Secondly, how is your tapping on the screen?  What about tapping with two, three, or even four fingers at once?  This is very difficult for some, so I often recommend that my students practice tapping on their tables so that they feel the soft parts of all of their fingers hitting the surface at the same time.  

I won't get into too much detail about how all of the accessibility features work, because there are already blogs on this here at Paths to Technology and on the web.  However, I think it is important to mention the basics that most should explore.  As a low vision user, play around with font sizes.  There are accessibility-level larger fonts, but even the default slider can get font sizes to comfortable levels.  Next, explore Zoom and Magnifier.  Zoom is a screen enlargement feature, in which a 3-finger double tap zooms in on the screen contents, useful for system fonts that can't really be adjusted (like the time and battery level).  Magnifier is a video magnifier (CCTV) feature that uses the camera and digitally magnifies or enhances materials.  If you are a braille reader or prefer to have auditory feedback, you'll be using VoiceOver.  This screen reading feature will highlight various print contents on the screen, reading it out to the user.  To move between contents like apps or print on a webpage, the user will swipe on the screen or use keyboard or braille display commands.  Similarly, to select something that is highlighted by VoiceOver, the user can double tap anywhere on the screen, or use a keyboard or braille display command.


Posted by Diane BraunerJan 31, 2018

Great information, Allen!  I also highly recommend adding an external keyboard as there are so many shortcut keyboard commands - espeically for people who use VoiceOver.

Add new comment