Touch Screen difficulties and SEN, removing the barriers

Questions are often posed to me in relation to the use of apps with children with special needs, many are usually access rather than content related. When choosing a particular app, it is important to think of the outcomes that you wish the app to support. When apps are appropriately aligned to a particular curricula outcome, the task of searching for the ‘right app’ is often removed, giving us more time to consider further issues that are specifically relevant to SEN.  

For the educator or parent, before choosing the ‘right’ app, a number of considerations need to be taken into account. Firstly, the individual’s specific needs and how they access the device is important. More often than not, the use of a really good app can be abandoned within minutes of opening. At first, it seems that that the young person is not motivated by the content or task involved. This may be the case, but we also need to consider the young persons needs in relation to access. If we make minor changes, which allow for maximum access, will engagement improve? The likelihood in many cases is yes.

The field of mobile learning and SEN is in its infancy and we continue to learn about successful deployment. Future training needs to focus on the accessibility features of these devices in order to maximize their potential. Many children do not have particular accessibility issues and can appear to use the device functionally, yet there are many unknown accessibility issues that may only become known whilst using an app. These unseen difficulties may cause a build up of frustration for the user over time. 

Although tablets and apps are generally seen as motivating for young learners with special needs, not having full functional use can be a frustrating experience. It is important to understand that if a child wants to use a particular app for learning we need to do all we can to make this possible in regards to accessibility.  

A good starting point is the accessibility of touch. While some users with special needs have little difficulty using the touch screen, many with fine motor difficulties find this difficult. Styluses can help with targeting a single point but some users aren’t ready for an implement like a standard stylus. Issues with touch are related to fine motor difficulties and visual discrimination which affect many with special educational needs. Many children use ‘over touch’ or ‘under touch’ when using mobile devices. There are some remedies to this in the device settings and through external assistive strategies. 

I would advise to start with colouring apps, which require lots of drag gestures. Doing this, will help you informally assess any difficulty with touch that may be apparent without the risk of task frustration. To support with touch related issues there are adapted mittens, which allow index touch (I use a sock with a hole for the index finger cut out), Isotoner smart touch gloves, colour-play knit gloves, fingerless gloves, neoprene custom mitts and neoprene hand splints that can all help support with these difficulties. Additionally, in the accessibility settings you can change to ‘Assistive touch’, Multitasking Gestures’ and ‘Click Speed’ to support the young learner with fine or gross motor difficulties.

The use of an external keyboard with certain apps should also be considered for children with fine motor difficulties. While some children are proficient in the use of onscreen keyboards, many are not. There are two reasons to consider an external keyboard. Firstly, the user receives increased feedback and secondly, adapted keyboards for SEN can help with visual discrimination difficulties.

The issue of accessibility of touch is an important issue but not the only one. Auditory and visual access needs are also key considerations and both need further discussion. Touch is a good starting point as it can be seen and quickly identified as an area of difficulty, more so than auditory and visual barriers.

The next time your young learner is using a device, take note of any difficulties they are having with touch. Explore the accessibility settings to see if they can address these issues. Making some minor background changes can potentially lead to improved outcomes for children with special needs.

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