The 18-year-old is a quadriplegic with multiple disabilities that make speech and muscle control extremely difficult. He interacts through eye gaze or by tapping his head against a switch on a communication device to spell out words.
But on a recent afternoon at the Lehmann Center, a special-needs school in Lakewood, N.J., Leuck was able to make music. With some effort, he slid his knuckles lightly over the digital image of a guitar on an iPad screen. The touches produced a series of acoustic-style chords from the iPad — and a big grin from Leuck.
Leuck is among a growing number of special-needs students nationwide who have gone back to school this year with tablet computers. The tablets are growing in popularity for special-needs students because they can be customized to each child’s needs, are lightweight and mobile, and give the kids the sense they’re plugged into a larger, high-tech community, educators and parents say.
“These children can access and enjoy everything a typically developing child would enjoy — they just have to access it differently,” says Gina Shulman, a social worker at Lehmann. “We have that fine motor skill; we can take a finger and press all those tiny keyboard buttons and little tiny switches. Now, our children, with just a gentle touch, can color; they can play instruments.”
There are now about 40,000 educational applications for the iPad, Apple reports.
Leuck’s Lehmann instructors credit his love of music (his favorite band is Kiss), the instant reward (Leuck touched the screen and heard the chord immediately) — and, of course, the iPad itself — for his small victory.
Districts that launched pilot programs last school year now are stepping up their iPad use for special-needs students after seeing results, some school officials say:
•Zeeland, Mich., students are starting the school year with 3,100 new iPads, courtesy of a $5.3 million bond issue that will include $1.5million for the tablets, says David Barry, superintendent of Zeeland Public Schools.
Video can be used to practice social skills. Speech recognition aids students who have writing difficulties. The touch screen makes use easy for children who have dexterity problems, Barry says.
“I think the key word for this is engagement,” Barry says. “The engagement was just a lot higher. I think it’s adaptive to meet the needs of individual students. I think it’s an equalizer. I do think it’s a game changer.”
•Kentucky’s Warren County public schools started the school year with 400 iPads. An additional 150 tablets have been purchased since, the district says. Special-education teacher Anne Howie requires some of her students who have autism and communication disorders to carry the tablets to help them interact.
One popular application used there is Proloquo2go. Users can select from images on a screen to communicate everything from how they’re feeling to where they want to go.
“Sometimes you may have a child who throws chairs or refuses to work, when really their stomach hurts and they just don’t have the language skills to tell you that,” Howie says. Breaking that communication barrier can help a student move on with other aspects of their education, she says.
“It’s what every teacher dreams of,” Howie says.
The Warren County tablets cost the district about $325,000. State and federal special-education, technology and low-income family grants and about $35,000 from the general budget paid for them.
•Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, Calif., says its rollout of 840 iPads for high school and middle school students this year will cost about $546,000, paid for by summer rentals of boarding facilities there. The tablets also will eliminate the need for some classroom materials — the school expects to save $60,000 in photocopy and textbook costs right away, headmaster Stephen Sharp says.
About 35 to 50 of Monte Vista’s iPad users have special needs, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to dyslexia, Sharp says.
“We have our students (with reading disorders) who can record our lectures and play them back when they get home; the calendar keeps (students with attention deficit disorder) very organized,” Sharp says. “It’s so new, that we find out something new every day.”
Not everyone is sold on the iPad for special-needs students. Shirley Robinson, manager of special education for the Santa Clara County Office of Education in California, says the easily manipulated touch screen makes it easy for students with developmental and physical challenges to unintentionally exit the programs they need to be in and open others.
“It’s so easy to maneuver around, our kids would (accidentally) get out of the programs they wanted to be in,” Robinson says.
She says her students are largely non-verbal and have severe developmental issues. “If you say, ‘Do you want an apple or a pear’ and they don’t want either of those, what’s their choice? They don’t have one,” Robinson says. “Does it entertain kids? Absolutely, but that’s not unique to an iPad.”
Some moms say the iPad does have the “it” factor that other devices simply don’t.
“The iPad is also used by typical children, so it makes our kids part of the ‘in’ crowd,” says Marie Cucinotta of Evesham, N.J.
Williams Boyd also reports for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. Contributing: The Courier-Post, Cherry Hill, N.J.