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iPad Accessibility Options for Special Education Classrooms

Jonathan is a certified teacher who has taught in the UK and in the US. He now works as a digital learning consultant.

Accessibility Tips and Tricks: Screenshot by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

Accessibility Tips and Tricks: Screenshot by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

What Accessibility Options Are Available on the iPad?

Apple has always made an attempt to make their mobile devices accessible to all users through a variety of built-in software options. Over time, these have grown to include a lot of useful features for those with a variety of disabilities.

Essentially, there are four different types of accommodations, but many more options under each category. These are Vision, Hearing, Learning, and Physical & Motor, and you find them all by going to the Settings app.

Before we go into them in more detail, it is worth noting that although these accommodations are usually thought of as the preserve of special education classrooms, there are many features here that are just as useful in a regular general education classroom, and I will highlight these as we go.

A Quick Overview

Created by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

Created by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

Options for the Blind or Visually Impaired

Apple has included a lot of great options for students who may be blind or visually impaired. As with all the iPad accessibility features listed in this article, you can activate these by going to Settings > General > Accessibility. The options for Vision are:

Braille Displays

According to Apple, the iPad supports over 40 different wireless braille displays. No additional software is required. Simply pair over Bluetooth and it is ready to use. A list of common braille commands for VoiceOver navigation can be found here: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4400

1. VoiceOver: When VoiceOver is turned on, the iPad will speak aloud anything that you display or interact with. However, it also changes the way that you interact with the iPad. Whereas before you tapped once to open an app, now it will just select the app and read it aloud so that the student knows whether or not this is the one they need. You then double-tap to open the selected app and swipe with three fingers to scroll.

When in VoiceOver, the iPad will tell you if it is in portrait or landscape orientations, and whether the home button is on the right or the left. This helps students with low or no vision orient themselves better on the device. The iPad will also read aloud all text on a page, and is often used in conjunction with a Bluetooth braille keyboard.

VoiceOver has many powerful features for blind or visually impaired students. The video below has a detailed overview of VoiceOver:

Video: Using VoiceOver

2. Zoom: Most people have become accustomed to pinch to zoom in Safari or the Photos app, but if you turn zoom on in the iPad's Accessibility settings, you can zoom in on any screen of any app by double tapping with three fingers. Students can use this to magnify text or elements of the screen to see better, but some teachers use it too in order to zoom in on an area of the screen while projecting the iPad to an LCD projector.

3. Invert Colors: You can quickly lessen eye strain by adding a high contrast look when you turn on Invert Colors. This works in all apps and menus, and even on video playback.

4. Speak Selection: This is a popular feature for special education teachers, but it is another of those crossover features that also appeals to general education teachers. When activated, it allows you to select text and have the iPad read it aloud. It won't read everything on the page, like VoiceOver does, just text you select. You can adjust the pace of the reading voice, and even have the iPad highlight words as it reads. The video below shows you how to set it up.

5. Speak Auto-text: Occasionally, while typing, you will see the iPad offer you up a spelling correction via a pop-up text box. Tapping space allows you to choose the suggested text. When you turn on Speak Auto-text, the iPad will read these suggestions aloud so that visually impaired students can also take advantage of this auto-correction prompt.

Options for the Blind or Visually Impaired (cont.)

6. Larger Type: Not all apps support this feature, but those that include Dynamic Type as part of their code will respond in kind when Larger Type is enabled. Simply drag the slider to increase the standard font size to make it more legible in compatible apps, (see picture below).

7. Bold Text: If Apple's skinny font choice is making it too hard for your students to read, you can bold the text and make it stand out more with this option.

8. Increase Contrast: The iOS 7 redesign included a brand new color palette with a lot of white, gray, and subtle pastel colors. Students with visual impairments can reduce the subtleties in some of these backgrounds and menus by opting to Increase Contrast.

9. Reduce Motion: iOS 7 also introduced a number of 3D motion effects that were designed to modernize and add flair to the way a user interacted with the operating system. However, some people have suffered from motion sickness and other complaints, so you can minimize these effects by choosing to Reduce Motion.

10. On/Off Labels: There are a number of toggle switches for turning features on and off on an iPad. When on, these switches are highlighted in green, when off, they are white. For additional emphasis you can add an on/off icon to these switches by enabling On/Off Labels.

Larger Type Options: Screenshot by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

Larger Type Options: Screenshot by Jonathan Wylie © 2014


Teachers may also want to consider the use of FaceTime or iMessage with students who are deaf or hard of hearing. iMessage requires no audio and you can share text, photos, videos and more. FaceTime could be used for communicating with sign language.

Options for those with Hearing Impairments

There are a number of options available to support students with hearing impairments. They include:

1. Hearing Aids: Bluetooth enabled hearing aids can be connected to the iPad with this setting. Once connected, triple-click the home button for hearing aid options.

2. Subtitles & Captioning: If you turn on Subtitles & Captioning, you can choose from a variety of closed captioning styles that will appear on videos that support closed captioning. You can also create custom caption styles.

3. Mono Audio: This setting is largely aimed at students who may be listening to audio on their iPad through a pair of headphones. It lets you combine a stereo signal and feed it all through the left or right audio channel. This is particularly useful for students who may only have good hearing in one ear. The slider below this setting lets you adjust just how much goes to each channel.

iPad Accessibility Options for the Hearing Impaired: Screenshot by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

iPad Accessibility Options for the Hearing Impaired: Screenshot by Jonathan Wylie © 2014

Options for Those With Learning Disabilities

There is only one option under the Learning section of the iPad Accessibility settings, but it's a favorite of preschool and early elementary teachers everywhere! It's called Guided Access. Essentially what it allows you to do is to lock a student in one app so that they cannot come out of it. It doesn't matter if they press the home button, the power button, or try any of the multi-tasking gestures, because none of these actions will have any effect while Guided Access is enabled.

Once enabled, you can quickly activate it with three clicks of the home button. A passcode can be set so that only teachers can deactivate Guided Access when needed. Don't worry if you forget your passcode, there is a secret backdoor that will save your bacon. Simply press and hod the power and the home button together until your iPad powers down and restarts. On resume, Guided Access will be disabled.

This is a useful feature for students with attention deficit disorders, or those that struggle to focus on one thing at a time. Watch the video below for more information on how to set up Guided Access for use with your students.

Video: Using Guided Access

Learn more about the iPad as an accessibility tool at school

Options for Physical & Motor Disabilities

The iPad is an awesome device, but for students that lack the precision motor controls required to activate certain features or navigate the device efficiently, Apple included a number of accessibility options that were designed to help with that.

1. Switch Control: The iPad has supported switch accessible devices for some time now, but the update to iOS 7 added a number of granular controls that give you much greater control over how your switches work with the iPad. Simply tap Switch Control to see the options at your disposal.

2. Assistive Touch: Turning on Assistive Touch allows the user to interact with parts of the iPad that would otherwise be difficult to access if you had physical or motor difficulties. For instance. pressing the home button, or raising the volume level.

When Assistive Touch is activated, a floating button appears in the corner of your iPad screen. Tapping it reveals a number of actions that you can now perform with a single tap. You can take an iPad screenshot, lock your screen, or launch Siri with much less dexterity than you would normally need. The video below has more information on Assistive Touch.

Options for Physical & Motor Disabilities (cont.)

3. Home-click Speed: If you need to adjust the speed required to double or triple-click the home button, this is where you do it. Default is the standard speed, but you can also opt for Slow or Slowest to help provide more control over actions that require a double or triple tap of the home button.

4. Accessibility Shortcut: This option is useful for teachers or students. It lets you have quick access to up to six of the most common iPad accessibility features. Simply tap to put a checkmark next to the ones that you use most often. Then triple-click the home button at any time and a pop-up menu will appear asking you which feature you want to initiate. It is a great way to quickly turn on, or off, a setting of your choice.


Whether you use one of these features or a combination of half a dozen, the fact that there are so many iPad accessibility options is one of the main reasons why the iPad is so popular with special education teachers. By using these features in a school setting, students with special needs can take full advantage of the iPad as a learning tool for the classroom.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Jonathan Wylie


Jonathan Wylie (author) from Iowa, USA on September 27, 2016:

Thanks danomah. I agree iOS is very closed, and Apple have their reasons for that, but if they continue to add to the accessibility options found in iOS then they will certainly keep a lot of people happy.

Dan O'Mahony from Dublin, Ireland on September 27, 2016:

Great article! One of the things that I find though about iOS when compared to Android is that it is a very closed system. Within the special ed field, where prescribed texts are required for schoolwork, in Ireland anyway, it can be quite a muddle to transfer files to the device without some specialist knowledge. Android, being open source, does provide a better user experience. Similarly, a variety of special ed apps which are available on both iOS and Android are actually less expensive to buy on the latter platform! I'm hoping to write a brief intro the variety of special education options available for visually impaired at some stage but it's great to see this topic being discussed in-depth. Keep the conversation going!

moonlake from America on March 02, 2014:

Very interesting hub. My nephew uses the iPad all the time and loves it. He is a special needs child the iPad has helped him. Voted up.

galleryofgrace from Virginia on March 02, 2014:

Very informative article and well organized info that is needed by educators.

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