Taking the tabletAs tablet computers grow in popularity and use, people with learning disabilities are increasingly experiencing the benefits that they can bring. Dot Reeves investigates

The past few years have seen phenomenal growth in the tablet computer industry: last year alone sales of PCs dropped by a staggering 98% due to the popularity of laptops and tablet computers, according to the Marketing Tech Blog.

It is estimated that 41% of people in the UK now regularly use a tablet. Additionally, 57% of adults with children use the tablet for educational purposes (Rideout, 2014).

Despite the popularity of tablet devices, they are not always readily available to people with learning or communication difficulties. In some cases, access to these devices only happens on recommendation by an assessment team.

This specialist, therapeutic use of tablet devices should not deflect from a mission to secure far greater access to technology, so that people with disabilities themselves, and those close to them can explore apps, which can help language development and communication. After all, not everyone has access to specialist assessment services.

Improving communication

Tablet devices can be hugely beneficial to support the learning of people with learning disabilities and their support workers. Improved communication helps reduce frustration and using well-chosen specialist apps means that progress can be easily tracked and measured.

With this in mind, communication technology provider Insane Logic developed MyChoicePad, a language development platform for tablets that uses symbols and signs to reinforce language, to help children, young people and adults with communication difficulties.

MyChoicePad software uses symbols and signs from the Makaton language programme to help people with learning disabilities with vocabulary acquisition and learning. It uses a flexible grid system that results in a personalised experience for the individual and tailors to their learning ability.

Empowering people with learning disabilities

The Learning Disability Alliance England, as well as Brandon Trust’s recent Finding Freedom report have highlighted that more needs to be done to empower people with learning disabilities to shape the policies or services that are directed to them and to reduce loneliness, isolation, social exclusion and bullying.

Brandon Trust’s research highlighted that 64% of respondents felt people with learning disabilities are not visible in their community and 91% believed they should be given greater opportunities to build relationships.

Ensuring community connections and greater integration is deemed a priority and this requires care providers and support staff to be braver in their abilities to facilitate this. Technology can play an important role here and give people with learning disabilities a greater voice in decision-making. But no provider can afford to spend on resources that are unproven. It’s therefore important that the return on investment in social and financial terms can be measured.

When Insane Logic began to develop MyChoicePad, which has now reached 1 million user sessions, it was underpinned by a drive to ensure the product would be truly accessible and that its impact for people with learning and communication difficulties could be evaluated effectively.

Insane Logic has aligned its impact measures with the guidelines provided by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists ‘Five Good Communication Standards’ to support organisations with proving the impact that mobile technologies are having.

MyChoicePad measures the language development of people over time. Using MyChoicePad is associated with increases in staff skillset and motivation levels. This ultimately helps providers by facilitating insightful communication support and increases in individuals’ independence skills.

Making a difference

From the beginning the importance of fusing developers’ expertise with that of speech and language therapists has been recognised. Instead of deploying this expertise into specialist assessment services, they are being directed into the development of products that enable individuals and organisations to create their own personalised pathways for language and communication support.

People who use MyChoicePad find that they have access to tools that help them connect with others more successfully, which has been underlined by the support workers who have shared the journey into tablet computing.

With well-designed products, which are accessible to people with learning and communication disabilities, individuals and organisations can take control themselves and help shape the technology landscape of the future.

Top 10 tips for using tablet computers with people with learning disabilities

1.Don’t forget that the first time anyone gets their hands on a tablet they have to learn which taps, touches, swipes and other actions are needed – don’t make hasty assumptions that it’s too difficult. Time and practice can make a world of difference.

2. Using a drawing app is a brilliant way to get the hang of the way the screen responds to different pressure and touch actions.

3. A good, well-designed app can be a fantastic way of creating a shared focus between two people – it’s incorrect to assume that using a tablet device is always a lone, isolating activity.

4. Don’t let the fear of breakage be a reason for closing the door on tablet technologies until you have fully researched what protective cases are available.

5. Photographs are superb for making accessible personalised reminders of plans or events etc. Tablets can be great for taking photographs – so don’t cut corners on camera quality.

6. Many of us are impatient and want to get stuck in to exploring an app straight away, but most app developers will tell you that hasty people often miss out on great features. Try to set some time aside to really explore apps – visit the developer’s website to get all the information available.

7. Think about the best screen size to suit the person. Sometimes even a small increase in size can make all the difference when it comes to navigation and control.

8. Downloading and enjoying simple and fun games can be an effective way of introducing a tablet device and building up confidence to try other things.

9. Don’t panic if you feel overwhelmed, there are many helpful user guides on the internet for using your tablet which will take you through the processes step-by-step.

10. Timetabling iPad/tablet time in as an activity within a busy schedule is the way forward. A definite time slot helps build confidence and familiarity and the impact on progress can be significant.

Tablet technology in practice

Real Life Options (RLO) is a national charity providing person-centred care and support for people with learning disabilities or autism. RLO wanted to explore new ways to enhance communications between support workers and the people they support.

RLO and Insane Logic collaborated to develop a bespoke programme using MyChoicePad, including entry level Makaton training for support workers.

MyChoicePad was then used with service users over an eight-week trial, helping them to learn Makaton to describe common situations and people that they are in regular contact with.

MyChoicePad’s programme with RLO resulted in:
■ 86% of support workers reporting an increase in service users attempting the spoken word
■ 71% of support workers saw an improvement in service users’ signing
■ Between 42-63% of service users displayed improved vocabulary.

Using MyChoicePad allowed support workers and service users to learn Makaton at the same time and to reach joint levels of understanding.

The programme also ensured that all staff members followed the same approach, resulting in a consistency of service and an easier way to set and measure specific, personalised targets for the service users.

As a result of the programme, service users are increasingly identifying vocabulary that they want to progress, which puts them at the centre of their own learning.

The outcomes were so beneficial that RLO has decided to roll out MyChoicePad across all its UK offices in 2015.