Introducing Technology to Students with Visual Impairments: Toddler, Preschool and Kindergarten

When do you start?

Now! 

Everywhere you go, people are using technology to text, listen to music, watch a video, play a game, participate in social media, navigate, and so much more. While in a restaurant, look at the family at the table beside you - chances are the toddler/preschooler is watching a child’s video or playing a simple game on a hand-held device. Today’s children are native device users, independently navigating, selecting, and interacting with their favorite apps. Students who are visually impaired – including toddlers and preschoolers - should be as tech savvy as their peers!

What device?

Touch screens are so simple to navigate that by age two, most children are independently navigating a smartphone or tablet. Simply swipe and tap. When using VoiceOver - Apple’s built-in screen reader - just drag a finger or swipe to explore what is on the screen. Only a handful of gestures are required to navigate to and interact with preschool level apps. 

iOS devices and Android devices have native screen readers and other accessibility features. Apple has blazed the way for accessibility, iOS devices work well with refreshable braille displays and developers have created educational iOS apps that are designed specifically for students using VoiceOver. Android devices have made significant improvement with screen reader accessibility and are currently working on refreshable braille display compatibility.

Touch screen devices are all-in-one devices with the ability for students to simulataneously use magnification, low vision features and screen readers.

Approximately 72% of the top selling iOS apps are targeted to preschool and elementary aged children; toddlers/preschoolers are the most popular age group (58%). Unfortunately, some toddler/preschool apps are very visual and are not accessible with a screen reader. In addition to accessible mainstream apps, there are several quality iOS apps designed specifically for young users who are visually impaired that teach braille skills or VoiceOver gestures. This article mentions specific mainstream iOS apps; similar apps may be available on Android devices.

Where do you start?

  • I Hear Ewe app screenshot with a cartoon animal in each of 12 boxes.High Interest Content: Know your student – does he/she have a favorite song or book? Does he/she love animals and animal sounds? Choose a simple app that contains highly motivating content that will capture your student’s attention.
  • Age-appropriate skills: The goal is always for the visually impaired student to be able to do the same tasks as his/her peers. For a toddler, a technology-based task might be to swipe and/or tap in order to listen to a favorite song or to interact with a very simple cause and effect app. An educational-based task might be to explore, scribble and identify letters using a touch screen paired with a refreshable braille display. If the child is in a classroom, work on the same or similar skills that the other students are doing. Choose apps, activities or Interactive eBooks that have similar content to what is being discussed in class.
  • Bite-size chunks: Young students succeed when tasks are broken down to small, bite-size chunks. An app that is predictable with repetitive gestures will build the student’s muscle memory. The tap gesture is the most basic gesture; many popular cause-and-effect toddler apps, require repetitive single-taps to activate fun sounds. (Example: The Peak-A-Boo Barn app has an animal sound, when the child taps the screen, a child’s voice names the animal.) Many of the popular children’s books can be set to require a tap to turn the page. (Some eBooks, such as Sit in a Tree, use a swipe instead of a tap.) Once the child is proficient with a basic tap, add the right/left swipe gesture. Teacher Note:  Many of these toddler/preschool games are self-voicing and are played with VoiceOver off. This is beneficial for young children who are just learning the tap and swipe gestures.)
  • Home screen of Exploring Braille with Madilyn and Ruff: image of smiling girl holding a cane and her dog.Embed learning within tasks: If the task is to learn the right/left swipes and tap, try games like the I Hear Ewe app that requires the player to swipe between the various animals and select the desired animal. Practice the same gesture using several apps that use the same gestures. Another right/left swipe activity is navigating to the desired app. Position the child’s favorite app on the Home screen towards the bottom of the screen and encourage the student to QUICKLY right swipe multiple times in order to locate the desired app. Working on a three-finger swipe right or left? Place the student’s favorite apps on the second or third Home screen page.  Is the class working on letters? Asking a child to braille the same letter over and over again quickly becomes a boring task. However, playing a fun game that happens to include producing the desired letter multiple times is much more motivating – especially if that game is a digital game with amusing sounds and interactions! (Example: Exploring Braille with Madilyn and Ruff app – uses a refreshable braille display paired with an iPad.) 
  • Screenshot of Sitting in a Tree app with monkeys dangling over the water. Tap on the water and the word River appears and is said aloud.Listening Skills: Young children love to listen to the fun sounds within an app – the dog barking, the child laughing, etc. Many eBooks – including eBooks that are interactive, can be used to reinforce listening and comprehension skills.  These books are self-voicing and have fun sounds! With the interactive story app, Sit in a Tree by OM Books (Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree), the child can randomly tap on the screen to hear a sound or word. This book is used without VoiceOver and students do not have to see the page to activate the interactions. Keep in mind, that students with visual impairments will be listening to auditory textbooks, literary books and resources throughout their educational career and beyond – listening skills are critical!  Students should also be encouraged to listen to screen readers such as VoiceOver, screen reader hints (i.e. the “thunk” when you are at the end of the page), and spoken hints (i.e. “double tap to open”). VoiceOver hints provide important information!
  • Basic Concepts: Young students who are visually impaired and blind often struggle with spatial concepts and initially learn best when these concepts are taught with tactile materials. Create a tactile overlay to demonstrate the device’s home screen or an app’s layout. When teaching the virtual rotor on the iPad, use tactile materials to reinforce the concept. (See Simple Tactile Representations of the iPad Features post.) When teaching a student a new gesture, such as a double tap, first model the gesture. Since most students initially double tap too slowly – and the device assumes that the gesture is a single tap gesture – have the student quickly clap twice or knock on the table twice before trying to do a ‘real’ double tap.
  • Screenshot of Wheels on the Bus app with image of a school bus with a right arrow (next page) in the bottom right corner & left arrow in bottom left corner.Spatial Concepts: A touch screen device has a powerful advantage over the traditional computer. Students can physically drag a finger around the screen to develop spatial concepts.  On an iPad, the Back button is typically in the top left corner while the Next button is in the bottom right corner.  Teacher Hint: There are specific gestures, braille display and Bluetooth keyboard shortcut commands that will jump the focus to the first and last item on the screen that the student will later use to become more efficient with his technology. Teach your student to explore each app’s layout – by dragging a finger around the screen – swiping does not provide spatial feedback! Discover the “tool bar” at the top of the screen and what buttons are there. When on the Home screen, students should be made aware of and learn to use spatial relationships.  Place the student’s favorite apps in the corners and teach the student to use the physical corner of the iPad then quickly drag a finger in that area to locate the desired app. Discuss and provide opportunities to develop good spatial concepts while navigating apps.  Example: The Wheels on the Bus app by Duck Duck Moose requires that the student tap the bottom right corner to turn the page.

When teaching toddlers and preschoolers, remember:

  • Screenshot of PeekaBoo Barn; image with mamma duck & three baby ducks and the word "duck".Short activities – young children have very short attention spans - plan on switching to a similar activity quickly!
  • Be repetitive – build muscle memory through apps/activities that require repetitive gestures. Young children love predictable, repetitive games!
  • Review skills - at the beginning of each lesson, review skills. Use the same apps/activities to build familiarity and endurance.  Slowly add new skills and activities over a period of time.
  • Appropriate tools - If your student is struggling with gestures, try using a refreshable braille display or the arrows on a Bluetooth keyboard.
  • Team teach – Teachers of the Visually Impaired have limited time with a student; be sure to show educators, day care providers, and family members what your student is able to do with technology and what the student is working on! Everyone needs to know screen reader gestures and how to turn on/off screen reader!!!

Posts about Toddler/Preschool Resources:

Starting Blind Toddlers and Preschoolers on an iPad

Cause and Effect apps: Peak-a-Boo Barn, Infant Zoo, Wheels on the Bus, Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree

Teaching VoiceOver Gestures with I Hear Ewe App: Activity

App that uses swipe and double tap, plus additional activities for 8 basic VoiceOver gestures

Blindfold Sound Search Apps

Auditory only matching games designed specifically for students who are visually impaired – geared for students who are familiar with basic gestures

Interactive Stories

A TVI shares how she used interactive stories to motivate a 4-year-old to practice her VoiceOver gestures and refreshable braille display commands.

Interactive Storybook App Ideas

A TVI shares how she uses interactive preschool books with students who have multiple disabilities.

Book Creator or iBooks Author to create your own interactive iBooks.  You can download teacher-created iBooks from Paths to Technology’s  iBooks section.  The Alphabet Sound: iBook is one of my favorites!

4-year-old Layla’s introduction to the iPad, VoiceOver, Braille Display and Bluetooth Keyboard

4 year old Learning VoiceOver and Braille Video

Summary of fall semester intro to iPad gestures, braille display commands and learning to read/write with braille display

Getting Started on the iPad in Preschool

Specific activities on starting a preschooler on an iPad braille display

Layla’s Three Preschool Apps Video

TVI demonstrates basic tech activities using a braille display with three fun preschool apps

Interactive Stories

A TVI shares how she used interactive stories to motivate a 4-year-old to practice her VoiceOver gestures and refreshable braille display commands

Simple Tactile Representations of the iPad Features

Using concrete materials to teach virtual concepts - tactile representations of iPad screen layout and virtual rotor

More Braille Display Chords for the Young Student: Layla

Activities using these refreshable braille display chords: O, R, P, G, H and D Chords

Teacher Note: The Exploring Braille with Madilyn and Ruff iOS app is temporarily unavailable in the App Store. The developer anticipates that the app will be updated and back in the App Store in September 2017.

Apps that teach VO Gestures

Ballyland Magic App: Learn VoiceOver Gestures and iPad Accessibility

A series of games that teach students with visual impairments to learn and practice basic VoiceOver gestures

Ballyland Rotor: Learn the VoiceOver Rotor Commands

These games are designed to teach students with visual impairments how to use VoiceOver’s Rotor

VoiceOver Practice Screen is a designated help page on iOS devices that enables users to practice VoiceOver gestures. Simply make a gesture and VoiceOver will announce what gesture was made then what the gesture does. Example:  "Double tap, activates the selected item." If a student is trying to create a double tap but is tapping too slow, VoiceOver will think that the gesture is a single tap. For beginner VoiceOver users - of all ages - there are two very common gesture mistakes: double tap (made too slowly and VoiceOver thinks it is a single tap) and swipe right (with a curved or downward movement and VoiceOver thinks it is a swipe down). Young students can use this VoiceOver practice page to learn how to create good gestures with the instant, nonjudgemental feedback. The VoiceOver Practice also provides opportunities for students to review, make repetitive gestures to develop muscle memory and listen to the VoiceOver verbal hints.

To activate VoiceOver Practice:

Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver (turn VoiceOver ON) > VoiceOver Practice (tap in the middle of the screen to activate VoiceOver Practice mode)

To close VoiceOver Practice, touch the Done button in the top right corner and double tap.

Collage for introducing tech

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