The Relationship Between a Visually Impaired Child and the iPad 2

Walter Lindsay
Oct 13, 2011

Zoey’s right eye works some. The left eye not at all. She walks with a cane at school. Her teachers enlarge worksheets so the text is 16-point font, and she has large print editions of some other books. She uses the iPad 2 for everything else at school.

At the start of the school year, there was very little information available about how a child like Zoey can succeed with the iPad 2 as her primary adaptive technology at school. This note attempts to fill that gap.

Zoey’s Condition: She is legally blind. She was a “24-week micro preemie”, meaning she was born too early and too small. She has never seen well. Her one working eye has a blind spot, its acuity varies so her glasses cannot keep up, and her eye has other problems as well. For what she cannot see, she wants to hear and touch.

She also has perfect pitch. She says that without her piano, she would die.

Other Adaptive Technology: Zoey has several magnifying lenses of different strengths and weights. To read a book, she often put a wedge into her lap, held the magnifier close to her eye and slowly read. To read music, until she got her iPad, she would put music on the piano, put the magnifier close to her face and lean towards the music until she could see it. This approach let her read most notes, but she was unable to tell the difference between a natural and a sharp, read dynamics markings, etc.

She also used a 3.2 megapixel AVerVision document camera attached to a 32-inch HDTV on her desk at home. The two together work as a CCTV. They allow her to read print books, maps, worksheets, etc. It allows her to see bugs and other small items. In first grade she carried the document camera to school each day and had a monitor on her desk. Starting in second grade, she found other approaches worked better because the technology was too cumbersome.

Her iPad arrived the week before school started. She glommed on almost instantly, wanting to learn everything about using it. Her first use was taking pictures of everything in sight — every stuffed animal in the house, her sisters dressed in costumes, all her friends, everything which mattered to her. This is the first time that the screen of a camera was large enough for her to use (as others have noted in numerous blogs and articles). I also suspect that she also could see things for the first time — they stood still enough, and were large enough, for her to study them.

A Typical Day with the iPad 2: Each morning before school, Zoey unplugs her iPad from the charger and puts it into the carrying case she chose. The carrying case is colorful, and its bright colors contrast with the school dress code, allowing her to easily locate the case. She also carries a hand-held telescope in the case.

In english, science and other subjects, her textbooks are in different apps on the iPad. She uses a DAISY reader (DAISY is an audio book format which can also display words in large font sizes), iBooks and Kindle. Her teachers email information sheets and other materials directly from the school’s photocopier or from a computer, and the iPad receives the documents via the 3G connection, so that Zoey has the materials in class.

She has difficulty keeping up while taking handwritten notes in class. Thus, she now practices typing most days. She has a fold-up bluetooth keyboard. I use (and am writing this note using) the Apple wireless keyboard. However, that keyboard was not designed to be carried along with the iPad (for instance, if the keys are pressed, the iPad turns on if the iPad has bluetooth enabled). She has a smaller keyboard which folds in half. The key spacing is not standard, and the keys have to be pressed harder. Once her typing speed is good enough, we will try keyboards until we have a workable situation.

For piano music, I use a notebook application (Notebooks, but others would probably work too) to take pictures of the music two lines at a time. We make a book for each piece of music, and number the pictures by measure number. She sets the iPad sideways on the piano, flips between photos like with a swipe similar to how other pianists turn a page of music. She, of necessity, memorizes all her music. She is far more physically comfortable learning music this way than with hand-held lenses, and she is able to expand the image enough that she can even read the fingering hints.

Also, when watching piano instructional materials in the web, or working on lab exercises over the web, Zoey is able to expand the screen size and navigate the sites. When she plays music samples, the iPad speaker is sufficient for simple lab exercises, but she uses an Apple AirPort wired to a stereo system when she needs to hear the music more clearly (the iPad lets you send audio to the AirPort instead of to its own speaker).

Collaborating with the School: The school staff at Archway Veritas, a charter school in Phoenix, AZ, has been fantastic. The school located electronic copies or large print copies of most books used in the classroom, and has either acquired or made large print copies of most workbooks. Zoey’s email address has been entered into the school photocopier so teachers can easily scan materials during the day if needed so she can have them in the classroom. There is much more we could say.

How It's Working: Parents want to see their children succeed. Zoey has options and flexibility we never thought she would have. The teachers and staff at Archway Veritas, with some support from the Phoenix-based Foundation for Blind Children, have given Zoey the chance to succeed there. Zoey’s piano teacher, at Music Works Academy in Phoenix, has adapted to Zoey’s needs and capabilities. We are deeply grateful.

When asked about the iPad, she said “It is much better than it was before, that’s for sure.”

Other parents have warned us that the iPad is a superb source of entertainment. It can be addictive. Thus Zoey has no games on her iPad.

As Marc Andreessen recently wrote, software is taking over the world. A single general-purpose software-controlled tool has now become the primary adaptive technology for a blind child, providing her options that no previously existing set of tools could provide.

That is amazing.


  1. 1 Kat 24 May
    Thanks for this.  Our visionally impaired son is heading to kindergarten this fall, and we're trying to figure out best tools and resources -- this is a big help!
  2. 2 Cathy West 14 Nov
    Fantastic!! Thank you for all this info! I am a resource teacher, vision, mjust getting students using iPads and this could not have come at a better time for us!!! Congratulations on fInding such a great solution to Zoey's needs and thanks again fOr sharing!! Would love to keep in touch! KInd regards
  3. 3 Robin Smith 13 Oct
    Great article for World Sight Day ! Being visually impaired, I feel for Zoey. Reading this is an inspiration !


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