People with learning difficulties may find it useful to use computer technology to record work or to access games which can help with literacy, numeracy and motivation.

To establish whether a computer would be useful, you need to think what you want to achieve with it – be led by personal needs, not by the technology.

Accessing the computer

Choosing the right input and output devices is as important as choosing the right software to use. There are a range of adaptations and alternative devices that may be of use for people who find the standard keyboard and mouse difficult.  

Pointing devices

Some people with learning difficulties find it hard to relate the movement of their hand on the mouse to the movement of the cursor on the screen.  

In these instances, it may be that a trackball or a joystick is easier to use – see keyboard and mouse alternatives.

Touchscreens 

A more direct approach is a touchscreen. Some people may find it easier to point to things and this can be applied to using the computer. Touchscreens act in the same way as a standard screen but have sensitive surfaces. It’s also possible to put a “Touch Window” over the front of a standard monitor to give the same function. Using a tablet device can also be useful.

Keyboards

A standard keyboard has over 100 keys and to some people this can appear confusing, intimidating or can be an invitation to fiddle. The keys are fairly small and close together, usually in black and white/beige, uppercase and in a QWERTY layout. There are many alternatives to the standard keyboard. Some ideas are: 
  • Keytop stickers – these are available in a variety of colours and in upper / lowercase to stick onto the keys.
  • Simplified keyboards – especially the ‘Big Keys Plus’. The keyboard is simplified with just the keys necessary for writing. The keys are large with an audible click. Available in alphabetic or QWERTY and black and white or multi-coloured.
  • Lowercase keyboards – as a standard keyboard but with lowercase letters.
  • Overlay keyboards – These are touch sensitive membranes with keyboard overlays which slide over the top and determine the functions of the keyboard. You can customise overlays to have larger keys, less clutter, bigger gaps between keys and exclude unnecessary keys. 
In addition to just letters, overlay keyboards can also work with whole words or pictures. This is why they can be particularly good for people with learning difficulties.  

Switches

If someone is physically or cognitively unable to use any keyboard or pointing device, then a basic starting point may be to use switches. A switch is simply a button which, when activated, sends a signal to the computer. This signal can then be used to drive various software packages.

Switches come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be operated by any controlled movement of the body.

Switches work well with cause and effect software and programs that require simple choices. A small switch interface box is needed to connect a switch to a computer. You can also get wireless switches which can connect to IPads!    

Output

Effective output from the computer is often key to effective use of computers by people with learning difficulties. Bright, colourful and active screens can be helpful – though take care not to make them too cluttered. Larger text and large monitors help. To intensify the image it may be good to work in a darkened room.

Use sound on computers to the full – speech, sounds and music are available from many applications. To heighten the ‘cause and effect’ experience, the sounds should be in response to a person’s actions. Also, if the speakers are as close to the monitor as possible it will help concentrate the person’s attention to one area and reduce possible distraction.

Software

Once you have access to the computer, the next step is to choose appropriate software to run on the computer. Software is available for a whole range of needs – these include very simple programs for stimulation, to encourage vocalisation. Switch and mouse programs introduce ‘cause and effect’. More advanced programs are available for numeracy and literacy, memory and learning. You may need to make sure that the software is age-appropriate – though this may not be necessary for everyone.

The software needs to be stimulating and motivating and be able to grab and hold the user’s attention. Colours, pictures, animation, large text, sounds and speech can all help. The software should also have appropriate and attractive rewards for good work and not be discouraging when the wrong answer is given.

People who know the individual such as family, carers and teachers should help choose the software. A good approach is to have a look through the catalogues of the suppliers of the specialist technology, these tend to be very colourful and give comprehensive clear descriptions of the software.  

Check AbilityNet's list of software, which has been grouped into the areas of motivation, life skills, literacy, memory and cognition.

Useful organisations

ACE Centre (Aiding Communication in Education)    
This specialist in the needs of children with physical and communication difficulties offers assessments and a range of other services.

British Institute of Learning Disabilities (BILD)
BILD is a charity that provides information, publications, training and consultancy services about learning disabilities for organisations and individuals.

National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN) 
NASEN promotes the education, training, advancement and development of people with special educational needs. 

Produced in association with AbilityNet

AbilityNet. Adapting Technology. Changing Lives - links to AbilityNet website