AbilityNet Factsheet - November 2020

Learning Difficulties and Computing

This factsheet outlines some of the ways that technology can help improve the experience of learning for people experiencing a broad range of learning disabilities, differences or learning preferences.

Last updated: November 2020

1. What do we mean by learning disabilities or learning differences?

The distinction between learning disabilities, learning difficulties and learning differences continues to be a subject for debate and they are often used interchangeably, especially in education, health, and social care settings.

That said, it is broadly accepted that a learning disability (which may be mild, moderate or severe) involves:

  • impaired intelligence – with a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, or to learn new skills
  • impaired social functioning – with a reduced ability to cope independently
  • early onset – starting before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development.

The term ‘learning difficulty’ is more often used (especially in educational settings) to refer to individuals who have specific problems with learning as a result of medical, emotional or language problems – but no significant general impairment in intelligence.

This includes people who have an acquired learning difficulty – for example, as a result of a head injury or a stroke or people with ‘specific learning difficulties’ or ‘specific learning disorders’ (SpLD’s) (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia or dyspraxia). 

More recently, the term ‘Specific Learning Difference’ is being used as it is recognised that conditions such as Dyslexia, Autism and ADHD are not ‘disorders’ or ‘difficulties’ but are natural differences between the ways our brains are ‘wired’ that have many positive benefits.

Confusion around the terms also arises because some people with learning disabilities prefer the term learning difficulties.

This factsheet will focus on the technology-based support available for individuals who may have difficulties relating to:

  • memory
  • reading and/or writing
  • visual and/or auditory processing
  • motor abilities
  • organisation and time management
  • screening out extraneous visual or auditory stimuli
  • sensory overload.

2. Adapting your device

Choosing the right input and output devices is as important as choosing the most appropriate software to use.

There are many simple adjustments you can make so that your equipment is easier to use if you have cognitive problems, motor issues, vision impairment or hearing difficulties.

My Computer My Way is an easy to use, interactive tool developed by AbilityNet to help you achieve your optimum setup and take advantage of the accessibility features built into your computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. More details are given below.

3. Useful software

The wide range of software available reflects the equally wide range of needs. This includes very simple programs for stimulation, to encourage vocalization and to introduce cause and effect.  More advanced programs are available to support numeracy and literacy, memory and cognition.

Microsoft's 'Learning Tools' are free tools within Microsoft Office designed to assist with reading, spelling and writing difficulties. They include:

  • Immersive reader - this is a collection of tools specifically designed to assist with reading and focus. Activating reading mode will switch to a full-screen mode with all the buttons and controls removed; a plain view of just the text. The text is larger, centred and set to around five words per line (a more comfortable amount for reading but can be adjusted).
  • Switching on the immersive reader  does not alter your original document and closing it will return to the original view

The additional tools in the immersive reader allow you to:

  • Change font type
  • Change font size
  • Change font spacing
  • Apply a letterbox-style focus view on 1, 3 or 5 lines of text 
  • Adjust page 'themes' to allow you to add coloured backgrounds, or switch to high-contrast white-on-black
  • Grammar tools - these allow you to split words into syllables, making them easier to read and pronounce. Identify (and colour) the parts of a sentence (Nouns, verbs, adjectives)
  • Narrator - this text-to-speech software will read text aloud but will also dim the page and highlight the words as they are read. You can change the speed at which text is read as well as being able to select the voice of the narrator.
  • If you use the web version of Microsoft Word, the Immersive reader also includes a ‘picture dictionary’. Hovering over a word will show a visual representation of what that word is as well as the option to hear the word read aloud. 

The Immersive Reader features can also be switched on in Microsoft's Edge browser (labelled as Reading View) which will give you an uncluttered, ad-free version of a webpage (not all web pages support this feature).

4. Specialist Software

As well as being easy to use, it is important that software is stimulating and motivating – that it’s able to grab and hold a person’s attention. Colours, pictures, animation, large text, sounds and speech can all help. The software should also have appropriate rewards for good work and not be discouraging when the wrong answer is given.

The software lists below are examples of the diverse software products available grouped under the headings motivation, communication, literacy and numeracy, life skills, and memory and cognition. 

Motivation

  • Big Bang
  • ChooseIt! Maker3
  • HelpKidzLearn Games and Activities
  • Switch Skills

Communication

  • Call Talk
  • Communicate: By Choice
  • Communicate: SymWriter 2
  • Grid 3
  • InPrint 3
  • The Grid 2
  • Widgit Online @ Home

Literacy and numeracy

  • Abrakadabra
  • Bungalow
  • Clicker7
  • Swap / Fix Games
  • Penfriend XL
  • ClaroRead
  • Read&Write
  • Write Online @ Home

Life skills

  • Coping with Chaos
  • Let’s Go to Town
  • Life Skills: 24 Hours a Day
  • Out and About:1 Plus: The Living Community
  • Out and About 1 Plus: The Living Community
  • Out and About 2 Plus: Around the Home
  • Out and About 3: Gadgets at Home
  • Out and About 4: Money & Finance
  • Personal Success
  • Streetwise – Smart Moves

Memory and cognition

  • Bungalow
  • Mastering Memory
  • React2
  • Timely Reminders

5. Alternative equipment

An extensive range of alternative devices is available that can greatly assist anyone who finds it difficult to use standard equipment. These are outlined below, and are also covered in more detail in our separate factsheet on Keyboard and mouse alternatives and adaptations.

Keyboard alternatives

The standard QWERTY keyboard has over 100 small keys close together, which can be confusing or overwhelming to some people.

Alternatives to the standard keyboard that can be useful to some people with learning disabilities include:

  • simplified keyboards, like the Big Keys LX. This has a smaller number of larger keys, available in colour or with high contrast keys, with an alphabetic or QWERTY layout.
  • specialist keyboards, including the Helpikeys. This can be customised using five available overlays or by programming additional personalised layouts.

Pointing devices

Some people with learning disabilities find it difficult to relate the movement of their hand on a mouse to the movement of the cursor on a screen. In these instances, a trackball mouse, like the BIGtrack Mouse (with switches), or a joystick may be easier to use.

Pointing device

Another potential alternative is a touch screen. This offers a more direct approach for users who may find it easier to point directly at a monitor with a touch-sensitive surface and operate much like a tablet.

Touch window

Switches

For someone who may experience significant difficulties with the use of any keyboard or pointing device, then a basic starting point may be to use switch input. A switch is a button which, when activated, sends a signal to the computer. This signal can then be used to trigger an action on the device such as open a program or press a key.

Button switches

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

Switches work particularly well with ‘cause and effect’ software and programs that require simple choices but can also be used to fully control a computer. A small switch interface box is needed to connect a switch to a computer, although some ‘all-in-one’ and wireless options are available.

Screen output

Large, clear monitors give better choice in the way that content is displayed. Higher resolution monitors reduce the blurring of text and images, but being mindful of the amount of ‘clutter’ on screen is also key in reducing distraction.

Where appropriate, the sound features should be fully utilised to make the most of the speech, music and other sounds available from applications. Ensuring that the sounds are heard in response to the user’s actions helps to reinforce the cause and effect experience.

6. How important is training and support?

People with learning disabilities may only realise the full potential of any of the solutions outlined in this factsheet if they receive specialist assessment and support. One size does not fit all, and each person’s abilities and needs are unique.

Getting the most out of assistive technology also often requires receiving adequate training and having sufficient opportunity to become familiar and proficient with the products. Generally, training is most effective when it is spread over time and geared towards individual needs.

7. Useful contacts

Specialist suppliers

Most of the software titles and hardware referenced in this factsheet are available from specialist suppliers, including:

  • Adapt-IT

www.adapt-it.co.uk
0208 736 0542

  • Inclusive Technology

www.inclusive.co.uk
01457 819790
 

Software producers

  • Claro Software

www.clarosoftware.com
sales@clarosoftware.com
01772 977888

  • Crick Software – producers of Clicker software, Superkeys, Symbol sets and Write Online

www.cricksoft.com
info@cricksoft.com
01604 671691

  • Gamz – producers of Swap / Fix Card Games

www.gamzuk.com
support@gamzuk.com
01684 562158

  • Penfriend Ltd – producers of Penfriend XL

www.penfriend.biz
info@penfriend.biz
0131 668 2000

  • Propeller – titles include Bungalow and React2

www.propellertherapy.com
info@propeller.net
01721 725875

  • Shiny Learning – producers of special needs software and apps for all ages

www.shinylearning.co.uk
info@shinylearning.co.uk
01457 778365

  • Smartbox – producers of Grid software and sets

www.thinksmartbox.com
info@thinksmartbox.com
01684 578868

  • Text Help – titles include Read&Write

www.texthelp.com
info@texthelp.com
028 9442 8105

  • Widgit – producers of InPrint 3, SymWriter 2, Widgit Online and Widgit Symbols

www.widgit.com
info@widgit.com
01926 333680

8. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet or smartphone. The site is routinely updated as new features and changes are made to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS and Android operating systems. The site is broken down into the following sections:

  • Vision – computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing – computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication and speech
  • Motor – computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina and dexterity
  • Cognitive – computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory

Use it for free at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk

Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

IT support at Home

If you’re looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.

https://abilitynet.org.uk/at-home

Copyright information

This factsheet is licensed by AbilityNet under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. View a copy of this license at creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 
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