AbilityNet Factsheet - November 2017

Learning Difficulties and Computing

Computer technology can help improve the quality of life for people with a broad range of learning difficulties.

This factsheet outlines some of the ways that assistive technology addresses the varied needs of people with such problems. It includes summary details of adaptations to computer hardware, as well as introducing the growing range of specialist software now available to help people with learning difficulties to learn, communicate and participate more successfully.

Last updated: November 2017

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

The distinction between learning difficulties and learning disabilities 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 ‘specific learning difficulties’ (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia or dyspraxia), as well as people with an acquired learning difficulty – for example, as a result of a head injury or a stroke.

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

For simplicity, we use ‘learning difficulties’ here as an overarching term that also covers learning disabilities, with a focus on the computing needs of 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 the computer

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 computing 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. 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 black and white, QWERTY keyboard has over 100 small keys close together. This can be confusing or intimidating to some users, or just feel like an invitation to fiddle.

Alternatives to the standard keyboard that can be useful to some people with learning difficulties 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

Pointing deviceSome people with learning difficulties 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.

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 windowIn addition to touch monitors, it is also possible to fit a ‘plug and play’ touch window – such as the TouchGENiE – over your existing display to convert this into a touch screen.


For someone who is physically or cognitively unable to use any keyboard or pointing device, then a basic starting point may be to use switch input. 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, 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 now available.

Screen output

Clear outputs are often key to the effective use of computers by people with learning difficulties.  Bright, colourful and active screens can be helpful, although it is important not to make them too cluttered. Larger monitors displaying large text can also help, as can working in a darkened room in a darkened room (to intensify the image display).

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. Also, placing any speakers as close to the monitor as possible may help concentrate the user’s attention to one area and reduce possible distraction.

4. Useful software

Software is available for a whole 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 address learning difficulties with numeracy and literacy, memory and cognition.

As well as being easy to use, it is important that the software is stimulating and motivating – that it’s 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 rewards for good work and not be discouraging when the wrong answer is given.

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


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


  • 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. What about tablets?

The touch screen technology of tablet computers can make them suitable devices for people with learning difficulties. Tablet versions are available for much of the above software and countless accessible apps – including many designed specifically for people with learning difficulties – can be downloaded from Google Play (for Android devices) and or the App Store (for Apple devices).

Frames, like the Big Grips Frame or the GoNow Case for iPads, can also help to make the tablet easier to hold while offering additional protection from slips and falls.

6. How important is training and support?

People with learning difficulties 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:

Software producers

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.


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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