We are often approached by clients with something like this, “My child needs a communication device, what do you think of the iPad?” We then need to work through with them the idea, that this is the wrong question to ask and that selecting a communication device has a number of other steps in it first. Hopefully this article will help if you are in this position.
Step 1: Physical Access to the device
Firstly it needs to be established how the user will access the device. Can they use a standard mouse and keyboard, touchscreen. Do they need head or eye control? Switch activated scanning with a screen reader? This will be worked through with the AAC therapist and will have a bearing on the devices and other accessories to be selected.
Step 2: Dedicated Device or Non-Dedicated Device
A Dedicated Device is a device manufactured for a specific communication need, has little expansion or upgrade opportunities. They were popular in the early days of AAC before personal computers, laptops and tablets became as prolific as now. Although they have their place, we are not generally proponents of these systems and favour the Non-Dedicated Devices.
A Non-Dedicated Device is the combination of a computer running appropriate communication software. They are expandable, can grow with the user becoming not only a means of communication but also a powerful life facilitator as they switch on lights, TV’s, sprinkler systems and act as a platform for further communication being able to phone, send SMS’s and then progress into the world of work. We also find the Non-Dedicated Devices are better value for money.
We break them down into 5 groups of Non-Dedicated Devices.
Tablet: Lightweight, usually good battery life, touch access and very mobile. Lacks expansion and power. Small screen.
Netversable: The power and functionality of a laptop with the touch access of a tablet. It converts from a netbook to a tablet with the screen turning round to hide the keys. Little heavier, with mixed battery life. Has the functionality but still small screen.
Laptop: Powerful fully functional computers. Lower battery life, heavy to carry all day, but with larger screens. Touch access is difficult and not recommended.
Desktop PC: Powerful and fully functional, with no mobility and no longer holding their price advantage over laptops their uses are limited.
All in One PC (AIO): Fairly new to the market, touch access desktop PC’s. Although no mobility they can work really well to allow the whole family access to the PC offering inclusion to all.
Step 3: Communication Software
There is a lot of communication Software on the market, especially with the plethora of tablet Apps that are being produced these days. Sadly a large number of them are made with very little AAC theory in mind, have limited expansion and are great, if you are an abled bodied user. When selecting a Non-Dedicated device, first find communication software that will meet your needs and then find a platform that will run that software. We generally use The Grid 2 as our communication software but there are also other good options out there. With our focusing on The Grid 2 we generally recommend Windows based platforms. Although the Grid Player does allow usage on other devices, it is limited and cannot offer full functionality at this stage.
Step 4: Mobility
What level of Mobility does the user require. If the user is wheelchair bound why pay for the expense of a tablet, when a cheaper laptop will suffice. If fairly mobile a tablet may be better as a laptop can get quite heavy to lug around. If the only interaction needed is at a desk, then the added cables of a desktop will be fine while the new All in one PC’s are great for family or class room inclusion, with everyone taking part.
Step 5: Ruggedness
If the user has good motor control, then a standard consumer level device like a tablet or laptop will be fine. If however the occasional involuntary bash, swipe off the table or drop are inevitable, you will need to weigh up the extra expense against something a little tougher. Rugged Tablets and Laptops are available from a little tougher to James Bond used me in a bar fight option. We have tried to include a range of these in our Non-Dedicated devices section.
So what do we think of the iPad?
Although a pioneer in it’s time, let’s be honest, there is a large element of fashion involved, and these days it is merely a front runner, with lots of competitors. Yes it may have it’s uses, but as a Non-Dedicated device, we believe that there are a number of other options out there that offer better value for money, with greater expansion and longevity of use.