Assistive technology guide: Low cost software for learning
In this document, we review the availability of free and low-cost software and apps that are helpful for a range of different needs. For each disability, we discuss how software can help and then link to a solution that is in the catalog.
The difficulties that we will consider are:
- Learning disabilities (Reading, writing, etc.)
- Intellectual disabilities (cognitive impairments, communication, speech, etc.)
- Hearing impairments
- Visual impairments
- Physical Impairments
One of the myths surrounding assistive technology for learners with a disability is that it all has to be expensive. On the contrary, every device, operating system and compatible applications draw increasingly upon a range of enabling features to make content accessible for most users. Experience suggests that as many as 70% of all learners with a disability will find an accommodation within technology that is available to all learners. This proportion is increasing year upon year. However, not all of the remaining 30% will require expensive and complex solutions. Teachers, learners, and families have a wide range of low cost or free enhancements available for their devices, offering significant impact. Addressing needs through low-cost tools that are entirely fit for purpose can release funding and effort to address the needs of those with the most complex challenges to meet.
The solutions we suggest all cost less than $20 or are available as part of widely used applications. In addition, many are free to use or open licensed, meaning that schools and colleges can both use and distribute the software to as many learners as they wish.
We recognize that some of the tools identified here are based on current operating systems and software versions or applications. This can be challenging for some settings. The portal includes a guide to the accessibility of alternative office suites as a separate document. It is essential to always check compatibility guides for any applications you are planning to use. Where possible, download a trial version to check that it runs smoothly on your hardware.
There are many applications and apps that are helpful for those with a reading impairment, such as dyslexia. They offer different approaches and address users' needs in quite specific ways.
One example of free support is "Easy Reading" (https://www.easyreading.eu/easy-reading-program/), an open extension for Chrome and Firefox that adds features to the browser to make reading webpages easier. These include adjustment of layout and structure of webpages, the explanation of web content with symbols, pictures and videos and the translation of content into a different language level, e.g. Plain Language or Easy-to-Read, or symbol writing systems. Plain Language requires that wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. Easy-to-read is a method of presenting written information in a clear and simple way, with short sentences having just one idea and one verb, using clear layouts, images and pictograms to facilitate understanding.
Figure 1: Easy Reading overlaid on a web page
Similarly, "Rewordify" (www.rewordify.com) is a free web service that seeks to simplify difficult English texts or web pages replacing unusual or difficult words or rephrasing articulated sentences to facilitate comprehension. In addition, it can help effectively teach words for building vocabulary whilst reducing frustration for the reader.
Figure 2: Example of Rewordify in use on a text
Much of the software that create documents (“authoring tools”) include some features to make them easier to read. For example, Microsoft Office, Google Docs and Adobe Acrobat all have options that include a choice of fonts, colours, spacing and read aloud. These features can also often be found in ePub readers for publications in ePub format.
In some cases having additional support for reading can be helpful. Software such as "Natural Reader" (https://www.naturalreaders.com) and Microsoft's "Immersive Reader" (https://www.onenote.com/learningtools) can present a text in multiple ways to help readers find their preferred configuration, e.g. different fonts, contrasted colours, division in syllables, grammatical analysis, text to speech, etc.
Figure 3: Example of Windows Immersive Reader on a text
Thorium Reader (https://www.edrlab.org/software/) is a free and open reading application for EPUB, PDF and DAISY 3 eBooks, audiobooks and digital comics. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems (there is no mobile version of this application). Thorium features a modern interface and carries no ads. In addition, it supports publications protected by the Readium digital rights management available from public libraries and websites. Once a book is downloaded, learners can customize the layout settings, navigate using the table of contents or page list, search, or set bookmarks. It offers a good level of accessibility and works well with most screen readers.
Writing assistance and spellchecking
Many tools can support learners in creating high-quality text. Some learners worry about their use of correct spelling and grammar. Some may be familiar with basic spellchecking tools in productivity software such as Office, but there are more advanced features and applications that can be useful. Microsoft editor is a new feature in Office 365 that has several functions. These allow the writer to check a document for spelling and grammar, as well as clarity, conciseness, formality, conventions, and vocabulary. Using these tools, which can be found on the "Home" tab of the ribbon, can help produce high-quality documents that reflect the learners thinking and is both engaging and motivating to an audience.
Additional third-party tools such as "Grammarly" (https://www.grammarly.com/) have more powerful versions of some of these features. They can be tailored to the precise audience to whom the document is aimed. Grammarly is beneficial in proofreading long documents which many people with Dyslexia or similar needs find difficult or stressful. Similar features can be found for free with "Ginger", an AI-powered writing assistant which helps reduce errors in text and enhances style. (https://www.gingersoftware.com/)
Figure 4 Screenshot of Grammarly in action
Producing accurate text with appropriate words is also assisted by using text or word prediction. While this was once a specialized feature for people with severe writing impairments, it has become mainstream through phones and tablets, where text is written using a small keyboard and reducing key presses helps write more efficiently. Most mainstream applications and operating systems offer forms of word prediction. However, there may be a case for more specialized products such as LightKey (https://www.lightkey.io/), which has a free version with limited functionality, and DiCom (https://www.learningapps.co.uk/moodle/xertetoolkits/play.php?template_id=1327). Each is a free and open-source word prediction tool which appears on screen and suggests words as you type.
Figure 5 Lightkey used on a webpage
Figure 6 Example of DiCom word prediction
One alternative to the standard keyboards on both apple and android devices is Fleksy. Fleksy (https://www.fleksy.com/ ) allows plenty of different configurations for greater ease of reading and writing, including minimal and compact keyboards. It can include shortcuts to open apps, auto correction and customizable features. Its capacity to be customized can make it a valuable alternative for some learners.
Figure 7 Examples of Fleksy in use
Voice recognition and dictation
Similarly to word prediction, voice recognition can also help speed up typing where mistakes are easy to make. It is very accessible on phones, where it is increasingly used as a standard alternative to typing. For instance, the keyboard has a small microphone icon on iPhone and iPad to open a dictation window.
All major vendors have some form of voice recognition integrated into their operating systems and applications for computers. For example, in Microsoft Office, a "Dictate" button is usually next to the "editor" on the "Home" tab of the ribbon. In Google Docs, "voice typing" can be found on the dropdown list from Tools on the main toolbar. Voice recognition can be used to produce text by dictation. Most modern devices have a form of voice assistant that allows the device itself to be controlled by voice alone.
Voice recognition is powerful but may not be suitable for everyone, for example a headset or high-quality microphone is recommended for computers. In addition, in spite of its overall accuracy a careful check of the dictated text is strongly recommended before completing and sharing a document.
Figure 8 Section of Ribbon on word displaying "dictate" icon<,/p>
Figure 9 Google Doc showing menu with Voice Typing highlighted
Cognition and information processing
For some learners, information processing and cognition of some forms of information can be challenging. These often include organizing information and memory. Most smartphones have a clock and calendar built-in for free. These are a good starting point for anyone needing regular prompts and reminders of what they need to do and where they need to be at any given time. There are also other reminder apps for smartphones that remind learners of what they need to do. They may integrate with the calendar and send notifications when a deadline approaches and share a common purpose to help users avoid forgetting important things.
Reminder apps help people organize to-do lists and include tools that help list tasks by priority, so they know which things to focus on first. Good starting points is Remember the Milk (https://www.rememberthemilk.com/), which helps manage tasks, works across devices and can be shared with others. Microsoft To-Do (https://todo.microsoft.com/tasks/) can create lists for what needs to be remembered, and includes a smart suggestion feature that learns user’s habits and can offer suggestions for things they might need to do in the future.
Figure 10 Screenshot of remember the milk
Figure 11 Screenshot of Microsoft's To Do
Prompts apps work in a similar way, offering alerts and notifications, but they are used more by employers or assistants to send an alert or message based upon a specific trigger. Such triggers might be the person's location, a missed deadline or information provided by other people of which they should be aware. These prompts can be simple such an SMS or instant message to the person to explain the issue and remind them what to do. For instance, if a delivery service finds out that a delivery cannot be accepted by the customer, the system informs their driver and reminds him or her of what to do. Useful starting points are Pushover (https://pushover.net/), which sends real-time notifications to Android, iPhone, iPad or desktop devices and wearables such as Android Wear and Apple Watch, and CallMy (https://www.callmy.com/), which can be used by an individual or an organization to send out urgent notifications and receive distress alerts.
Figure 12 screenshot from Pushover
For some learners, it can be challenging to remember what they have done and when they did it. These memories can be important as a prompt to other thoughts, such as remembering "where I left my coat". These are also valuable to improve time management, reducing stress and anxiety. A good starting point is ATracker (http://www.wonderapps.se/ATracker/home.html), a time tracking application that is easy to use and requires minimal setup.
It is not unusual for someone to feel overwhelmed by the volume of readily available information nowadays. Therefore, organizing or curating this information data to store, search, find, retrieve, and use information is increasingly important at work and when learning. Fortunately, many tools are available to help with this.
Two tools that are free and readily available are Google Keep and Microsoft OneNote. These operate both as apps, software and plugins or extensions to browsers. In both cases, when you find or are given the information you might need or want at a later stage, you tag them on your device and that information is stored in the app. Thus, you can think of them as multimedia digital notebooks, on which notes can be added to from any location. You can then search and use the information at a later stage.
More features are included in Evernote (www.evernote.com), which has more advanced search and retrieve functions. These allow you to search by title, text content, or tags you have created and attached to the document. In addition, information stored is not limited to web pages but can include videos, YouTube pages, PDF's and images. Evernote is a powerful and helpful tool for those who need access to a lot of information but find it challenging to maintain.
Graphic thought organizers
Graphic thought organizers are a different way to organize information and can extend to recording our thoughts and ideas. These are sometimes referred to and include mind mapping tools. With these tools, rather than simply making lists, we place ideas in a bubble on paper or on-screen and then draw lines to connect each idea to others. We can then add further thoughts and refinements to the original question or concept.
A mind map is a diagram for representing tasks, words, concepts or items linked to and arranged around a central concept or subject. It can turn a long list of information into a colourful, memorable, and well-organized diagram that may suit an individual's way of thinking. Mind maps can be helpful for planning, organising, note taking and studying.
Good starting points to introduce mind mapping are Xmind (https://www.xmind.net/) and Freemind (http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page) for the PC. For more advanced features, Ayoa (https://www.ayoa.com/) or Inspiration (https://www.inspiration-at.com/) are available. Finally, a simple online tool can be found at www.bubbl.us, which individuals or small groups can use.
Figure 13 Example of Mind map for organizing a Holiday
Learners also have to be able to organize their time. This is more than simply remembering an appointment or the time for a lesson or event; it is about managing all of the steps that need to be completed to be at that event at the right time.
One of the most widely used is "Todoist" (https://todoist.com/), which allows users to get a clear overview of everything they need to do and track tasks. Users can sequence the steps that need to be taken and schedule specific steps from one or more tasks into a day.
Figure 14 Example of ToDoist in use for organizing daily tasks
Todoist requires a high level of confidence and competence. Other, more straightforward tools to help with scheduling include visual scheduling. This can help people with cognitive disabilities by graphic means of scheduling and recalling tasks and steps. A visual schedule is a pictorial representation of those tasks and activities. It helps break down tasks with multiple steps and ensure that users understand and follow the rules and meet deadlines. In addition, they can help to reduce anxiety by providing consistency. Photographs, icons, and symbols can all be used to construct a visual schedule.
Technology and apps are available to allow such schedules to be constructed digitally. The main advantage of this is that the individual can always carry the schedule and make changes. One helpful app available for iPhone and iPad is Visual schedule planner. Visual Schedule Planner (https://apps.apple.com/us/app/visual-schedule-planner/id488646282) offers a customizable Audio-Visual Schedule or Calendar that has been designed for those who benefit from visual supports. This can ease transitions, reduce anxiety, and support those who may need to represent the "events" in their day visually. Using a range of different formats and media, the prompts and events can be described in a way that is of most value to the individual.
Figure 15 Screenshot of Visual Schedule Planner
When thinking about how technology can help communicate, it is helpful to consider how mainstream, common technologies might be used. For example, where communication is variable and large group discussions represent a challenge, or when a person is tired or anxious, using messaging apps such as WhatsApp can be helpful. The app can assist in getting the attention of partners, making statements when speech is a barrier, and asking questions or contributing to a discussion. WhatsApp is beneficial as it works across platforms and can be used on both smartphones and tablets. It can be a valuable way to prepare for activities and to stay in touch with people. It can be used to communicate with an individual or in small groups. In addition, it allows sharing images, symbols or emojis to enrich the communication or make it quicker when discussions are hurrying.
Similarly, for some people there are times when face-to-face interactions, meetings or lessons are not possible. This might be due to circumstances, especially during the pandemic, but it might also be related to a person's varying needs. WhatsApp, Skype, or Facebook messenger all offer ways to replace face-to-face conversations with a video call, thus overcoming the communication problems related to distance, isolation, confinement, etc. This has become an increasingly acceptable way of connecting, and it provides an ideal and accessible alternative way of communicating, sharing and exchanging ideas.
Some people with intellectual needs may find that speech is not the best way to communicate their thoughts. Technologies developed for people with little or no speech capacity can be helpful in this scenario. Such programs allow users to type words, sentences or phrases into a phone or tablet, which can then be read by a communication partner or spoken aloud by the device. In addition, many such apps allow the user to store phrases that they regularly use to make speech more straightforward and faster.
One such app is ClaroCom (https://www.clarosoftware.com/portfolio/clarocom/), an AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) app available on Android or iPad and iPhone. It can replace speech communication or assist in writing for those who have difficulties in producing or understanding spoken or written language. The “pro” version has better editing, privacy and communication features with high-quality speech, user-editable phrases, and word prediction to the free version.
Figure 16 screenshot of Clarocom
Other text messaging apps rely upon a Bluetooth connection between two devices in proximity. This allows text chat to happen between connected devices in settings with poor or no network connectivity, ensuring at the same time that privacy is granted. Berkanan Messenger (https://berkanan.chat/) is one such app for iPhone and iPad. Alongside group messaging, Berkanan also allows private one-to-one encrypted messaging and can be used without registering for an account.
Figure 17 Screenshot of chat on Berkanan Messenger using Bluetooth connection
Symbol based communication
For some people, both speech and text communication is not possible. In these cases, symbols can be used to communicate concepts, words and phrases. Symbols are simple images representing an idea, which can be linked to words that can be printed out or used on a smartphone or tablet to facilitate communication. A good starting point for using free symbols sets in multiple languages is Global Symbols, a repository for finding and sharing AAC symbol sets. Each symbol set can facilitate communication by breaking language barriers and simplifying communication with people who cannot speak, cannot hear, who do not speak a specific language or who have other difficulties in communicating. Global Symbols (www.globalsymbols.com) has a vast collection of high-quality symbols you can use for communication. You can search the symbols, download them, and use them. They also offer a free Board Builder, where you can quickly create boards of symbols to help communication. The symbols support a range of languages and can be used freely with other applications.Figure 18 Example of Board Builder by Global symbols
The symbols stored at Global symbols can be used in other applications such as Cboard. Cboard (https://www.cboard.io/) is an AAC web app for children and adults with speech and language impairments, aiding communication with symbols and text-to-speech. Cboard works on modern browsers and is available on various platforms, including desktops, tablets and mobile phones. In addition, offline support is available on Google Chrome (desktop & Android).Figure 19: cBoard on an android phone
Assistive technologies that can support persons with a vision impairment loosely divide into three groups. Some work with refreshable Braille displays; some use screen readers / text-to-speech software to read aloud the contents of a screen, and others magnify the screen contents and adjust contrast and colours to make it easier to read.
Braille devices and software
There is no ultra-low-cost refreshable Braille display on the market (a hardware device that turns the content showed on a screen into raised and lowered braille pins). Traditional devices have an average cost of $4000. However, the emergence of the Orbit Reader (http://www.orbitresearch.com/product/orbit-reader-20/) at $500 has disrupted this market and provided a cheaper and alternative option.Figure 20 Orbit braille display
In order to properly convert documents in Braille, Braille displays and printers need to be operated with files that have been conceived in accessible ways and converted in the appropriate format. For example, the books available on Bookshare.org (www.bookshare.org) can be downloaded as Braille Ready Files (BRF), so they can be read on any compatible Braille Device. Similarly, the RoboBraille (https://www.robobraille.org/) website offers a means of converting documents from text to Braille (and other formats) for little or no cost.
A screen reader is a form of text-to-speech assistive technology (AT) that renders text and image content as speech or braille output. Screen readers are essential to people who are blind, and are useful to people who are visually impaired, illiterate, or have a learning disability. The world's most widely used screen reader for computers is NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access) (https://www.nvaccess.org/). NVDA is free and open source and supports multiple languages, with support and training widely available. Another common text-to-speech option to access documents either instead of or alongside Braille is to turn a text into an audio file. Apps like RoboBraille, for example, will export files as audio files such as Mp3.
Many learners with visual disabilities can still read some text on the screen and use magnification as an option. Magnification works by increasing the scale of what is viewed on the screen many times. This technology is built into the operating system, but other applications exist to make the on-screen text more accessible. The quality of the magnifier in the latest versions of windows is very high. Still, should you need a third-party application or are using an older version of windows, Magnifixer (http://www.blacksunsoftware.com/screenmagnifier.html) is a good alternative.
Figure 21 Screenshot of Magnifixer
Smartphone users find that their phone can make an excellent handheld digital magnifier to make labels, book pages and signs easy to read in the environment around them. Claro's MagX (https://www.clarosoftware.com/portfolio/claro-magx/) app for Apple and Android has been available for several years and has proven stable and reliable.
Camera-based accessibility apps
Other valuable free or low-cost technologies for people with visual impairments include the ones which can describe persons and objects that are framed in the device’s camera:
- BeMyEyes (https://www.bemyeyes.com/ ), which connects remotely the person who is blind with a sighted human guide who narrates in real time what they can see through the phone’s camera lens.
- SeeingAi (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/ai/seeing-ai) uses artificial intelligence to describe people and read labels aloud to the user via the camera lens.
- TapTapSee (https://taptapseeapp.com/) uses the mobile camera on both apple and android devices with Image Recognition and text to speech to take a picture or video of an object and describe it out loud for the learner.
Figure 22: Image of person using taptapsee on a bag of cookies
Learners with hearing loss loosely divide into two groups. Persons who are deaf and have very little or no hearing, and persons with some hearing ability but compromised (heard of hearing). The available technologies are often designed based on the extent of residual hearing. However, some options are used by all and are helpful for a much wider part of the population.
Captions and speech-to-text
For many learners with hearing impairments who have developed literacy skills, captions are essential. Whilst most prefer human-created captions (CART services), either as an added file or typed live for events, automated captions offer value for many.
Increasingly, captions are available from within the video and audio tools that we are using with every learner. YouTube, Google, and Microsoft all offer forms of automated captioning within their products. Whilst not perfect, they provide a useful option for some users, as are those integrated into the major video conferencing software such as Zoom, Teams and Google Meet.
Other helpful software for captions that are cross-platform include: Veed.io (https://www.veed.io/auto-subtitle) and Otter.AI (https://otter.ai/) which offer automated AI generated captions for note-making from live speech.
Figure 23 example of captions with Otter.ai
The Amara collaborative platform (https://amara.org/en/subtitling-platform/) is especially helpful in finding captions that others have made and used for publicly available videos.
Other technologies that are especially helpful for those with hearing loss include those used in face-to-face lessons to transcribe on the app what is being said for the person with hearing impairments. They can also be used as the basis of conversations between peers as well as with teachers, and a useful feature is that the person who is speaking is clearly identified. One of the most widely used is AVA (https://www.ava.me/) which offers transcription on both apple and android phones and is similar to Otter.ai.
Figure 24 Screenshot of AVA interface
Integrated note taking
Similarly, note-taking apps such as Audio Note 2 (https://luminantsoftware.com/apps/audionote-notepad-and-voice-recorder/) and Notability (https://www.gingerlabs.com/) offer integrated note-taking for learners. These can take audio recordings of a lesson synchronized with the notes made by the student. This multimodal approach can be helpful for those with some hearing loss, especially where the lesson content can then be transcribed.
Figure 25 Notability on an iPad for written notes
Sounds amplification and alerts
Some apps developed for those with a less severe hearing loss seek to amplify the sound around the user and to reduce background noise and distraction. These include "Live Listen" for Apple products which only works with AirPods and Chatable (https://chatableapps.com/).
Figure 26 Image of person using Chatable on phone
Lastly we can mention technology supports for persons with hearing loss which can identify sounds and noises in the environment. They then send an alert to the person’s phone or smartwatch to notify them of the audio alert in a visual way. One such app is Braci (http://www.braci.co/) which can notify smoke alarms, doorbells, alarm clocks and other audio alerts.
Figure 27 Screenshot of setup screen for Braci
Helping persons with physical disabilities to access technology can require an alternative hardware device, such as a different keyboard or mouse, keyguards, switches, etc.. In all these cases, it is also essential to "tune" accessibility features to personal needs by settings that can usually be found in the operating system under “ease of access” or “accessibility”. Examples of low cost accessibility devices are provided in a separate article.
However, many of the technologies and applications discussed above can be equally valid for people with a physical disability. For example, text-to-speech can be helpful for learners who have difficulties in keeping a body position that allows looking at a screen for a long time. Likewise, word prediction can help persons with limited dexterity to type quicker and more accurately. Finally, voice recognition can entirely replace using a keyboard for typing for persons with a paralysis, an amputation, etc.
On screen keyboards
In some cases, a different on-screen keyboard can be valuable, in particular where either a touch screen or a switch are used. These are more readily available for Android, but they are also suitable for Apple devices. Microsoft's "Swiftkey" is also a helpful alternative to the standard keyboard (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/swiftkey?activetab=pivot_1%3aprimaryr2). For those using Windows, both "onscreenkeys" (https://www.onscreenkeys.com/en-us/details.htm) and "Click N Type" (https://cnt.lakefolks.com/ ) have integrated word prediction. However, the latter may have compatibility issues with the latest versions of windows.
Figure 28 Swiftkey keyboard displayed in three themes
In summary, cost is no longer the insurmountable barrier to accessing technology for teaching and learning that it once was. On the contrary, many free accessibility features are now integrated in common operating systems and applications, or they can easily be downloaded for no or very low cost from Google play. Being aware of these features, where to find them, how to use them and in which circumstances they can be useful is a great and cheap leap forward towards better inclusion and accessibility.
Assistive software goes hand-in-hand with low-cost hardware solutions that can enable access and inclusion in education. Read more about low-cost assistive hardware options. You can also refer to the catalog for more examples of software for access. It is important to consider the context in which assistive software will be used. You can learn more about the accessible digital learning ecosystem and the role assistive software solutions can play in implementation. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/education/products/learning-tools  Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) encompasses the communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing for those with impairments in the production or comprehension of spoken or written language.