We live in an exciting time. Technology is making it easier and easier for people with disabilities to function independently in their homes, workplaces, schools and communities. Things that were once thought impossible are now possible with the aid of these new innovations. Every day there are new tools available to assist in the transition toward independent living, but none have had as big of an impact as the iPod Touch or more recently, the iPad.

iPod Turned Assistive Technology Device

When most people think of an iPod, they think of it as a portable music player. When most people think of the iPad, they think of surfing the internet or playing games. The truth is, these mobile devices are amazingly powerful assistive technology tools, which allow the learner to take instruction out into the community.

Using the iPod or iPad, you can:

  • Plan your day
  • Follow directions
  • Use public transportation
  • Go to school,work, shopping, etc.
  • Perform work activities
  • Create a shopping list
  • Go to a restaurant
  • Handle difficult social situations
  • Much, much more!

The possibilities with mobile technology are endless. With the right content, you can use the video and audio capabilities of the iPod Touch or iPad to teach freedom and independence in new ways, and – most importantly – give learners the motivation they need to learn.

Thinking in Pictures

The concept of thinking in pictures is nothing new. In fact, The Conover Company has been teaching freedom and independence using this philosophy since 1982. At that time research was very limited on the topic of computer-based software using pictures and audio to teach functional survival skills to youth and adults with significant disabilities. However, The Conover Company was in the forefront of that research. We developed a software program called Survival Words. Survival Words taught 60 functional survival skills in a picture format with full audio. The program was targeted at individuals with no reading skills.

The Development Process

We began a process of software development incorporating pictures with various levels of audio, including English and Spanish, to teach basic survival words such as Stop, Go, Caution, etc., all critical words for freedom and independence in our society. The software concept was simple – present the picture along with an audio track saying the targeted word, for example, Stop.

Instructional Phase

A picture, or better yet a video, is worth a thousand words. The next step, the Instructional Phase, showed the word or sign in context, as it is used in real life, with an audio track describing the situation.

Instructional Review

Instructional Review was the next phase, which introduced distracters, both auditory and visual, to make sure the learner understood the concept.

Generalization Phase

The final phase was called the Generalization Phase. This phase allowed the sign or the word to be generalized in everyday use in the community.

High-Tech (Relatively Speaking)

This basic design worked well for us back in the early days of software development but it had its limitations. For example, each picture had to be hand drawn, one pixel at a time. We used the True Apple Tablet, using a stylus to draw pixilated lines, which required a lot of skill and patience. The audio was recorded and then converted to a poor-quality, robotic-sounding voice. It was crude, but better than anything else at the time, and more importantly, it was an effective way to teach these important skills.

Results Backed by Research

In the first year after the release of Survival Words, we sold six programs for the Apple II computer. So much for that –or so we thought. Out of the six programs sold, two were used for graduate-level research to determine whether this new computer-based technology could improve upon the traditional, teacher-led format for teaching survival skills. The results were very promising and showed that, yes, students with significant disabilities could, and did learn survival skills from a software program if it was designed to accommodate their particular learning needs. More importantly, information learned through this computer format could be easily transferred to the community.

New Technology, Same Great Results

Today, all of our programs use digital pictures, video, and human-quality audio. The video format takes the concept of thinking in pictures to a whole new level. Also, with the advancements in digital video we are able to move to more complex activities. This led to the development of our How To Series. The How To Series uses the same instructional format as our Signs and Words Series to teach basic activities requiring a variety of sequenced steps, such as crossing the street or brushing your teeth.


As we developed these programs we continued to shoot thousands of short video clips– video clips that are now used in our iPod and iPad applications to reinforce these crucial independent living skills. We now have more than 3,500 video clips in our Functional Skills System. This series includes 42 programs covering functional life, social,literacy, math and work skills, with more programs under development.

Check out Part 2 next week to read about the true secret to success in teaching disabled individuals the how to live freely and independently.