Submitted by Christina C. Wray, Librarian, Center for Disability Information and Referral, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington,


With the advent of the iPhone in July of 2007, the idea of what mobile computing is and could be was forever changed. Since that time, not only have the choices of smart phone technology expanded, but lightweight tablet computers which can access the internet using Wi-Fi or cellular networks have burst onto the market. Mobile devices are well on the way to becoming ubiquitous in our society. The Pew Institute reported that 83% of U.S. adults have cell phones, and 42% of those adults own smartphones. Libraries are also increasingly adding mobile devices to their circulating collections. Creating a core collection of apps for those devices with all patrons in mind can be a daunting task. One group of patrons who may find the ability to borrow mobile devices especially fulfilling are people with disabilities. Mobile applications are being developed that give people with disabilities the tools to live independently and connect to the world around them, but how do you choose which apps will be most useful for your patrons? In July of 2012, 793 apps a day were added to the iTunes App store. This can be very overwhelming for librarians who are tasked with choosing which apps to purchase for their circulating mobile devices. Finding and choosing apps to include so that people with disabilities can fully engage with devices adds another layer of complexity to the selection processes.

While apps are generally inexpensive compared to traditional software or assistive technology devices, there are rarely demos available for users to test full versions of the app before buying. This can make for a frustrating mobile experience as well as costly experimentation. Librarians are in a position to help guide user experiences and provide an opportunity for patrons to experiment with apps as well as the device to see if it will meet their needs. Developing a core collection of apps that can be used to help people with disabilities can be a valuable addition to libraries’ iPad programming. Word of mouth is one way for users to get more information about how specific apps work for people with disabilities; however it is often hard for people with disabilities to connect with others who have the same needs as they do. Luckily, social media has made it significantly easier for interested parties to connect with each other. For this study, a selection of 287 applications were identified as apps for people with disabilities by compiling a list of apps recommended through blogs and Facebook by parents, educators and service providers who work with people with disabilities. The apps were examined in an effort to ascertain what types of apps were being marketed for people with disabilities, how the apps were classified, and to identify areas in which further development would be appreciated.

For this study, applications were gathered from 5 different sources in August of 2011:

ITunes Special Education Subcategory:  In October of 2010, Apple added a sub-category to the Education apps for apps developed for people with disabilities.  This does not appear to be an active subcategory.

Apps for Children with Disabilities top 100 Apps: This list was developed by a very active Facebook community of the Apps for Children with Special Needs website. It is a compilation of the “the most popular among special needs parents and professionals”.

Autism Epicenter: The Autism Epicenter is a website maintained by parent, Shane Nurnberg, who also works in the disability field. The apps are reviewed on a five star scale and are not specific to autism.

Mobile Learning for Special Needs Wiki:  This wiki was developed and is maintained by Luis Perez, a doctoral student in special education at the University of South Florida. 

Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence Apps Guide: This list of resources was developed by Heather Bridgman and Nick Weiland at the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence.

These five sources were chosen for the diversity of backgrounds of the list developers. With this selection, the final list is influenced by app developers, professionals in the field, educators, parents and people with disabilities. By ensuring that interested parties from a variety of perspectives had a role in compiling the source lists used to create the list of apps that were evaluated, it was hoped to limit the biases that each group inherently contributed to their recommendations. Each application was assigned one of 10 categories based on their primary function. The categories are:

Communication: Apps assigned to the communication category are designed to help people communicate with others either as an alternative communication device or in a therapeutic role including ASL acquisition.

Daily Living Skills: Apps assigned to the daily living skills category help users develop skills and routines for day to day activities.

Literacy:  Literacy applications help users improve reading and writing skills including braille.

Motor skills: These apps help users improve their fine motor skills.

Organization & Study:  The apps categorized as organization & study apps support users with scheduling, note taking, visual thinking and other day to day tasks.

Reinforcement/Data:  These apps help users and caregivers model, reward and reinforce behaviors as well as track and record behavior patterns.

Sensory: Sensory applications help users enhance and understand their senses.  This category also includes apps that are targeted for users with sensory processing disorders.

Social Competence:  The social competence apps are apps that are specifically designed to help users develop social skills.

Specific Learning: These apps are designed to enhance users learning in a specific skill set.  Each app assigned to the specific learning category was assigned one of nine subcategories to identify the focus of the app. The subcategories are: Art, Fundamentals, Geography, Math, Music, Pattern Recognition, Storytelling, Transition and Trivia.

Other: The apps in the other category are a collection of apps that did not clearly fall into one of the other categories.  These apps were also assigned a subcategory.  The subcategories were: Assessment, IEPs, Games, Reference and Classroom Management.

A list of core apps determined by comparing the number of source lists on which a specific app appeared was also developed.  This list is comprised of those apps which appeared on three or more of the source lists.  This ensures that the app is popular with a diverse group of people who have different roles in the lives of people with disabilities.

Of the 286 apps analyzed, 49, or 17% of the apps were only available on iPad, the rest of the applications would work on any up to date apple platform. Communication (23%), Specific Learning (18%) and Literacy (18%) were the most popular categories. 


 Within the specific learning category, apps that focused on math skills (31%) and fundamentals (25%) such as learning colors, shapes, the alphabet, etc. were the most frequent subcategories.

Only one app, Proloquo2Go, appeared on all five source lists. Five apps appeared on four of the lists, 19 apps appeared on three of the five lists, 43 apps appeared on two of the five lists and 218 apps appeared on only one of the lists. Of the 25 apps which appeared on three or more lists, 10 were marketed to the autism community. The majority of the apps listed on three or more lists were Communication apps (17), followed by Organization & Study Skills apps (5).


It is not surprising that apps that help users communicate and interact with the world around them are the most popular apps with the professionals, parents and caregivers who contributed to the development of the lists of apps utilized for this project. iPads as well as the even smaller and more portable iPhones/iPod Touches are more affordable and more mobile than traditional communication devices. The additional functionality of the devices may make them more appealing than some of the traditional devices which only serve one function. However, like any multitasking devices, it may not be a good fit for some users with disabilities because they are not designed specifically to be used by people with disabilities. The majority of the apps included in this study do not seem to be targeting users with severe cognitive or motor disabilities. Only two of the apps, Tap to Speak and RadSounds were specifically designed with switch users in mind. 

The most frequently listed apps in this study, identified as those listed on three or more lists, tend to serve a supportive role rather than a skills acquisition role. In fact, none of the specific learning apps appeared on three or more lists. One reason for this could be that there are many more choices of apps that serve the same basic functions in the skills acquisition categories, versus the more specialized apps in the other categories. Communication supports are the most popular apps by far, followed by apps that help users stay organized and act as memory aids. 

Mobile devices and applications are being utilized in innovative ways to help improve the lives of people with disabilities and create avenues for greater inclusion in school, work and community life. This project provides a glimpse into which apps people with disabilities, their caregivers and service providers are finding to be most helpful in achieving this goal.  Apps are being utilized to help people with disabilities communicate as well as to help them access the information they need to live more independently. 

When selecting apps for circulating mobile devices for people with disabilities, libraries should focus primarily on apps which will help patrons: communicate, remember things and organize tasks. Including apps that will act as assistive technology tools on circulating mobile devices will not only make it easier for patrons with disabilities to fully enjoy these devices, it will also allow for patrons with limited resources to try popular assistive technology apps before investing in technology that may not fit their needs. The nature of apps markets means that the specifics of this study are merely a snapshot in time of the app market; however, identifying the key characteristics of popular apps can help librarians evaluate new apps to gauge how well they will meet the needs of users with disabilities.

Here is the complete list of apps that were included on three or more source lists:


TapSpeak Sequence for iPad

Grace – Picture Exchange for Non-Verbal People      

ArtikPix – Full

First Then Visual Schedule  

Model Me Going Places

Scene Speak

TapSpeak Button Plus for iPad

Typ-O HD – writing is for everybody

Articulate it!

Assistive Chat

Dragon Dictation     

FirstWords: Deluxe

Look2Learn – AAC   



Speak it! Text to Speech


iDress for Weather 

Sentence Builder    


Picture Scheduler                   


Time Timer

IEP Checklist