For iPad, Accessibility Gives ‘It’s Just a Big iPhone’ New Meaning

Perhaps the most common complaint hurled against the iPad over its first decade of life is that it‘s little more than a bigger iPhone. At a fundamental level, the criticism is certainly valid: by and large, the iPad runs the same software as the iPhone. The penchant for bemoaning this bigness emanates from discontentment over the fact that substantial improvements to the iPad’s software have come at a glacially slow pace. Until last year, meaningful upgrades tailored to the tablet were few and far between.1 As much as Apple has extolled the iPad for being “unlike any computer,” the truth is the product stagnated for quite a while in terms of software.2 For better or worse, the company has been preoccupied with savoring every last drop of mother’s milk from the cash cow that is the iPhone. The iPad was left to wither thirstily when it came to its own growth, and it suffered for some time as a result.

In actuality, the iPad being more or less a scaled-up iPhone isn’t necessarily an entirely bad thing. The reason is iOS; familiarity breeds comfort – Apple shrewdly created the iPad’s user interface (and to lesser extents, Apple Watch and Apple TV) to largely resemble the iPhone. Especially for less nerdy users, the consistency across devices makes for a seamless, less intimidating experience. From icons to text to features to the touchscreen, the iPad being so similar to the iPhone means acclimating to the device takes minimal time and effort. From an accessibility standpoint, easy acclimation sets the tone for an enjoyable user experience. The foremost reason this is important is that the easier it is to acclimate to a device, the easier it is to find and configure mission-critical accessibility features.

Thus, it’s not at all unreasonable to look at what was heretofore a pejorative assessment – the iPad is nothing but a big iPhone – and turn it into a positive. One of the unheralded aspects of the device’s success is how its approachable, intuitive nature has made it a hit in accessibility-centric contexts such as special education classrooms and as a communicative aid. Such advances get right at the heart of the oft-cited Steve Jobs quote on the so-called intersection of technology and the liberal arts, when he said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.” Assistive technology obviously caters to the humanities part of the liberal arts, and it’s not hard to see how the iPad’s roots as ostensibly a bigger iPhone can be an asset rather than a liability. You just have to be willing to keep an open mind.

“In many ways, education and accessibility beautifully overlap,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s Director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives, told me in a 2018 interview for TechCrunch. “For us, the concept of differentiated learning and how the accessibility tools that we build in [products] help make that [learning] possible is really important to us.”

Form Follows Function

In order to completely understand why iPad has been so successful for students, parents, and educators, it’s crucial to first examine the iPad at the product’s most basic level. This means the object itself and its interaction model.

In written retrospectives and on podcasts, many in the Apple commentariat have pointed to the chair Jobs sat in as he demonstrated the original iPad on January 27, 2010 as a metaphor for Apple’s goal with the device. The chair helped telegraph what the iPad meant to Apple; to wit, that the product’s form factor (and accompanying software) represented the company’s conception for the future of personal computing. That Jobs was casually sitting back in that cushy recliner, browsing photos, writing email, and reading the (Flash-free) New York Times, sent the message that the iPad was highly unlike any conventional computer. To paraphrase Jony Ive, the iPad’s physical nature meant it conformed to the user rather than forcing the user to conform to it – which it continues to do with aplomb to this day. It was primarily for this reason Jobs described the product as “magical and revolutionary.”

In terms of accessibility, the idea that the iPad is nothing but a slab of metal and glass is the main attraction. For users with certain cognitive delays, for example, the iPad is a near perfect device. To use it is to literally put your hands on the screen. iPadOS is far less conceptually complex than macOS; there are no required pointing devices or windows to fiddle with.3 Likewise, visually impaired users can hold the tablet as close to their face as necessary to see. In both scenarios, this flexibility is made possible because Apple rethought the computing experience down to its essence. And that’s saying nothing about the deeply-integrated system accessibility features designed to aid and enhance the user experience for everyone, regardless of ability.

What this ultimately means is that the advent of the iPad ushered in a new era, an era in which the device is tailor-made to enable learning through technology. Particularly for those in special education settings, the iPad was (and remains) very much the Platonic ideal in terms of modern, accessible,4 and engaging teaching tools. And it’s because one of the iPad’s greatest strengths is that it’s essentially a big iPhone.

Between Two Worlds

Before getting into tech journalism in May 2013, I spent more than a decade as a paraeducator (the more professional name for a teacher’s aide) working in middle school and preschool special education classrooms.5 The last nine years of my career were spent with children aged 3 to 5, where we used technology like the iPad (and iPod touch) in small-group activities. Having spent most of my time with students on the autism spectrum, I was trained in several teaching methodologies designed for autistic children. I found the iPad to be great in not only gauging expressive and receptive language skills,6 it also was great in introducing and reinforcing pre-academic concepts such as identifying colors, letters, and shapes. In fact, my first-ever bylined piece, titled “Re-Enabled,” centered around how iOS and the iPad made life more accessible for my students, as well as myself.7

During my teaching years, I also studied early childhood development part-time at my then-local community college. The combination of real world, hands-on experience of my job and the textbook theoretical learning in my schooling helped me synthesize the disparate experiences I had at work and as a student. This proved especially beneficial as I was learning how children typically develop from infancy through early elementary age while at the same time working daily in a decidedly atypical environment, developmentally speaking. I was very much “between worlds,” so to speak.

What I wrote seven years ago in The Magazine remains true today. While there is no substitute for analog, real-life, play-based learning experiences for young children, there can be no denying the realities of the modern world. The iPad as a teaching tool not only bridges the analog and digital worlds, it allows for more immersive and innovative opportunities for students than ever before. For early childhood special education, where learning and teaching oftentimes take new meaning, the iPad can be utterly transformative. Not only for the child, but for the adult too.

I cannot emphasize enough how astonishing it was to watch my students, some of whom had fairly severe cognitive delays, take to the iPad so naturally and with such immediacy. Launching apps, swiping through pages, even the advanced multitasking gestures were all, pun intended, child’s play. This speaks volumes of not only the allure of things that light up and make noise, but of the genius of Apple building the iPad’s UI on top of the iPhone’s operating system. Like the decision to base iOS on many of OS X’s underpinnings, the choice to base the iPad on iOS was immensely prudent by Apple. We reap the benefits of it every day.

The bottom line is that if technology like the iPad is embraced and used with purpose,8 then it absolutely can augment the traditional materials and teaching methodologies that have been around schools forever. In my time in classrooms, I’ve seen firsthand how old and new can go meaningfully together.

Putting the i in iPad

It’s no secret Apple believes strongly in the iPad. Although the iPad’s software story has looked weak until recently, the hardware has never been better – arguably the company’s best, maybe ever. The current iPad Pro design language is breathtakingly beautiful, so much so that many in the Apple community (myself included) hope Apple carries it over to the iPhone as soon as possible. Accessory-wise, the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are first-class peripherals. The second-generation Pencil is, in my estimation, every bit as delightful and magical as AirPods. Like the earbuds, it’s not apparent in using the Pencil that it’s effectively a teeny-tiny computer with sensors and other tech inside. Using it is uncannily like using a regular pencil, albeit one that never smears or needs sharpening.

Apple has gone on the record about how iPads can be used in classrooms, most notably with its Everyone Can Code initiative and Swift Playgrounds on iOS and the Mac. Herrlinger has said to me many times over the years that when Apple says everyone can code, they really do mean everyone; staying true to their ethos, Apple built Everyone Can Code with accessibility top of mind. Swift Playgrounds is fully accessible to disabled users, offering robust integration with features like VoiceOver and Switch Control. There’s even downloadable tactile puzzles in Braille and coding videos presented in American Sign Language for aspiring blind and visually impaired and hard-of-hearing/deaf coders, respectively.

“We believe in focusing on ability rather than disability. We believe coding is a language – a language that should be accessible to everyone,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said to me at an Everyone Can Code kickoff event in 2018.

Apple’s approach to the iPad in the classroom is broad in scope; they don’t focus on providing esoteric, specialized tools for teachers and other professionals in special education. The company instead leverages its massive App Store ecosystem by allowing third-party developers to create apps for learning and communication. That said, the Apple-designed Classroom and Schoolwork apps can hold relevance to accessibility. This marches in lockstep with Apple’s overarching philosophy surrounding the iPad. The act of individualizing what one needs or wants from the device gets to the core of what has made the iPad so unique to so many.

Meg Wilson, a former special education teacher who now works at Apple, told me in a 2018 interview that Schoolwork in particular presents “an amazing opportunity for collaboration amongst service providers” when it comes to continually updating colleagues on students’ progress throughout the school year; this perpetual stream of updates also opens the door to faster adjustment of a student’s goals and objectives. Likewise, Wilson told me a teacher or other support staff could add their entire caseload into Schoolwork and have progress reports at the ready anytime, anywhere. And for Classroom, educators can “lock” a group of students (or just one) into an app so that she or he stays on task and completes their activity.9 For students who don’t need much scaffolding or prompting, it’s easy to share work with their teacher(s) with a couple taps using the system share sheet.

“When you are creative with technology, you change people’s lives,” Wilson said.

Being creative with technology is what the iPad was made for. As Apple sees it, the impact the device has on education is a microcosm of what makes the iPad so special. Students and teachers alike can turn the iPad into whatever they need it to be in order to enhance the classroom experience. Tim Cook often opens events with his boilerplate statement about how Apple’s North Star is building products that enrich and empower lives, and it isn’t an empty bromide. The iPad does precisely that for special education professionals on a daily basis. To say the iPad has been a revolution in special education settings isn’t an exaggeration – it’s exactly right.

“Education and accessibility are inextricably tied in many ways,” Herrlinger said in a recent interview. “What the iPad has done for classrooms to empower and enrich the lives of students is what we strive for when making these products.”

Using Your Words

One of the most prominent places where the iPad excels as a teaching tool is in speech therapy sessions. Speech and language therapy plays an integral role in special education settings,10 as SLPs (speech and language pathologists) support the work happening in the classroom. These specialists extend the experience by tirelessly working to facilitate language and pro-social behavior between children and staff, but most importantly, between their peers and parents. This work goes a long way in providing enriching, developmentally appropriate programs.

Kirsty Maksel, a speech therapist based in the Bay Area who works at an elementary school, has used iPads with her students over the past 4–5 years. A self-professed “late adopter,” her iPad is an older model, one with the 30-pin iPod connector of yore.11 For students who have limited verbal skills, or who are totally non-verbal, Maksel says the iPad “has made voice output communication software much more accessible than a $15,000 to $20,000 dollar dedicated device.” She said her iPad is used in both group (“push-in”) and individual (“pull-out”) sessions.12

For Maksel, the iPad is used to encourage communication. She mainly uses voice-output communication apps, telling me Proloquo2go and Go Talk are mainstays for her. “They [her students] are learning to request, comment, and command. Some are learning to ask structured questions. I [also] model core vocabulary13 as they are learning new vocabulary words,” she said. Maksel added she uses YouTube to play songs that connect thematically to books she uses, noting that she expects students to sing along and mimic motor movements as songs go on.

In this environment, the iPad is not a toy – it’s a teaching tool. Thus, Maksel has tried to curtail some of the device’s irresistibility by removing irrelevant apps from the device, as well as putting it in a case. An external speaker, she said, also helps in this regard because it’s needed for better sound. A byproduct of this is that it also directs the sound away from the device itself, which can help with attention.

Like Maksel, Courtney Caviggia is a Bay Area speech therapist who utilizes the iPad. Working with preschoolers, Caviggia has spent the last eight years using “a few different generations” of the iPad mini. For her purposes, like Maksel, Caviggia uses the iPad as a means to promote communication during sessions with her students. Apps are obviously the centerpiece of the tablet experience, and Caviggia has many favorites, including the aforementioned Proloquo2go, Go Talk, and YouTube.

“I love interactive apps, music and dance apps for children, children’s apps, learning apps, and ones that give positive reinforcement for correct answers provided. I enjoy apps with visual supports for students,” she said. “I have also used several AAC apps and systems that are used on the iPad and they have been extremely easy to use and adapt to student needs.”

Caviggia told me she’s been using the iPad for so long that she’s “found it to be an asset in therapy.” It does everything from model turn-taking to being a discrete communication device to being a motivator and reward for hard work and good behavior. But the assets lie not only with her students; they benefit her just as much. Take data-tracking, for instance. Data collection is critically important to special educators, who rely on the information when writing progress reports and participating in annual IEP meetings. What Meg Wilson said is a truism for special educators that’s practically as essential to life as food and water: “What we need in special ed is data – we need data.” In Caviggia’s case, she said she likes how many apps she uses include score-taking, which allows her to focus all her energy on the student rather than interrupt the flow to jot something down for later.

For all the iPad’s strengths, Caviggia has a few gripes. The iPad’s appeal is a double-edged sword, because the device can be as distracting as it is motivating. “Some students have a hard time taking turns with such a highly motivating object,” she said. Caviggia further lamented how “frustrating” it can be that the iPad has a finite lifespan in terms of software updates. As the iPad ages, access to app updates, new apps, and new OS features can be limited if a hardware upgrade isn’t feasible.14

Dillan Barmache is a non-verbal autistic man and self-described “advocate for autistic voices.” Apple told his story in April 2016 as part of recognizing Autism Acceptance Month. Then 16, he explained in a poignant, now-private video called “Dillan’s Voice” how the iPad “changed everything in my life” because the device allowed him to finally have a voice with which he could communicate with people.

“All my life I wanted so badly to connect with people,” Barmache said in the video. “Without a voice, people only see my autism and not the real me.”

Barmache’s mother, Tami, was awestruck at her son’s voice. She stated in the video: “As his mom, it’s just the most incredible thing ever to suddenly start to hear your child’s voice,” she said. “Not being able to speak is not the same as not having something to say.”

In an interview with Mashable that coincided with the premiere of his film, Dillan went into greater detail about what it feels like to be autistic, how the iPad empowered him, and how amplifying his voice affected those around him. He put it succinctly in one sentence, saying: “The iPad allows me to be seen.”

Developing Education

In my interviews with Maksel and Caviggia, both mentioned one of their most heavily-used apps is AssistiveWare’s communication board app, Proloquo2go. This is noteworthy because not only is the app professional (and, at $250, professionally priced) but because the coming of the iPad made it possible for the app to exist.

The Amsterdam-based AssistiveWare has been a presence on the iOS App Store since the beginning; work on Proloquo2go began in May 2008, with the first version shipping nearly a year later in April 2009.15 Company founder and CEO David Niemeijer said to me via email that Proloquo2go was optimized for Apple’s tablet right from the get-go, and has been in the store “from day one.” To date, the app has been downloaded over 250,000 times worldwide. The advent of the App Store and the iPad not only helped hundreds of thousands of users over the past decade, but it helped AssistiveWare too. What started as a one-man operation, Niemeijer said, has grown to a team of over 30 members who were paid a visit by Tim Cook.

Proloquo2go was “propelled into a whole other league” upon the iPad’s introduction, Niemeijer told me. “It was immediately clear to me that this would be the perfect device [for the app],” he said. It was previously available on the smaller iPhone and iPod touch. Furthermore, he and his team saw “two key benefits” of the tablet’s large screen. “Firstly, it allowed us to offer more words on the screen at once,” he said. “Secondly, many people with speech challenges also have fine-motor or visual challenges, making the larger screen much easier to work with.”

Niemeijer wrote in 2018 about Proloquo2go’s origin story, as well as about how the App Store’s opening in 2008 and the iPad’s debut two years later kickstarted what he called the “democratization of communication.” Like Maksel, he observed how the iPad was a game-changer for families and professionals. At $500, iPad was eminently more affordable and readily available than dedicated AAC devices, most of which are exorbitantly priced and only available on the whims of a slow approval process. “Professionals were no longer, through a formal assessment process, the gatekeepers to communication devices,” Niemeijer wrote on Medium. “Parents and individuals with communication challenges could now make their own decisions.”

Regarding the iPad in general, Niemeijer thinks it’s “an amazing device that is only getting better and better.” He said he’s happy the entry-level model continues to become more affordable, and is “super happy” the iPad mini is still around for younger children. As for the Pro models, Niemeijer told me their considerably better sound make using communication apps like his better, and wishes the speakers in the less expensive iPads had better audio fidelity. He’s also impressed by iOS and iPadOS 13’s addition of pointer support, saying the newfound compatibility with joysticks, trackballs, and mice have further expanded access to the tablet.

Mark Coppin is Director of Disability Services at North Dakota State University. An assistive technology professional for over three decades, Coppin’s responsibilities at the school focus on supporting people with disabilities by providing suitable accommodations. Prior to the iPad, he used the iPod touch with students, but said he realized the tablet would “profoundly change special education and education in general.” He currently uses both an 11-inch and a 12.9-inch iPad Pro; he uses both sizes so he can “evaluate the best size and fit for those I work with,” Coppin said.

Yet it was the iPod that sold him on technology’s capacity for facilitating learning.

“It was a device that my students gravitated to,” he said. “I was working a lot with students on the autism spectrum at the time, and the device seemed to make sense for many of them. It was visual and they were able to control the device by interacting directly with the screen. It was also very engaging and new content was being developed everyday.”

The iPad’s arrival was a watershed moment of sorts for Coppin, as it exponentially built upon what was on the iPod touch in a literally bigger way. “I saw this huge screen, a portable device, and an affordable device priced at a consumer level. I knew it would be a powerful solution for my students and clients,” he said. “This device replaced many expensive assistive technology solutions; it could be personalized and customized to meet the needs of my students and clients.”

He continued: “I have seen a huge shift in our field because of the iPad,” he said. “Tools and solutions that were once considered assistive technology or specialized solutions are now a part of the OS. That means they are available to everyone – they are free and powerful solutions that level the playing field.”

As for the iPad at his workplace, Coppin told me students at the university love the iPad for how engaging it is and how it invites them to explore their creativity. He told me “the beautiful thing” about the iPad is that every modification is transparent to anyone. Moreover, Coppin appreciates how the iPad’s flexibility allows him to individualize the device such that it caters to a student’s needs and desires, as well as being a great adherent to Universal Design for Learning best practices. He also noted how NDSU professors have embraced the iPad, saying the device allows for myriad ways of learning, networking, and staying engaged with the curriculum.

“It gives me the opportunity to optimize their [students’] learning,” he said. “For a student who struggles with fine-motor control, I can make accommodations to compensate for their fine-motor limitations. For a student who cannot see, I can show them VoiceOver. For a struggling reader or non-reader, I can show them features where they can have the text read to them. For a student who cannot touch the screen, I can turn on Switch Control and give them independent access to the device.” Coppin said his personal favorite iPad features all involve accessibility, but his most favorite is Switch Control. He loves how it levels the field by allowing someone to play a game such as Angry Birds like anyone else. He said he knew several students with cerebral palsy who were “desperate” to try Switch Control on the iPad after struggling to use the device’s touchscreen. “If they could play Angry Birds, they could do practically anything everyone else could,” he said.

Coppin was effusive overall in his praise of the iPad. He’s an ardent supporter of not only iPadOS as a platform, but also of how technology can unleash new ways of learning and connecting for students and teachers. “I love it when new accessibility features come out because, when I explore these features, I have a particular person in mind,” he said. “I know that that one feature can make a profound difference in that person’s life. One small feature can make so much difference.”

On the flip side, Coppin has no nits to pick with the iPad itself. What bothers him is how some educators perceive the iPad and how it’s utilized in some classrooms.

“There needs to be some intentionality in its use. But some educators take it too far and they think that the iPad will solve everything,” he said. “They think that if you give a student an iPad, they will automatically learn. In the end, you still have to teach and be pedagogically sound. The iPad is just another educational tool but it can be a powerful tool in the hands of a good teacher.”

Coincidentally, Coppin revealed his friendship with AssistiveWare’s Niemeijer. Coppin is yet another Proloquo2go devotee, telling me that he knew “it would completely revolutionize the industry” the first time he used the application.

Pondering the iPad’s Potential

As I wrote earlier, there were a slew of think pieces from various voices in the Apple community published in January as the iPad’s tenth birthday approached.16 One of those pieces was written by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, who posited the tablet as a tragic figure because, while phenomenal in myriad ways yet so hindered in others, it never has quite lived up to the stratospheric hype surrounding it over the past decade. He wrote, in part: “the tragedy of the iPad is not that it flopped; it is that it never did, and likely never will, reach that potential so clearly seen ten years ago.”

However niche relative to the iPad’s overall standing, one could make a legitimate case that, in an accessibility context, the device has more than lived up to its potential. Consider the testimonies from people like Maksel and Niemeijer on using iPads as communication boards. This is a non-trivial, literally life-altering use case. Using the iPad for “real work” is not solely the domain of power users, the iPad aficionados who routinely push iPadOS to the limits by using complex shortcuts and by editing podcasts with Apple Pencil. There’s a tendency in the tech community at large to associate “real work” with producing in creative mediums like photography, music, art, and coding. Apple is guilty of falling into this trap, given their proclivity for showcasing such work in ads and at events. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, what is missed is the idea that “real work” needn’t be cerebral or showy to be meaningful. Real work is also about using iPads in speech therapy sessions and to teach foundational skills like colors. It’s not as flashy and nerdy, and doesn’t make many headlines, but is nonetheless serious in its own right.17

Consider also the iPad’s form factor. Much of the consternation from certain factions of the Apple community surrounding the iPad, particularly since the iPad Pro debuted in 2015, has stemmed from whether it can (or should) replace Mac laptops. It already has for many people, due to the versatile nature of the device and the software enhancements that have come over the last few iOS releases. But there’s another reason to prefer an iPad over a MacBook: as ever, it’s accessibility.

I’ve literally called the iPad “the most accessible computer Apple has ever built.” High praise, but the declaration is justified in two key ways. First, iOS is simpler and more streamlined than macOS. For someone with certain cognitive impairments, for instance, the default one-app-at-a-time windowing model does a lot to reduce cognitive load and increase concentration. Secondly, someone who’s visually impaired shouldn’t have to chase the mouse pointer around the screen, nor be as precise with clicking smaller menu bar items and other UI buttons. Most importantly, because an iPad’s screen is more flexible than a laptop’s, people like me don’t necessarily have to press their noses against the glass in order to see well.

Niemeijer echoed my thoughts over the advantages of the iPad’s form factor.

“Thanks to the wide range of accessibility features Apple built into iOS, they have achieved a true universal design. iPads are truly for everyone and people with disabilities can use an iPad for much the same things as everyone else,” he said. “If you think about it, an all-glass user interface is not the first thing you think of when providing access to someone who cannot see the screen or cannot touch it – yet if you cannot see or cannot use your hands, you can still use an iPad thanks to all the built-in accessibility features.”

As are all Apple products, Macs are fully accessible and have been for several years. Nevertheless, the ergonomic differences between iPads and MacBooks are very real; that an iPad can be much better is again a testament to Apple hitting the bullseye when it conjured up the original product’s hardware design. Put another way, pitting one versus the other isn’t always about lazy tropes about real work or software preferences and limitations. Sometimes, as is the case here, one can be clearly better due to a multitude of factors that include accessibility. It doesn’t mean either is categorically worse or we dislike what we don’t use. It means, for many, “better” is judged by more than an arbitrary getting-things-done metric.

Although Thompson makes a compelling argument that the iPad has missed its potential, it’s equally as compelling to counter his assertion by highlighting accessibility’s role. In this sense, the iPad has clearly been triumphant. As a tool for assistive technology, it has reached self-actualization and then some.

Putting the iPad in Perspective

To appreciate the breakthroughs the iPad has afforded in areas like special education and communication, one must take a holistic view of history. The iPad is not perfect; it can (and will) always improve. As time marches on, so too will technology. For accessibility, however, it comes closest to perfection, to fully realizing Apple’s ambitions with the device. This is not insignificant and cannot be overstated; accessibility has been just as instrumental in shaping the iPad’s journey as the much-ballyhooed Mac-like productivity capabilities. This aspect of the tablet’s story is an angle equally deserving of such recognition.

The iPad has been so prosperous for accessibility, and for the mainstream user too, because of the fact that it’s “just a big iPhone.” This former mockery is myopic; it’s unwarranted and mistakenly conflates elaboration with progress. It’s an interesting dichotomy – Apple clearly has evolved the device, as they should, but I think it’s easy to get caught up in all the hustle and bustle. People don’t stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and appreciate the simpler part of life. Although watching iPadOS mature with wonderful tools is great in the grand scheme, I think people sometimes forget about the iPad’s soul, the elemental parts of it that make it so beloved. This hearkens back to the founding design: it was like the iPhone. There’s something to be said for its simplicity enduring amidst the incessant want for more.

To me, the iPad is neither an abject failure nor a victim of some tragedy. The iPad has had a fruitful life, period. Judging whether something is good or bad, technologically speaking, can be subjective. This is especially true for accessibility. Being a big iPhone can indeed be a good thing; it just depends on who’s using it. A grid of icons and a single app paradigm are more befitting across a variety of accessibility-oriented situations. This needs to be celebrated more often.

Given how complex the makeover has been, that the iPad’s defining characteristic – where the app is the screen and the screen is the app – persists so prominently is no small feat. The iPad’s essential simplicity remains endearing to legions of accessibility-minded people, folks like Caviggia and Coppin. Illustrating how the iPad works well as “just a big iPhone” is profound; it shines a powerful perspective on a notion that has plagued the iPad since its earliest days with Jobs in that chair.

There’s an adage popular with those in special education circles, which is that people who work in special education are special. That’s undoubtedly true. I can’t help but think there’s a charming synergy between the people who work in the field and technological marvels like the iPad which empowers them to change the lives of children and their families. As Herrlinger and Wilson have said to me on multiple occasions, that’s Apple’s entire modus operandi in a nutshell.

The Bottom Line

If this story were one of Aesop’s Fables, the moral probably would be that the iPad’s barometer for success does not solely hinge on loads of multi-modal, multi-windowed, whiz-bang productivity features. That they’re optional is immaterial to the broader point here because, in the end, they tell only one part of the story. The contributions the iPad has made to further accessibility matter too, which is why it’s important to point out that being just a big iPhone is okay, enlightening even.


You can also follow all of our iPad at 10 coverage through our iPad at 10 hub, or subscribe to the dedicated iPad at 10 RSS feed.


  1. Given the release of the updated iPad Pro and last year’s introduction of iPadOS, it feels safe to say the days of lackadaisical iPad upgrade cycles are officially over. ↩︎
  2. Most companies would kill for a business like the iPad. It made $6 billion in revenue during the last holiday quarter, according to Jason Snell of Six Colors↩︎
  3. The issues surrounding the intricacies of the iPadOS multitasking system go beyond the scope of this article. ↩︎
  4. Accessible both ways: in the availability sense and in the disability sense. ↩︎
  5. This is on top of the fact that, as a person with disabilities, I received special education services throughout my academic career growing up. ↩︎
  6. Expressive language is saying, “My iPad is on the table.” Receptive language is asking your friend at the table to “give me the iPad” and have them do it. ↩︎
  7. The piece ran a few months before I quit my job in order to try my hand at being a full-time writer. ↩︎
  8. In other words, avoiding the temptation to use the thing as a glorified, really expensive pacifier. ↩︎
  9. This feature takes its cue from Guided Access, first introduced – on stage, by Scott Forstall at WWDC 2012 eight years ago – in iOS 6. ↩︎
  10. And of course, in clinical settings outside of education, like private practice↩︎
  11. Although these iPads are technically considered obsolete, the fact that they’re still put to good use means obsolescence is relative. They may not support the latest OS, but the OS they do run is perfectly fine for what’s needed. ↩︎
  12. Group sessions can occur when the therapist comes into a class to work with the entire class, or when she/he takes two or more out of the classroom for therapy. To push in describes the former, whereas pull out describes the latter. ↩︎
  13. Core vocabulary words include no, mine, go, and done, amongst others. ↩︎
  14. Schools have criminally low budgets, which is why you hear tales about teachers taking money from their own pocket to buy supplies. Unless it’s a grant or some other pot of gold, big-ticket items like new iPads aren’t high on the priority list. ↩︎
  15. They’ve been part of the Mac development scene since 2002. ↩︎
  16. If you want to be pedantic, Apple announced the first iPad on January 27. But it wasn’t officially put on sale until April 3. ↩︎
  17. This is why accessibility coverage in tech journalism matters so much. Not only does it improve diversity and inclusion by amplifying the voices of an underrepresented and marginalized group, it amplifies unique and deserving perspectives on the tools so indispensable to humanity. They can be a welcome reprieve to the seemingly-endless stream of dystopian Facebook horror stories. ↩︎

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