eBooks and eReaders: help or hindrance to Special needs education?

Living in a world where eBooks, eReaders and Tablets are thriving, there is a range of evidence detailing the advantages of each one. We know that convenience, portability and adaptability are all advantages for those who are able to access them with ease, but what about those unable to do so?

Ever since the introduction of electronic devices and books, there have been debates regarding how effective they are for those who do not necessarily have the same abilities as others; and whether or not they are suitable for those with certain educational requirements. The purpose of eBooks/ eReaders is to allow users to experience a greater sense of involvement with each piece of content; yet is this possible for every single user? If so, what is there in place to make them helpful to those with special educational needs, to allow them to engage with learning on an equal level as other students?

Special Education: What is it? Why do we need Assistive Technology?

“Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others… Disability resides in the society not in the person.”

Special education is the term used to describe teaching within schools that has been specifically designed for students with learning difficulties and disabilities, and is more often than not, something where extra tools are needed to assist each individual’s needs. Students with SEND – Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – are often affected in the way they behave; their ability to read and write; their concentration levels; and their physical abilities.

It is one specific type of education where eBooks, eReaders and Tablets are invaluable in allowing students to gain an equal education, like others, and enabling learning in a way best suited to their abilities.

For many SEND students, being able to gain a worthwhile education can sometimes be affected by the lack of bespoke teaching resources available. This can often be seen as something which even furthers society’s idea that these students are different, incapable and often outsiders to others within education. For many students, mainly at Primary School education level, this hindrance has had significant impacts on the way they interact within society, since they are being excluded from those students who, society value as ‘normal’. (DISCLAIMER: This word is an awful comment to use for there is no evidence or fact, as to what makes a person a ‘normal’ human being. The OED defines normal as; Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional)

Interactivity and Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is defined as…

“Mainstream technology that can be used with either no or minimal adaptation by a person with a disability as an accessible technology. It is also seen as technology that provides social inclusion, such as communication and interaction, for people with disabilities”

In order to understand the benefits of eBooks and eReaders for those within special education, it is important to understand each item. An eBook is defined as, “an electronic version of a traditional print book that can be read by using a personal computer or by using an eBook reader”. For the majority of eBooks, it often means adding the ability to interactive with the text and alter it in ways suited to the user. It is this type of alteration, specifically designed to suit each individual user’s requirements, which is associated with the concept of inclusive technology.

Having technology that allows for alterations to be made, such as; text size, spoken words, and voice controls – makes it highly suitable for those with special educational needs, especially when it comes to learning the national curriculum. Whilst searching through the different features of each inclusive technology, it becomes very clear both as to how useful technology can be, and how much many take for granted the endless possibilities available to every single user.

 Apple and Special Needs Education 

“Innovative technologies allow every student to experience the fun and function of iOS”

One of the leading technology companies, which specialises in eReaders/tablets, is the world’s most renowned brand Apple. They are a company most known for their iPhone and iPad ranges which provide users with a real sense of interactivity, along with the chance to carry out a wide range of activities with ease. This is especially true for their iPad range, for it is one which is extremely useful for SEND students, as its features provide so many different possibilities for them to gain an equal education similar to their peers. The fact that Apple have a section on their website dedicated to those with special needs, highlights both how useful and important, inclusive technology is for students, and how different companies focus on every single consumer’s needs. Of course, for brands like Apple or Kindle, there is – and always will be – a need for them to sell products to as many as possible, but the fact that they are willing to use their power to meet the needs of those SEND students, highlights the importance of tailoring software to be accessible to every user. Apple’s bespoke software designs are ones which provide an invaluable opportunity for students to gain an equal education because it provides the chance to make adaptations suited for every different need a user may have.

Within Apple’s extensive list of features – of which can be adapted for every user – there is a feature known as ‘guided access’. This is probably one of the most effective features for SEND students because, not only does it allow for them to easily navigate a task, but it allows students to stay focused working on a specific task. Teachers are able to manipulate the device so that students are unable to exit the app used for the task until required.

Apple’s Guided Access

This is something that is further proof of the ways in which inclusive technology can in fact be a help to those requiring extra forms of assistance within their education.

The limitations of bespoke educational materials

As much as it is okay to state the many advantages of the available inclusive technology, there are also a series of disadvantages which come with the attempts to make education more accessible for SEND students. One of the main disadvantages is the issue surrounding Braille. The concept of Braille is, “to designate a system of embossed printing for the blind… In this system the symbols for the letters, etc., are composed of raised dots arranged in different ways.”

In order for eBooks created in Braille to be useful for those students with sight impairments, it would require schools to possess eReaders/ Tablets which are specifically designed for those reading in Braille. This in itself has both a limitation with regards to the cost that is involved in purchasing these forms of specialised technology; and the fact that there is a limited amount of specialist devices available. It has been shown that one single line of Braille would cost an average of £2000 to create. Furthermore, the range of eBooks which can be accessed within Braille are of an even lower rate than the available devices. This fact – despite the many different and wonderful advantages of using inclusive technology within schools – is something which is sadly, a hindrance to the education of SEND students.

Nevertheless, there may be a small glimmer of hope from the competitors of Apple, for Kindle – alongside the University of Michigan – have begun plans to develop more bespoke Braille e-Readers. Although they are not something which will be widely available within the next 5 years, the fact that they are in the process of trying to make digital publishing accessible to all users is an incredible breakthrough; especially for students.

University of Michigan’s Braille eReader

Another limitation is the issue of copyright. In a perfect world it would be incredible to say that every publisher is willing to create eBooks in order to allow for them to be adapted; unfortunately this is not the case. Copyright, alongside a publishing company’s willingness to adapt, quite often limits the availability of books adapted to suit the needs of all readers.

Copyright with regards to eBooks is a topic which is not truly set in stone, as it is one which cannot always be fully controlled or monitored. At first, when eBooks started to increase in sales DRM – Digital Rights Management – was put in place to help control what a user does with the content they have purchased. Now for a school, using several different iPads to share the same content to students, having a DRM in place would often limit the amount of devices that could be used at once. Even though DRM is, “intended to inhibit unauthorized access to or copying of digital content files”, it is a legal implication which could prevent SEND students from all being capable of accessing the same educational material, in the format specific to their needs.


Aside from the obvious legal implications which are going to affect any piece of published content – digital or print – it is very clear e-Books and e-Readers are a significant help to those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. With the ever-changing world of digital publishing, alongside advances in technology, there will hopefully be a time where all users with very different needs, will be able to make the most of eBooks and eReaders to help improve their education, and ultimately their lives.


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Feature Image: © Michael Coghlan