iPads and apps for visual learners

To read the text and complete the video tutorials this section should take around 60 minutes.

There are many apps and features on the iPad which are designed for people who have visual impairments. However in this section you will also learn about visual stimulation with the iPad and about apps which are wonderful for our visual learners.

In this module you will learn about

  • simulation and assessment tools which can be a helpful training tool when familiarising yourself with different visual impairments.
  • the best way to find apps which are appropriate for people who have visual impairments.
  • visual assessment apps.
  • magnifying images
  • the implications of glare, coloured backgrounds and the best way to position and iPad
  • using projection systems with iPads
  • how to use the iPad for visual stimulation
  • useful apps for visual stimulation

The iPad can be a wonderful tool for visual stimulation and assessment. But to begin with, unless you have some understanding of the visual impairment you are dealing with, then it’s very easy to get it all wrong with an iPad.

Knowing the learner

If you suspect or know that the learner has a visual impairment, then is it it is important that you know what the visual impairment actually is and the implications of the visual loss in itself. The iPad may need to be positioned correctly for the learner to be able to see the screen. So in the first section of the module, I’m going to show you lots of ways to find out, experience and understand visual impairment. This is an important prerequisite to using the iPad with an individual who has a visual impairment.

Simulators (not stimulators)

For many years I have used simulation glasses in schools and centres to demonstrate what it could be like to have a particular visual impairment. The simulators are not absolutely accurate, but they are a very effective way to demonstrate what it could be like for a person who has a visual impairment. The glasses I use are not manufactured any more, however many people would benefit from a session with them. So to save you learning how to make the glasses for yourself here is a really good app from the ‘Braille Institute’ which is called VisionSim. It simulates macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and other kinds of visual impairment you may encounter. You look through the camera and it visually simulates the visual loss. The really interesting thing about the app is that you can vary the severity of the visual loss itself. It’s a very useful app for staff training and awareness.

VisionSim in action


Recently we have found another app which simulates visual loss called ‘Types of Vision Loss‘ from Raqaya Saeed. There are many types of simulation apps you can try ‘Chromatic Visual Simulator’ as it is known in the apps store, simulates colour vision deficiencies. There is no question that apps like this are a fantastic tool. But use these apps with care and consideration, because although they are useful they are only an experiential guide and may not be absolutely accurate.

The iPad offers a host of opportunities for learning about visual impairments. Within our iPad training you will find information about ‘iTunesU‘ this is an app that has masses of information from universities all over the world and there’s a lot of visual impairment information if you are interested in learning more.

Finding apps for visual loss

There are many apps we could use for visual stimulation, visual education and just visual fun. But if you would like a really good guide then download the app from the Braille Institute called ‘ViA’. Here you will find lots of lists, hints and tips for apps which are great for people who have visual impairments.

Visual Assessment Apps

Using many of the techniques described on the previous section the iPad can be a great tool for visual assessment. Simply using some of the colour apps or the photo library makes the iPad an invaluable tool for the visual assessor. Add to this the fact that the iPad does not have be plugged into a power supply, its a device which can be taken and used anywhere. This can be very important for students who are best assessed in familiar surroundings. Finally the portability of the iPad means it can be used at varied distances and sizes with a student.  The following video demonstrates that it’s not always the visual assessment apps that work the best. This is an app called ‘Flashlight’, which was originally developed for the iPhone. As an assessment tool on the iPad it is very effective, as you will see in the following video.


Visual assessment apps are are available like the Kay Picture test and it’s pretty accurate on the iPad. However, tests like this were designed for people who understand visual impairment, so if you don’t and you download any visual assessment apps use them and their results with care. Watch the next video to get an overview of how the Kay picture test works.

Kay Picture Test

Magnify the image

The iPad is a great tool for reading if you have a visual impairment, because not only do you have some really useful access options (as described in the accessibility section), like text size and inverting the colours on the screen,but there are also some great 3rd party magnifying apps such as EyeSight by Eye Tech. This is an excellent alternative magnifier for reading paper documents and magnifying objects. If you are thinking of purchasing this app look to the ‘Sighttech website’ and have a good look at the detail, it’s very impressive.

The camera app, which is standard on the iPad, has a zoom which is operated with the pinch method on the screen. However, unlike the ‘EyeSight’ app it does not have colour options. If you need enlarged text, this app is a viable alternative to any magnifier or CCTV system, which at £20 is an expensive app, but really affordable compared to current dedicated systems.

LookTel is developing a suite of revolutionary assistive smartphone applications that bring the most powerful recognition technology of today to the aid of individuals with low vision. This real-time recognition technology enables users to scan and instantly recognise objects such as packaged goods, cans, money, CDs, and landmarks like signs and store fronts. This kind of recognition app may be just as useful for someone who has autism, to accompany a visual timetable. Watch the following video to learn more about these incredible apps.


Before using the iPad for visual stimulation you will need to first consider the following:

The screen size on the iPad is limited, however the positioning is unlimited. You can put the iPad in any position you want it, and importantly because of the iPads battery life, it can be wherever the student wants it to be, in whatever position they need it to be in.

As well as its position you may also need to consider the background colour and complexity. Watch the following video to see what I mean.

iPad Backgrounds


  • If the screen is too bright, it may be very uncomfortable.
  • If it is not bright enough, the learner may not be able to discriminate the shapes, patterns or colours.
  • What about the brightness of the ambient light in the room where you are using the iPad?
  • What about surface on which you are placing or mounting the iPad – too much visual clutter or glare may distract from the activity.
  • The size of the image/screen you are presenting – too close/too far.
  • The position of the iPad in relation to the learner – off to the left or right, above or below the face?
  • Check for reflection from the iPad screen, this could be a problem classrooms with lots of glass.

Look at an app and consider the following:

Is there is enough colour contrast in the app you are using? We are often better looking at dark backgrounds with bright visual points, rather than bright backgrounds and bright visual points. So if you have an app like ‘Reactickles Magic‘ featured in a video later, then you can have a dark background with bright visual points or varied coloured visual points as you will see later on this page.

Some apps have been designed with visual stimulation in mind. ’sensory light box‘ and ‘sensory sound box‘ featured later, are two very good examples from a company called ‘Cognable’. With both sound box and light box you can alter the colour of the background, between dark and light or change background colours. Reacticles, sensory lightbox and sensory soundbox are excellent for visual stimulation and are tremendous for practising fine motor control (visual motor integration).

Using Projectors

The iPad screen itself may not be the best delivery system, it may be better to connect the iPad to a ‘Pico’ or ‘Data’ projector, so that you can make the image larger. Try projecting an app on to a sheet or umbrella as shown in the projection section of this course. Let me show you one of the best ways to use your iPad with a projector, through an umbrella, as shown in the following video.

Brolley projection

As we now know not everyone sees directly from the front, but connecting your iPad to a projector enables you to put the screen almost anywhere.

So if you are working with a student who is non-verbal you may need to experiment with a projector changing the size, distance, colour, position and contrast.

Visual Stimulation with an iPad

The iPad can be a wonderful tool for visual stimulation, assessment and as a tool to assist people with visual impairments. However, unless you have some understanding of the visual impairment you are dealing with then it’s very easy to get it all wrong with an iPad.

‘Advanced VT’ did a helpful list of pre reading visual skills which may be a helpful guide about what you are trying to achieve.

  • Visual-Skills Necessary for Success in Reading and Learning.
  • Eye Movement Control
  • Simultaneous Focus at Far
  • Sustaining Focus at Far
  • Simultaneous Focus at Near
  • Sustaining Focus at Near
  • Simultaneous Alignment at Far
  • Sustaining Alignment at Far
  • Simultaneous Alignment at Near
  • Sustaining Alignment at Near
  • Central Vision (Visual Acuity)
  • Peripheral Vision
  • Depth Awareness
  • Color Perception
  • Gross Visual-Motor Skills
  • Fine Visual-Motor Skills
  • Visual Perception
  • Visual Integration

Visual stimulation is about practising using your eyes and the receptors which send visual information back to the brain. The idea of visual stimulation is not to ‘make the eyes better’, however it can help improve eye muscle control. Visual stimulation improves the brains ability to make sense of the visual information being sent to the brain. So for this reason it isn’t just people with visual impairments who may need visual stimulation. Consider a student who has autism who is disturbed by visual clutter, glare, patterns or particular colours.

So it is important to know that the brain will fire and wire its neurons, in other words the visual part of the brain may learn or relearn vision if the individual is exposed to ‘unique events’ as described by Norman Doidge in his book ‘The Brain that changes itself’. If you are interested in the subject of the brain, and you have an hour or so, the video I have linked to on Vimeo is really worth watching.

Obviously interacting visually with the iPad is great eye exercise. When we introduce the tactile element (visual motor integration), touching the screen and allowing the learner to to control the light, then we begin to develop more varied skills, like hand/eye coordination. Here are some ideas for the app ‘Drawing with Stars’.

Drawing with stars

Using the iPad in the right setting could help to create an environment for the learner to begin to understand the visual input . A dark corner or inside a tent, could make an effective small environment. Keep visual sessions short, just a few minutes is often long enough for many of our learners. However, when working with learners who have more complex needs, be mindful of the fact that they may need time to begin to see the iPad or projected image. So observe how long it takes the learner to understand and see either the iPad or the projected image.

When you are looking for apps for visual stimulation try to find an app which allows you to change the background colour and the foreground shapes and colours if possible. High colour contrast may be important and remember that the eyes and the brain respond best to movement – but not too much. There are lots of fireworks apps which will work very well. But if you’re searching for visual stimulation apps be aware that many of them are aimed at babies and younger children. Try to find out which are appropriate not just to learners age, also their cognitive ability. I know many older learners who do love Thomas the Tank Engine!

Being aware of light is the first visual skill were looking for and then we move onto fixation skills. This is the skill of been able to fix or look for sustained period of time at a fixed point of light. Some learners need time to fixate, in other words to keep the eyes in one place. For some fixation can be harder to achieve than visual tracking. If using a fireworks app or apps like ‘Drawing with Stars,’  do not move your finger quickly across the screen, keep it still for a while to let the student be aware and then fixate. Allow plenty of time to fixate and begin to be aware and enjoy the image before you move on to tracking skills. Although we are trying to develop fixation you may move the image slowly, to try to find the point where the student actually can fixate. This exercise can last for many sessions and remember, if students are finding this difficult, keep your session’s very very short, in other words a few minutes not hours.

When practicing specific early tracking skills move your finger across the screen slowly within the field of vision and encourage slow fixation skills first. When the student has fixated on the image then begin to move the image slowly to the left, right, up, down, and around. Look to see if the student can follow the image –  this is visual tracking.  Keep it slow and keep your sessions short as you will see in the following video.

Techniques and tips the visual stimulation

Some apps have been designed with visual stimulation in mind ‘Sensory Soundbox and Sensory light box’ are two very good examples from Simon Evans at ‘Cognable’. With both the apps you can change the colour of the background between dark and light also different colours. These apps work really well on the iPad and are great for practising fine motor and hand eye control.

Sensory Lightbox and Sensory Soundbox

Reacticles Magic is a fantastic app designed with autism in mind rather than visual impairment. However as you will see in the following video this app offers high colour contrast  and a very controllable interface, add to that the fact that it can be sound activated it makes it a really excellent app for many of our learners.

 Reacticles Magic

Although not designed with visual stimulation in mind the apps hot lights and pixelswarm have a really good high color contrast.

So the iPad is a fantastic tool but just for people with visual impairments but for people who have visual learners. The iPad has thousands of apps which could be fantastic visual stimulation and attention.

In this module you have learned

  • simulation and assessment tools which can be a helpful training tool when familiarising yourself with different visual impairments.
  • the best way to find apps which are appropriate for people who have visual impairments.
  • visual assessment apps.
  • magnifying images
  • the implications of glare, coloured backgrounds and the best way to position and iPad
  • using projection systems with iPads
  • how to use the iPad for visual stimulation
  • useful apps for visual stimulation

If you find any faults, or feel that we need additions to this module, please feel free to contact us using the form at the bottom of this page.

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