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by Jamie Martin
You may have noticed a little friendly competition between Apple and Google, the technology giants who are in constant battle to be King of the Hill. During his keynote presentations, Apple’s Tim Cook often jabs at the adoption rate of new versions of Android compared to those of iOS. Google’s inexpensive and versatile Chromebooks are steadily taking over the school market, which once seemed ripe for widespread iPad adoption. Currently, the Apple Watch has slipped past Google Glass as the most intriguing device in the wearables category. The back-and-forth of tech dominance can be dizzying and difficult to follow.
Beyond the corporate rivalry, there is also a divide among consumers. Apple fans swear by any product that is developed in Apple’s ecosphere, while those who have “gone Google” are passionate about less expensive technology that they consider just as functional.
While the debate over which company holds the crown continues, one thing is for certain: The rivalry has been a boon for students with dyslexia. During the past decade, assistive technology (AT) has increasingly become the great academic equalizer for students with language difficulties, and Apple and Google are currently leading the charge. Their strong desire to outdo each other has led each to produce great technology with enough available AT to make them invaluable resources for the dyslexic community. The truth is that if you are a student who has difficulty reading and writing, you can look to either company for helpful accommodations. Better yet, you can study the vast menu of AT options on Mac desktop computers, Chromebooks, iOS devices, and Android devices, and select the combination of tools that will work best for you.
OS X vs. Chrome OS
At one time, the best assistive technology for students with dyslexia could only be found on desktop computers. Software like Dragon Dictate, Inspiration, and Read&Write Gold could turn an iMac or a MacBook into a powerful machine for reading and writing. Then Apple started to integrate accessibility features, such as text-to-speech and dictation, into its desktop operating system, OS X. Today, the combination of accessibility tools and available third-party software allow a Mac computer to be a great option for dyslexic students.
Some families and many school districts are, however, prohibited from adopting Macs due to their high price tag. In those cases, less expensive computers, particularly Chromebooks that run on Google’s Chrome OS, have become an attractive alternative. Schools and individual students can find an array of AT-related extensions and apps that can assist with academic tasks involving reading and writing. In fact, well-known assistive technology companies like Texthelp and Don Johnston, Inc. have started developing Chrome versions of their most popular technologies. Read&Write for Google, Co:Writer Universal, and Snap&Read Universal are all considered essential Chrome tools for dyslexic students. They also integrate nicely with Google Apps for Education, which many schools have adopted as their go-to learning platform.
Certainly, there are advantages to using either operating system. Students who rely on an OS X computer for their assistive technology have access to full-featured software and built-in AT tools that do not necessarily rely on the Internet to function. They can also store all of their work locally on their computers for constant access. On the other hand, students who employ Chrome for help with their schoolwork can access their assistive technology on any computer that is running the Chrome browser. Because apps and extensions are assigned to individual Google accounts (they are not device-specific), students just need to sign in on any machine to access their tools.
Of course, if particular students are devoted Mac users but like the AT tools found in Chrome, they can always use Google technology on Apple hardware. That kind of thing has been happening since the rivalry started.
iOS vs. Android
One of the best things to happen to students with dyslexia was the development of mobile devices, specifically smartphones and tablets. Assistive technology that was once limited to full-size computers and laptops can now fit into students’ pockets — a development that allows AT to be used in locations beyond the classroom. For example, someone who has difficulty reading menu items in a restaurant can utilize the camera, an OCR app, and text-to-speech on a smartphone to select an appetizing entrée.
In educational settings, the touch-screen interface of mobile devices can contribute to multisensory learning experiences that are important to dyslexic students. Apple’s iOS devices and other devices running Google’s Android operating system all offer excellent assistive technology that can aid language-based activities.
Frankly, the first iOS devices that Apple produced were not dyslexia-friendly. The integrated text-to-speech, dictation, and word prediction that are found in the latest iterations of the operating system did not exist, and there were few AT-related apps available from third-party developers. Today, students can use iPhones and iPads to read text aloud (with or without synchronized highlighting) and to compose notes, essays, and test responses with multiple spelling and grammar supports. In addition, many of the most popular AT companies have developed iOS apps. Tools created by Inspiration Software, Don Johnston, Inc., Texthelp, Quillsoft, Ginger Software, and Crick Software can all be found in the App Store. Plus, relative newcomers like Winston Chen’s Voice Dream Reader and Learning Ally’s VOICEtext audiobooks are making the iPad even more accessible.
Although slightly younger than iOS, Google’s mobile operating system, Android, has developed into another practical platform for students with dyslexia. Unlike the Apple faithful, users of Android can choose from a variety of hardware such as a Nexus phone or a Samsung Galaxy tablet. Regardless of device preference, dyslexic students using Android can utilize the dictation and word prediction built into the Google Keyboard, along with a feature called TalkBack for text-to-speech support. There are also several popular AT-related apps that have found their way into the Google Play Store. Learning Ally Audio, NaturalReader, and Readability can be used for reading assistance, and MindMeister and Ginger can help students with the writing process.
One of the most useful features of both iOS and Android is the ability for students to install and use third-party keyboards. Since true multitasking is still limited on mobile devices, third-party keyboards allow students to use AT tools like advanced word prediction and text-to-speech within any app on their devices. One of the most useful keyboards for dyslexic students, available for both iOS and Android tablets, is TextHelp’s Read&Write keyboard – named Read&Write for iPad and Read&Write for Android, accordingly. It provides word prediction with audio previews, audio feedback while typing, integrated dictionary and picture dictionary, text-to-speech with synchronized highlighting, and spellcheck.
The competitive relationship between Apple and Google will likely stay intact for many years. In an age when computing devices have become essential to most people’s daily routines, both companies will need to improve their products on an ongoing basis to maintain consumer interest. Will one of them eventually emerge as the undisputed champion? Probably not, but in the world of dyslexia, the winners we care about are the students who benefit from the technology wars in Silicon Valley.
Jamie Martin is a Noodle Expert. An assistive technology consultant and trainer, he was named one of the 67 Influential Educators Who Are Changing the Way We Learn in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @ATDyslexia or visit his website.