Inspiring apps for children with special needs

 

Beverley Dean was looking for an app which her son William could use. William has Down’s Syndrome and found the usual apps on offer very distracting with their animations and adverts. Beverley and her husband, whose backgrounds are in IT, decided that they could come up with something more useful.

Special iApps, the social enterprise they built as a result, has not only got over 140,000 downloads, in the UK and abroad, but has won multiple awards.

Last week Beverley was a finalist in the national FDM everywoman Technology Awards in the “Inspiration Award” category. The Award is for those who are actively committed to encouraging, advancing, sponsoring or championing the progress of women working in technology.

Beverley’s background is in IT and she has worked in software engineering and writing code for a number of years. Like many mums, her career has not been linear. When her oldest son Joseph was born 18 years ago, she took a career break as she wanted to be a full-time mum. She ran a consultancy with her husband from home before eventually going back to work full time. Then she reduced to part time and was made redundant. “I was looking to get the balance between home and my career right,” she says.

Down’s Syndrome

The family had been living in Cambridge, but moved to Durham where Beverley had her second son, William. She knew that William had Down’s Syndrome when she was pregnant and that he would require surgery when he was born. In fact, he has had to have 15 operations in the 11 and a half years since his birth and the family has nearly lost him on five occasions.

His first operation took place when he was just 12 hours old and aimed to open up his bowels. Six days later as a result of complications he had to have another operation and was in intensive care for a month. All in all he was in hospitals in Newcastle and Durham for three months before he came home. Twenty-four hours later he was back in hospital and diagnosed with Hirschsprung disease, a birth defect in which nerve cells are missing at the end of a child’s bowel. He had to be tube fed until he was ready for reconstructive surgery. Half of children with Down’s Syndrome develop heart problems and 5% develop bowel problems.

William also suffered from epilepsy as a baby, has a thyroid deficiency and has hearing problems.

Beverley was his full-time carer and took him to regular therapy sessions, including occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech therapy and play therapy. She became very involved in parent forums and support groups and began doing some voluntary work. She got an iPhone to keep up with her emails and downloaded some apps, but she realised that William could not use them because he would easily get distracted by the adverts and other features on the apps.

Beverley and her husband decided that they could make something that would be more useful for William. They set to work, testing it on other children with special needs. Once it was ready, Beverley shared the app with her closest friends who were very impressed. “They couldn’t believe what we had done,” she says. “Having worked in start-ups in Cambridge it seemed the natural thing to try and put our ideas into action.”

Since then the Special iApps team has grown, as has the number of products it produces. Its flagship programme is Special Words, an award-winning app, which helps children with special needs with speech, reading, listening and more. It encourages speaking and helps with clarity, increases sight word vocabulary, develops hand-eye co-ordination and improves fine motor skills. It can also be personalised with new words, photos and audio.

It is also being translated into a range of other languages by disability groups in other countries and by parents of bilingual children in the UK.

Removing distractions

The apps are not just for parents, though. Professionals are using them, for instance, teachers use them for home school communication and speech therapists use them to improve speech problems as children can listen to their own voice back on the app. “It helps with articulation, builds confidence and means they can learn at their own pace,” says Beverley.

There are no adverts or animation on the apps. “We take out all the distraction. It is very clear and simple for children who have very short attention spans and can be overstimulated from animations, pop-ups and adverts,” she adds. That means there are no analytics so the apps’ popularity can only be gauged by downloads and updates.

The development of new apps is funded by the downloads and Beverley is now looking for additional funding to scale up the social enterprise.

She has been working with volunteers and students. The organisation runs student placement programmes and works in partnership with local universities who have students who use their data for their research projects. Special iApps also has links with business support organisations regionally and nationally.

Beverley is also developing new apps and says she is continually learning. One of the main challenges is keeping up to date with technological changes.

Special iApps is very much a family affair. Beverley has worked around her children, which means it perhaps hasn’t developed as quickly as it might have done, but she says running her own social enterprise allows her a lot of flexibility, for instance, to work fewer hours in the holidays.

William is still the main tester of products and uses the apps, which are updated regularly, on a daily basis. His brother does the voiceover for the apps.

Beverley says: “We are very proud of what we have done. I know we have helped a lot of people.”



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