8 Tools for Kids with Special Needs

Tech to help your child manage restaurant menus, the great outdoors, and much more

By Jacqueline Emigh

At its best, technology helps people to carry out tasks that are important to them. Such tools can be especially useful to kids with special needs, who may require assistance to take part in activities that many of the rest of us take for granted. Here are eight types of cool assistive tools that can help children with disabilities to read menus in a restaurant, dictate their homework by voice, play games, frolic outdoors, and much more.

1. KNFB Reader

While many documents today are computerized, not all are. Instructions for boardgames, toys, and many other products are on paper, for example. Menus on restaurant tables are also printed out. Pricetags on items in stores are made of paper, too. There might be hardcover or paperback books your kid would like to read that aren't available as ebooks.

KFNB Reader is an OCR (optical character recognition) app that can help kids with visual impairments or learning disabilities to decipher printed documents, even on the go.

After using your smartphone camera to snap a photo, the app converts type on the page to text. It can read the text aloud with synthetic speech, moving the cursor along each word as the narration proceeds.

And when used in batch mode, KFNB Reader can handle an entire paper book. The app can convert printed documents to Braille, for access through a separate Braille reading device.

Available for both Android and iOS, a trial version of KFNB Reader provides conversion of 25 pages free of charge. The full version, covering unlimited pages, is sold as an in-app purchase.

2. Nuance Speech Software

While KFNB Reader can convert text to speech, Nuance's Naturally Speaking Home Edition software for Windows takes the opposite approach, converting speech to text. Using their own voice, your kids can compose essays for school, tweets, emails for friends, and many other sorts of electronic prose.

Nuance also produces Dragon Dictation, a free iOS app with many of the same capabilities. Nuance's software can come in handy for anyone who prefers talking to typing, but it's particularly useful for kids who are challenged--whether permanently or just temporarily--by the use of keyboards.

A child with a broken arm, or who's recuperating from carpal tunnel syndrome, can use Nuance's speech recognition software to help keep up in school. Naturally Speaking Home Edition is priced at about $70.

3. Wheelchair Mounts for iPads

What if your child uses a wheelchair? Joy Factory makes wheelchair mounts and optional protective enclosures designed for specific iPad models--such as the iPad Pro, iPad Air, iPad Mini--as well as for the Microsoft Surface Pro.

A wheelchair mount can make it easier for your kid to surf the web and interact with apps, because he'll no longer need to either hold up the tablet with one hand or try to access the device while it's sitting in his lap.

Joy Factory is owned by former professional race car driver Sam Schmidt. Wheelchair-bound since an accident in 2000, the inspirational Schmdit has become a successful businessman, racing team owner, and philanthropist.

4. Adaptive Toys and Games

Just like other kids, of course, children with special needs enjoy playing with toys and games. Adaptive Tech Solutions sells a wide range of fun and educational items for kids with disabilities, including many that are enabled with special switches for easier access.

Examples include special versions of the Uno playing card game and Learning Lantern, a portable educational toy. Learning Lantern lets your child choose between three different modes for sing-along songs and tunes, "sounds of the night" and learning activities involving counting, fun phrases, greetings, and more.

With holiday gift giving on the way, this could be a wonderful time for you to give this site a look.

5. Colorfully Lit LED Wheels

Some companies now make it possible to add safety as well as style to wheelchairs through embellishment with LED-lit wheels.

One cool product, Wheelchair Volcanic Wheels, is a set of wheels featuring red, green, and blue LEDs on both their inner and outer sides. The results are visually gorgeous, Better yet, the LED lights are bright enough to be seen by drivers from a distance after dark. Each wheel is priced at $19.

6. Folding and/or All Terrain Wheelchair

For kids who like to be physically active, some companies make folding wheelchairs, while other manufacturers produce "all terrain" wheelchairs. Convaid does both.

The company's pediatric compact folding wheelchairs feature an adjustable seat depth extends chair life up to five years for a growing child. For use on less than even terrain, these folding chairs can be easily converted to Cruiser Scout models, which come with multiple positioning options, disc brakes--the same type used on high-end mountain bikes--and knobby wheels.

With a chair like this, a kid can do more than gaze at a nearby park from a concrete sidewalk. She can actually get out there and play in the park.

7. Bone Conductive Headphones

Bone conductive headphones can help people with certain types of hearing loss to hear music clearly. Sound from the headphones bypasses the ears entirely, traveling from the cheekbones (where the headphones sit) through the bones of the head to the brain.

People without hearing loss can also hear sounds through their ears -- such as traffic noise -- while they're listening to the music. That's why bone conductive headphones are also popular among some athletes, such as runners. Marsboy is one company that produces bone conductive headphones.

8. An Airplane (Ride, That Is)

Well, of course, you probably won't be buying an entire airplane for your kid. However, many children with disabilities find it difficult to take trips on commercial jets. So how about a free private ride in the passenger seat of a smaller plane, manned by a professional pilot?

With help from sponsors, that's exactly what Challenge Air does for special needs kids. On their calendar: A "fly day" in Dallas, TX on November 12 and two events in 2017 set for Fort Launderdale, FL on January 28 and Conroe, TX on April 22.

Flying high above the ground, these special kids can get a real sense of freedom for the day.