Smartphone independence – getting more feedback

Do you know parents or guardians of adults or children with a cognitive disability who would like help with iPhone setup and getting the most value (and least harm) from an iPhone as a life aid?

I’m available to help with them with this – free of charge. I hope to get some real-world feedback to advance my stalled book project ( or identify a different approach to community needs (ex: screencasts)

Some sample topics:

1. Using Screen Time and Screen Time remote for different ages and abilities.

2. Location sharing, navigation and transit including Lyft/Uber.

3. Calendaring and shared calendars.

4. Memory aides: notes and reminders.

5. Managing risk: scams and attacks

6. Messaging and email

7. AirTag use to reduce lost items.

8. Managing Family Sharing purchases with adult family members (this is a hard problem).

9. Facebook management

10. Managing the lost or disabled iPhone

11. Credentials: managing passwords, which to use, managing two-factor authentication with delegation.

I can only do iPhones unfortunately. At this time I would be working with guardians or parents.

Contact me at:

Chapter section: Paying for a smartphone with an ABLE account

I need to start this section with a caveat. I have no professional expertise with Achieving a Better Life Experience (529A ABLE) accounts. My experience is limited to one Explorer has a Minnesota ABLE account. I’m writing what I believe to be true, but don’t cite me to the IRS if they question anything. If you have doubts please consult a local expert!

Now that you’ve been warned, this is what we believe.

Most Explorers who receive Social Security Income (SSI) have effective caps on how much they can save outside of an ABLE account. Saving money to buy an iPhone, for example, may push them over a savings limit. On the other hand, buying on an installment plan may be difficult or complex.

With an ABLE account they can save more money. Money in ABLE accounts can be spent without penalty on qualified expenses. The 2015 Federal Register 529A guidance says “expenses for common items such as smart phones could be considered qualified disability expenses if they are an effective and safe communication or navigation aid for a child with autism”.

For an Explorer who has an SSI savings limit an ABLE account can be a good way to purchase an iPhone and related accessories. I have not seen any documentation of how often an Explorer can use ABLE account money to purchase an iPhone or if ABLE money can be used for repairs or maintenance. We use our iPhones for 3-5 years unless a device is lost or broken.

Can an ABLE account be used to pay for a monthly mobile plan? IRS 27_IRB suggests it can: “Example. B, an individual, has a medically determined mental impairment that causes marked and severe limitations on her ability to navigate and communicate. A smart phone would enable B to navigate and communicate more safely and effectively, thereby helping her to maintain her independence and to improve her quality of life. Therefore, the expense of buying, using, and maintaining a smart phone that is used by B would be considered a qualified disability expense.”

Can an ABLE account be used to pay for Apple’s “new iPhone every year” iPhone Upgrade Program? How about buying a used iPhone? What about trading in an older iPhone for a new one? Purchasing Apple Care? Selling a used ABLE funded iPhone? Can an ABLE plan pay for an Explorer’s portion of a family mobile plan?

These are great questions … for a specialist tax accountant! I’ll have to leave them as open questions for now. I suspect doing a trade-in for a 2-3yo old ABLE purchased iPhone is safer than selling it. I think buying a used iPhone from a vendor would be fine, but I would not use ABLE money to buy a used iPhone from an individual.

For many if not most Explorers an ABLE plan seems to be the best way to pay for an Explorer’s iPhone and data plan.

Chapter excerpt: Location Sharing for Explorers – techniques

Location sharing is one of the most important benefits of iPhone use for our Explorers. I previously posted an excerpt about the ethics of location sharing, this is about methods.

We use Apple location sharing to track the locations of our Explore’s phones. It’s enabled one to ride his bicycle across a large metropolitan area and another to travel by bus to and from school. We rely on it.

There are two ways to track the location of an Explorer’s phone — and, indirectly, to track an Explorer’s location 1. I’ll review the two options and why to use one or another, then I’ll say something about privacy and independence.

The simplest way to track an Explorer’s iPhone is to use Apple’s “Find iPhone” service. You can use it on an iPhone or use the iCloud web version of Find iPhone.  Either way a Guide will need to know the Explorer’s iCloud credentials, but most Guides will have these so they can manage an Explorer’s iCloud data 2. The iCloud web method is the easy to use; just login to the Explorer’s account and click on Find iPhone. You’ll see a map with the iPhone’s location.

The other way to track an Explorer’s iPhone is to use “Find Friends”. If you have setup Family Sharing 3 on your iPhone there’s a shortcut to share locations with other members of the Family, but typically a Guide would use an Explorer’s iPhone to setup Find Friends. (The Find Friends web app can show Friends, but it cannot add them.) Launch Find on the Explorer’s iPhone then tap Add Friends, enter your Guide email address, and specify “indefinitely”. The Guide’s iPhone will receive an invitation to likewise share the Guide’s location with the Explorer, your choice won’t affect the Explorer’s location sharing.

Once location sharing is setup a Guide can launch Find on their personal iPhone and see the Explorer’s location (and the Guide’s location as well as anyone else who has shared their location). A Guide can also ask to be notified when your Explorer leaves or arrives at a location and can ask for directions to reach an Explorer’s location.

An Explorer can turn off location sharing in Find unless you enable a Restriction setting that blocks changes. An Explorer can’t disable Find iPhone location sharing unless they know their iCloud credentials. Putting an iPhone in Airplane mode with WiFi off, or turning off the iPhone 4, will always prevent location sharing.

Location sharing isn’t perfect. In our experience it works better if an Explorer is using a high quality mobile carrier with good signal strength. The Find Friends location alerts (“geofencing”) don’t always work for unclear reasons. Despite these limits location sharing has been a huge benefit to our Explorers; for our family it justifies iPhone use all by itself.

– fn –

1 It’s easy to forget the aren’t the same thing — we track the location of the Explorer’s iPhone, not the location of the Explorer.

2 As discussed in earlier chapters most Explorers do not need to know their iCloud passwords.

3 See User Guide or

4 One of our Explorer is very protective of his iPhone power reserve. He turns off his iPhone when he’s not using it. This was a problem for his bike rides, so leaving the iPhone powered on became a prerequisite for independent riding.

Chapter excerpt: The ethics of location sharing

From the book chapter on navigation – covers maps, transit, and location tracking. This is about the privacy implications of location tracking …

We use Apple location sharing to track the locations of our Explorers’ phones. It’s enabled one to ride his bicycle across a large metropolitan area and another to travel by bus to and from school. We rely on it.

There are privacy concerns of course. These vary somewhat by years of life, but more by the development of judgment and independence. When our Explorers were early teens we had no privacy concerns at all. We configured their phones so they could not disable location tracking — though they quickly learned they could turn off their phone and block it.[1]

Now that our Explorers are young adults there is a calculated balance between the benefits of location tracking and the loss of privacy and autonomy. An adult Explorer with a legal Guardian, for example, has a different set of personal and social expectations than an independent adult. Similarly, an adult Explorer who gets easily lost, or who is especially vulnerable to dangerous exploitation, will benefit more from location tracking than a cautious Explorer with good navigation skills.

At this time our Explorers are comfortable with location tracking. I think there are three reasons they don’t object. One is that they’ve grown up in an always-connected, always-aware world. Another is that our location tracking goes both ways; they can track us as we track them. Knowing where we are relieves some anxieties. Most of all, I think they appreciate the times that location tracking has helped manage risks and challenges they face.

They are becoming more independent, however. We are coming to a time when their location tracking will change to “opt-in” rather than “always-on”. That transition can be a challenge for anxious Guides.

There are two ways to track the location of an Explorer’s phone — and, indirectly, to track an Explorer’s location or to find a lost phone. I’l review the two options and why to use one or another.

[1] This happens quickly. “You need to leave your phone on when you ride your bike.”
“Because we can’t see where you are when you turn it off …”

Teaching iPhone Voice Call and FaceTime use to Explorers

Smartphones for All book subchapter: Teaching Voice Call and FaceTime use. It was interesting how caller ID spoofing has changed how everyone manages voice calls.

What’s the best way for an Explorer to use the iPhone’s phone feature? How should they use voicemail? How should an Explorer respond to a phone call they don’t recognize? When is it appropriate to do a FaceTime video call? What about FaceTime audio?

The answer to these questions is going to vary for every Explorer. For example, I have had older Explorers phone me without texting first. That’s a social faux pas now, but it’s something older neurotypicals expect. It’s may be hard for some Explorers to understand that it’s okay to phone Grandma without texting first, but socially incorrect to “cold call” a coach or friend. Likewise some Explorers may find phone calls easier than texting and some will actually check voicemail⁠1. Phone management training and setup should be personalized.

I think most Explorers who are comfortable with texting will adopt the current social norm of using “cold calls” for urgent or emergent communication and using texting for brief communications or voice call preparation. I also think most will not use voicemail, but will instead text if a “cold call” goes unanswered.

For our Explorers this did not require formal training, it was a social norm they learned from siblings and friends. Training may be relatively easy when needed however. A somewhat older Explorer used to routinely “cold call” me. I knew he did well texting so I sent his calls to voicemail and replied by text message. After two to three repetitions he switched to texting me instead.

We also haven’t had to teach our Explorers that voicemails are usually ineffective; they don’t like to leave them. It may be useful to teach an Explorer to use text messages in place of voicemail if an urgent phone call is not answered.

Since don’t expect our Explorers to listen to voicemails we haven’t taught voicemail management. It could be helpful if an Explorer responded to an employer’s voicemail, but most employers know that voicemails are not reliable ways to communicate.  Of course individual circumstances vary, some Explorers will benefit from teaching and reinforcing voicemail management.

Spam and malicious phone calls are a problem for Explorers — as for everyone. The ability to fake caller IDs (“spoofing”) has been a boon to pests and criminals. Obsolete regulations on marketing calls to cell phones⁠2 and “do not call” registries are largely ineffective now. The first defense here is phone configuration and carrier screening apps as discussed earlier in this chapter.

The next defense is teaching suspicion. This is a lifelong learning project for Explorers across the material and immaterial worlds. I’d love to see “suspicion” as a formal curriculum in special needs education! In this book I address suspicion education in every communication method, from voice calls to texting to email to Facebook. In the case of voice calls the rule to teach is fairly simple: If you the incoming call doesn’t show the name of a Contact then tap the red disconnect icon or push the power button once⁠3. It’s helpful that many Explorers won’t answer a cold call anyway, and many won’t check voicemail. It’s also helpful that the most vulnerable Explorers don’t usually have many financial resources under their control; criminals typically prefer vulnerable elders.

The value of FaceTime video calls will vary by Explorer’s situation. They may be very helpful for an Explorer living independently as a way to help with activities of daily living or as a social connection. They may be less interesting for an Explorer living at home.

General FaceTime video (and audio) call initiation is somewhat complex, but an iPhone “Favorite⁠4” can be setup to initiate a FaceTime video (or audio) call. In this case an Explorer need only learn which “Favorites” are audio versus video calls. Most will learn this quickly on their own⁠5. Answering a FaceTime audio or video call requires a bit of practice but most Explorers will learn this quickly. As with a voice call a FaceTime call will typically be preceded by a text message — so Explorers will be prepared to respond.

FaceTime audio calls are rarely used; I think they are underused. They only work between Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, Mac) but the sound quality is much better than cellular sound quality. They don’t incur international charges and they use very little data, a FaceTime audio call to Canada costs no more than a FaceTime audio call next door. They can be setup as a Favorite and, when preceded by a text message, they are easy to answer.

1 At least at first. As discussed below most modern voicemails are spam so Explorers will learn to ignore them.

2 These regulations were from an era when it cost money to receive a phone call and most people used landlines most of the time. So mobile phones were treated differently from landlines. They really are obsolete in an era when few people have landlines and voice call reception is typically bundled in a flat fee.

3 Tapping once makes the call ‘disappear’ but the caller spends time “ringing” before voicemail is available.

4 It is a bit odd that “Favorites” are part of Phone setup but also apply to FaceTime. A practical UI compromise! When FaceTime is used this way the FaceTime app icon can be hidden away.

5 The phone works better if a single person’s Contact holds email, sexting phone number and FaceTime information. In some cases you could consider splitting them up to be more recognizable but I don’t recommend this.

Creating contacts for an Explorer

I learned several new things about iOS Contacts when I wrote a book section on entering an Explorer’s Contacts.


Contacts can be added to an Explorer’s iPhone in several different ways. They can be typed in the iPhone directly or typed into the on an Explorer’s iCloud account. A Guide or other person may also share their contacts by Message or Mail (see user guide on sharing contacts). There are also ways to share many contacts at once 1 that can save time for some Guides.

Whether Contacts are shared to an Explorer’s phone or entered as new there are ways to make them more useful and less confusing. Keep the list relatively short at first — usually family members, aides, key friends and support staff. When you’ve assembled your list choose a few, ideally 3-8, to be “Favorites” (see below). Even if an Explorer never uses the Favorites list the iPhone’s increasing intelligence can use that knowledge, including automatically bypassing “do not disturb” settings. I’ve summarized recommendations for entering Contacts in table form, I’ve omitted fields that I haven’t found a use for (social profile, instant message, etc):


Contact field(s)


First and Last name and Company


For businesses or organizations leave the name fields empty and enter the Company only. If you want to create an entry for a couple, like “Aunt Emily and Uncle John” put this into the Company field.


When a call comes in the iPhone uses this number to display a name. So while you want to enter as few numbers as possible to reduce confusion, you may need to include a Favorite’s work number if they call from there. Tap on the default “home” label to specify if this is an “iPhone” or “mobile” or “work” or “home 2” number.


As with the phone example this information will be used to lookup an email correspondent. Most people have multiple emails, in general you want to put as few as possible here. Again tap on the label to specify “home”, “work” etc.

Ringtone and Text Tone

Don’t skip over these! You may want to enable “Emergency Bypass” for some callers, particularly if an Explorer enables “Do Not Disturb” to avoid pesky calls they truly need to get (obviously be thoughtful about this). You can set distinct ring or text tones for key people.


Even if an Explorer never looks at Contacts, much less sends a letter, this information is used by Maps and other apps for directions. Include it for places that an Explorer may travel too. Don’t forget to enter the Explorer’s own home and work addresses, many parts of the iPhone rely on this information.

Add Birthday (but not other dates)

If you add a Contacts birthday it will show up on the iPhone calendar and Siri will answer question about when it is. You can add other dates, like anniversary or custom labels (Adoption Day) — but they are currently seen only in Contacts. Siri and don’t use them.

Add related name

If you define a relationship here Siri will understand commands like “Call my brother Tim”. Instead of typing a name in use the “i” text button to select it from the Explorer’s Contacts list.

Add Field: Nickname and Phonetic.

At the bottom of the edit screen there’s an “add field” text button. If you click here you’ll see choices like “Phonetic last name”, and “Nickname”. Both of these features work well with Siri and you should add them where appropriate 3.


Once you’ve finished editing and saved contact information you will return a screen showing completed contact information. From there you can “Add to Favorites”. You can also choose to share an Explorer’s location with a specific person (See ____ for a detailed discussion on location sharing.)



1 See

2 Power user tip: If several contacts in a house share an old-fashioned landline then incoming calls will show one of those contact names. For our own home I put our home number in a special contact called “Home Number” and removed it from individual family member contacts.

3 There are other ways to train Siri to recognize names, but I find this is the easiest. As of the time I write this nobody knows how the “Pronunciation” field is used, my guess is that it’s used by iOS’s built-in screen reader. That’s an accessibility feature for visually impaired persons.

Teaching Messaging to an Explorer: stay within the Notification budget

From the Smartphones for All chapter on messaging:

The first step in teaching messaging to an Explorer is to simplify the iPhone’s as much as possible. I review this in the Setting up an Explorer’s iPhone chapter.  The iPhone’s has become harder to use as Apple has added more features, but most Explorers seem able to work around the confusion.


If an Explorer has even modest reading abilities they will learn Messaging quickly. Using to communicate from room to room in a house is one way to practice. Many families do this for neurotypicals, but for our Explorers this practice has been particularly helpful. I believe this is generally true for Explorers prone to intense focus or who use earphones to reduce distraction.

Once an Explorer is good at reading a message the next step is to encourage responses — typically by texting a question. There are many options here. “Y” or “N” are single letter responses to a yes or no question and the letter “k”is a widely recognized abbreviation for a neutral “ok” response. The iPhone’s autocorrect feature makes many Explorers more comfortable with longer text responses. Both Siri and the iPhone’s “speech to text” feature can be used to send verbal responses as text. Other Explorers may prefer to respond with emoji or even sound recordings (though the latter is a bit complex to do). There are many options to choose from.

The last step is initiating messages — typically a request for something. This is a small step beyond responding, and it’s easy to encourage by responding quickly and positively (when possible). Most Explorers, like most users, will send a new message by tapping on an existing message collection rather than by browsing contacts or typing in a name. Alternatively, saying “Hey Siri, text Mum to get me a snack” works better than most Siri functions (see iPhone setup – Siri to learn how to teach Siri who “Mum” is).

Once an Explorer can receive, respond to and initiate messages the last step is managing group or “Chat” type messages. These are hard for everyone — all of us have accidentally message a group of people when we meant to message a single person. This can be more than a bit embarrasing; I hope future improvements will make this easier to avoid. For many Explorers it may be best to avoid use of this feature in favor of a direct message. If a group message is being accidentally reused it can be deleted from an Explorer’s phone.

Messaging, by design, grabs the recipient’s attention. This isn’t too bad for a low volume of Messages, but every iPhone app is clamoring for attention. Almost all applications try to turn on all possible Notifications when they are installed.  Explorers will have low tolerance for unwanted interruptions and may end up turning off iPhone volume — defeating the value of Messages. The trick to prevent this problem is to regularly review the iPhone’s Notification settings and disable almost all notifications, leaving only those for Messages, Reminders, Calendars and the like (see Apple’s User Guide and Setting up an Explorer’s iPhone). 

Sadly this isn’t a one time chore, smartphone applications are alway fighting to enable Notifications, particularly when first installed. If an application’s Notification lust is truly annoying it may be due for deletion. 

Another way to reduce annoying Messaging interruptions is to enable the “Do Not Disturb” feature to accept messages only from “Favorites”, where a Favorite might be a Guide or sibling.  Our goal with Notifications is to make each one of them useful.

In the last resort an Explorer may be reminded that their iPhone is an important tool as well as a fun device, but I encourage optimizing Notifications first.

Smartphones for All: Preprint chapter – Calendars.pdf

I’ve updated the preprint of my book chapter on Calendars. You can read the PDF for free, my September presentation to the Down Syndrome association has other preprints.

This is one of my favorite chapters – iOS Calendars are a great tool for Explorers (and Guides as well). From the Key Points section (I’m adding these to all the chapters):

• The Calendar is a key tool to help Explorers learn and practice the fundamental life skill of planning.
• iPhone Cloud calendars are a huge improvement over paper calendars for all Explorers. They can be managed by Guides and they support sharing and alerts. They are always at hand. Explorers will lose paper calendars, but few will lose their iPhones.
• To support an Explorer’s use of a Calendar a Guide needs to use an iPhone Calendar themselves. They need to demonstrate use.
• When an Explorer asks when an event is, there’s always one answer – “It’s on your calendar”.
• Explorers can start with a simple Calendar managed by a Guide with event alerts. In time most will learn to add events, to work with Family Calendar Sharing (or the non-family equivalent), and to manage invitations.
• There is a longstanding and complicated Apple bug with Calendar invitations. If you send an iPhone calendar invitation to someone and they don’t get it you’ve run into the bug. There’s nothing you can do, Apple has to fix this. It’s just useful to know the bug exists. With luck you’ll never see it.
• It’s possible to substitute Google’s Calendar for Apple’s iCloud Calendar and still use the base iPhone This can be a good option for a Guide who is invested in Google Calendar but it’s technically trickier.

As always with preprints don’t worry about the typos and grammar blunders.

I’m mostly done with new chapters, moving to rewrites and updates. Editing on the way …