Leave The Top Ten Lists to Letterman

One thing for which late-night talk show host David Letterman is famous is his Top Ten Lists, one of which is featured each night the show airs.  The lists are usually about humorous topics such as “The Top Ten Signs You’re Not The Most Popular Guy in High School” and “The Top Ten Lifeguard Pet Peeves” or based on current events like “The Top Ten Rejected James Bond Gadgets” and “The Top Ten Injuries Covered by Obamacare.”  The popularity of this segment of the show has resulted in the publishing of several books, including “The Late Show with David Letterman Book of Top Ten Lists” which was released in 1994.


Even before Letterman starting making his lists, there were various Top Ten Lists featured in People Magazine and there was Dick Clark announcing the Top Ten records of the week.  People seem to love Top Ten lists: they can be informative, interesting, and funny.  They can serve as a shortcut of sorts, saving others time and energy in having to research or figure out what deserves their attention and/or their money.


With Apple’s release of the iPad and with the deluge of apps that has followed, one trend in technology today is the Top Ten list.  Advice about which apps are “the best” comes from seemingly everywhere and is given out by people with a variety of interests and fields of expertise. With over 50,000,000,000 apps downloaded since the opening of the App Store in July of 2008 and with over 900,000 apps available today, there is a lot of information out there – and there are lots of options and opinions too.  People who are looking for an app to solve a particular problem or to serve a specific purpose seem hungry for recommendations on where to start in their quest for the “perfect” app, and thus has come the extension of the Letterman trend: Top Ten Lists for apps.

There are lists of Top Ten Best Apps for Businesses, for Travel, for Writers, for Social Networking, for Photography, … and so on.  These are easy to find and can be useful to individuals who are trying to save time and to benefit from the experience of others who have presumably already tried several options in a category of apps and discovered what works the best.  It is easy see the benefit of Top Ten lists when it comes to general-use apps.


What is concerning, though, and what should be viewed with caution are the Top Ten lists that are aimed at a certain population of people; these recommendations, while seemingly well-intended, are at best so generalized that they are likely to be inaccurate in many cases – and at worst discriminatory and stereotyping.  It would seem ridiculous to put any stock at all into a list of Top Ten Apps for People With Brown Eyes or For People Who Wear A Size Eight Shoe.  Yet there are countless Top Ten Lists out there that target a particular category of people as if they were all the same, lumping them together by age group, by grade level, by skill deficit area, or – in what, in my opinion, is the worst infraction – by diagnosis.  In education and in health care, we say it all the time: individuals are individual; one size never fits all.  In health care, service providers evaluate an individual patient’s health and develop a treatment plan specific to his or her needs.  In the school system, teams work diligently to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student with a qualifying disability; distinct goals and objectives are written to provide appropriate support to each child based on his or her individual needs.  We don’t say that all children with Down Syndrome (or all left-handed kids, or all students with a speech impairment, etc.) need to be taught exactly the same things in exactly the same way.  We know that attempting to address the needs of a group of individuals with special needs is not a good idea – and we recognize that it would be unethical and damaging to those with whom we work.

As an Assistive Technology Practitioner, when I am presented with a Top Ten list of apps for a student based on a particular diagnostic category, I often feel that some backtracking is necessary to ensure that the guiding principles of Assistive Technology are followed.  As an experienced service provider, I use the SETT Framework* to support the team in gathering data in order to make effective A.T. decisions, based on available research and best practice guidelines.  Top Ten lists do not fall into this category; these lists are general in nature and do not speak to the needs of the individual for which A.T. is being considered.  The SETT Framework first considers the Student, the Environment(s), and the Tasks required for participation; the Tools needed to support the completion of those tasks come last in the process.  To start with a list of apps is to skip ahead in the process, and that can set the stage for failure for the individual and for the team.

Here’s what I recommend about those Top Ten Lists for apps for groups of people, especially when those suggestions are being made by skill deficit (Top Ten Apps for Children With Fine Motor Skill Impairment, for example) or by diagnosis (such as the Top Ten Apps for People With Autism):  it’s ok to take them into consideration as part of the A.T. assessment process, but only after other factors specific to the individual person and to the individual situation have been considered first.  Any decision about the use of an app should only be made after research on that app has been conducted.  (Have there been any studies done on the use of the app? What do the reviews about the app say?  What have others in the field experienced when using this app? and so on … )  The A.T. assessment process is, of course, far more complex than the reading of a Top Ten list, and, as professionals and caregivers who are dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals with special (and individual) needs, we need to be aware that there are no effective shortcuts.


*The SETT Framework will be covered in more detail in a future post.


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