The rise of mainstream tablet computers is proving to have unforeseen benefits for children with speech and communication problems—and such use has the potential to disrupt a business where specialized devices can cost thousands of dollars.

Before she got an iPad at age two, Caleigh Gray couldn’t respond to yes-or-no questions. Now Caleigh, who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, uses a $190 software application that speaks the words associated with pictures she touches on Apple Inc.’s AAPL -0.92% device.

“We’re not having to fight to prove to people that she is a smart little girl anymore, because it’s there once they see her using the iPad,” said Caleigh’s mother, Holly Gray, who said her daughter can use the tablet to identify colors or ask to go outside.

The software, called Proloquo2Go by a company called AssistiveWare BV, is one of a growing number of apps aimed at people with speech difficulties developed for Apple’s gadgets. Some of the apps offer images that users can press to make the sound of a word; others lead students through stories to teach them basic speech patterns.

Companies are also planning such apps for upcoming tablets that run Google Inc.’s Android software.

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said in an interview that he hopes the easy-to-use design of the iPad has helped children with special needs take to the device more quickly, but that its use in therapy wasn’t something Apple engineers could have foreseen.

“We take no credit for this, and that’s not our intention,” Mr. Jobs said, adding that the emails he gets from parents resonate with him. “Our intention is to say something is going on here,” and researchers should “take a look at this.”

Specialized speech devices from companies like DynaVox Inc. DVOX -1.30% and Prentke Romich Co. range from about $2,500 on the low end to $15,000 for a device that uses the eye movements of people who are paralyzed to allow them to select words on a screen. Most are about $7,000, near the amount that Medicare covers for such hardware.

The price of the devices covers the materials required to make them durable; extensive service that is often needed for disabled patients; as well as complicated software, said Ed Donnelly, the chief executive of DynaVox.

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