Tools and Dyslexia: Issues and Ideas

© 2003 Richard Wanderman

This article first appeared in the Fall, 2003 issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the International Dyslexia Association.

My use of tools, from simple Hi-Liter pens to computers and more has changed my experience of being dyslexic and dysgraphic. Tools allow me to compensate (some might say over-compensate) for my dyslexia-caused writing and organizational problems so well that aside from the few times when people see my handwriting, my dyslexia and dysgraphia is not evident in my daily life. And, I’ve been lucky enough to actually build a career out of talking about this with audiences all over the world.

So, the very tools that I talk about are the tools that allow me to get to the talk, organize, and present it.

My experience, however, is not as common among dyslexics as I’d like. Many parents, students, teachers, and other professionals attempt to use tools with their children, students, or clients and various things happen to get in the way of success.

Rather than focus on the tools themselves I’m focussing on the context surrounding the tools’ use. Consider these issues and talk about them with teachers, students, and anyone who struggles with the use of tools to solve problems associated with dyslexia.

Branding and Stigma
In the context of disabilities and special education various kinds of tools are sometimes labeled “assistive technology.” I have a number of problems with this label.

  1. The label “assistive technology” is redundant: all technology is assistive.
  2. If you are dyslexic and you use a computer to write with it’s “assistive technology” but if you’re not dyslexic and you use a computer to write with it’s not? Huh?
  3. The assistive technology categorization has more to do with funding (where the money comes from in K-12 special education) than it does with actual use.
  4. The branding of a tool as “assistive technology” vs. “regular old technology” can, for some students, get in the way of using the tool enough to make it useful.

I’ve seen #4 happen with Franklin hand-held reference tools and AlphaSmart keyboards, among others. Franklin reference tools are not marketed as special education tools yet, when special education buys them, they are branded. AlphaSmarts sell 8 or 9 to 1 regular over special education yet if they are seen in a special education context, people think that’s their category. For what it’s worth, the playwright Arthur Miller uses an AlphaSmart as do thousands of other professional writers (of course, Mr. Miller does not use an AlphaSmart in school, where people might tease him).

Categorization and stereotyping is powerful and can lead to non-use because of stigma.

Tool as Lever or Crutch
Tools can be used as levers – to extend what we can do, but they can also be used to end-run problems we have with underlying understanding. Too much of the latter and we call them “crutches” which, when your leg is broken are useful but get in the way when your leg is healed and you want to walk fast.

Using a modern cash register to make change does not get me any closer to understanding why someone might give me $1.01 for a .66 charge. I ring up .66. I ring up $1.01 and the register says to give the customer back .35. The difference between that transaction and one where I get $1.00 even is pennies (or, the fact that the customer doesn’t want 4 more of them). The modern register takes the cashier out of the equation by telling him what to give back to the customer. In the stone age (when I ran a register) the cashier had to use his mental abacus to do this transaction.

This is not as cut and dry as it might seem so let’s discuss it further. I had a hard time using my mental abacus under the pressure of cashiering so I didn’t last as a cashier. But, I could hold that job today because the tool would allow me to end-run my weakness.

Is this good? Depends on what you want out of it. If you want to make your abacus stronger (like we do in school) then too much use of the tool may not be good because it’s doing the work for you (this is an assumption, it may not be true in all cases). If you want the job to make money then the tool is great in that it allows weak counters to hold higher paying jobs than box boy.

Don’t give someone a calculator to take an arithmetic test with. Don’t give someone a tool with a spelling checker to take a spelling test on. But, people who do math use calculators all the time. People who write use computers with spelling checkers.

The issue is, does the use of the tool get in the way of getting the underlying understanding? Or, can you get the underlying understanding through the use of the tool?

If the use of the tool keeps me in the game: keeps me doing arithmetic, keeps me working at the store, keeps me writing, then it is possible that I might later go back and take care of (clean up) my underlying weakness in spelling or math that the tool is helping me deal with. I know, you’re thinking few do but I have to disagree.

In fact, in my own experience, this is exactly what happened: the more I wrote with a computer, the better my spelling became. The use of a spelling checker kept me in the game and kept me writing and so, spelling.

Is it possible that for some people the use of a spelling checker gets in the way of learning how to spell independently? Absolutely. But, we have to be careful not to generalize that because some of us have had the opposite experience.

If You Don’t Use it, Nothing Happens
You would be amazed at how many people buy an expensive tool and think that the purchase alone is the solution to the problem. It is not. In fact, it can lead to more and different problems and sometimes does. The tool itself is a part of the solution; the regular use of the tool over time is another part of it; getting an assignment done with it is another part; and a changing attitude about learning and self is another part.

Without practice the tool is useless. Without a task to do practice is meaningless. If, after using the tool to good effect over time you don’t have a feeling of accomplishment there’s something wrong with the entire situation.

There are many reasons tools don’t get used, some of them come from the tool; some come from the user.

  1. The tool is poorly designed and too hard to use (although as I will discuss later, this is hard to sort out if you aren’t confident about what your abilities are)
  2. The user doesn’t know where the needed hard work to learn to use the tool ends and problems associated with dyslexia begin
  3. Power and control issues: “you said to use it, therefore I won’t,” or, “I just bought you this expensive gizmo, your grades better go up.”
  4. The tool comes with a stigma: being seen using the tool “outs” you as “learning disabled”
  5. There is a poor fit between learning style or maturity of user and tool: the tool ought not overwhelm the user, no matter how profound its effect
  6. Attitudes about disability get in the way: “you’re broken and the use of this tool will fix you”
  7. Confusion about getting a job done vs. underlying understanding: electronic cash registers help you make change but they don’t give you the underlying understanding of why a shopper just gave you $1.01 for a .66 cent bill.

It’s the process of using a tool to get work done and learning about the tool and yourself from that experience that’s most important, not the tool itself.

Practice Makes Better
The way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing. One might call this practice or repetition or work, the result is the same: do a lot of something and it gets easier.

Some tools can make doing a lot of something easier because they fundamentally change the process of doing it.

A computer makes it easier to practice writing because it takes the sting out of making mistakes – you can fix them without a complete rewrite, and so, you may write more. A digital camera makes it easier to practice taking pictures because it takes the sting out of making mistakes – you can throw them out without printing them, and so, you may take more pictures.

Once enough practice takes place the tool starts to fall into the background and what the user wants to do with the tool starts to come into the foreground. In the end, the tool ought to be almost taken for granted and the focus completely on the application or better yet, the topic. However, this can’t happen without practice: a lot of use of the tool so that it’s intimately familiar.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to help people with dyslexia sort out difficulties in learning caused by the newness of the tool from difficulties caused by dyslexia. It may be hard to get enough practice in without sorting this issue out.

Mistake Tolerance
How many of you have a flashing 12:00 on your VCR and have to bargain with your teenage child to set the time because you don’t know how? Here’s a tip: duct tape.

Many adults have a notion that they were born in the mechanical age and that younger people, born in the electronics age are just better at this stuff by nature.

Here’s my theory:

Watch a teenager use a remote control. What looks to you like knowledge and facile motion is actually very fast trial and error work with the thumb. In other words, they make mistakes and correct them so fast you have no idea what just happened, which is just what they want.

Most adults, on the other hand, are scared of “blowing it up” or permanently tuning in The Playboy Channel so you hand off the remote rather than look stupid. Of course, in doing this you’re avoiding the possibility of making mistakes and from them, learning.

Learning happens when you make a mistake, form a theory on how to correct it, test the theory, and move on or go back and try again. Mistakes are an essential part of learning.

By the way, I’m over 50 which means I was born in the mechanical age, yet, I know how to program a VCR, set the stations on a car radio, and do all of the things that some of you think are impossible for folks my age. How did I transcend my age group? I made a load of mistakes early on and generalized that making them was important. To be honest, I did not think like this until my mid-20s by which time I’d sorted out intelligence – dyslexia issues for myself.

Many adults, dyslexic or not, don’t know if it’s the tool or them when they struggle. How do I know if the operating system of the VCR is just counter-intuitive to use or I’m throwing the towel in too early from fear of making mistakes? This is just like the dyslexic person not knowing where “normal” hard work struggling to do a task ends and difficulty associated with dyslexia begins. Given the fact that I’m pretty sure some people reading this think the CD tray on their computer is a coffee cup holder, you know where I think the problem usually lies. However it is and will remain true that some tools are just poorly designed. Tool-phobic adults, however, are not allowed to use this excuse.

Some tools and processes however, are more forgiving of mistakes than others. Here is a simple and yet, not-so-simple example:

Using a Hi-Liter pen as an aid in reading and studying can be quite effective. A typical highlighting job is to pick out the important ideas on a page so that later, in reviewing, you will be able to scan more easily and focus just on those important ideas.

This can be problematic if you don’t read well because in order to pick out the important ideas you have to hold enough ideas together in your head to compare them. If your decoding is too slow to get decent comprehension or you are distractible enough so that your brain is resetting before you get enough ideas to compare this is a hard task and can lead to the infamous yellow page (highlighting too much).

Here are two issues to consider:

  1. Underlying reading problems make it hard to do this task in the “traditional” way
  2. Hi-Liters are permanent and correcting mistakes is impossible (well, you can buy a new book). The consequences of making a mistake while highlighting are a negative influence on doing enough highlighting to learn how to highlight from experience.

I call the underlying issue in #2 “mistake-intolerance” and I find it fascinating to look at all tools and learning experiences with this issue in mind.

My first experience with mistake-intolerance was in an introductory studio art class in college. We were given two media to explore: a large piece of stone and a large mound of water-based clay, kept under plastic to keep wet and pliable.

We were advised to start on the stone as it would take longer and was harder to work with. We donned goggles, picked up hammer and chisel and started chipping away. Two weeks later almost all of us ended up with a BB (a small chunk of stone).

What had we learned? Stone is a mistake-intolerant medium: you can chip away at it but there’s no going back and correcting a chip that wasn’t meant to come off.

Sculpting clay was a very different experience: I could take some away and put some back and as long as I kept it wet I could do this for quite some time (not forever but long enough to get things worked out). Clay turned out to be a much more mistake-tolerant medium.

I have an MFA in ceramics and now you know why.

I like writing with a computer better than ink on paper; I use highlighter tape and an erasable highlighter instead of a Hi-Liter pen; I use a digital instead of a film camera…

Simple is Better if You Want to Focus on Work
The simpler the tool, the more it will get used. The more it gets used, the faster it will fall into the background and real work will get done.

I’m not making this point because I think that people with dyslexia are not smart enough to use complex tools, we are and we do. But, for example, when choosing an electronic writing tool to practice writing, one may be better off with a small battery-powered keyboard (AlphaSmart) than a desktop computer. Why? Less time spent messing with the tool, more time spent writing.

Let’s check this out in more detail.

Computer: turn it on, find the writing program and open it, start writing, spend an hour playing with fonts and formatting, save and name the file, quit from the program, shut down the computer (turn it off), return to writing later repeating these steps and hoping that you can remember where you saved and what you called it.

AlphaSmart: turn it on, start writing, turn it off (AlphaSmarts save every keystroke automatically into flash memory), return to writing later by turning it back on, you are right back where you left off.

What’s the difference? Steps. Reading the screen. Navigation. Choices. In other words, dealing with the various layers of using a computer: the operating system and the writing software.

AlphaSmart takes a different tack: let writing be the primary thing and take care of as much of the background stuff as possible so it doesn’t get in the way.

Note: There are many simple electronic keyboards like the AlphaSmart. The reason I chose it and not, say, the QuickPad or Laser PC or DreamWriter is because each of the others has more steps in the process of using the tool to do a simple writing chore. The AlphaSmart has the fewest steps and so, is a good contrast to a computer.

If you need more support with your writing: word prediction, speech to text, text to speech then a computer is a better choice and it will be worthwhile dealing with the added complexity, but many people think they need the extra support when in fact they don’t, they just need more practice. The simpler tool, if it offers enough support, will allow more practice because there’s less cognitive overhead to deal with in using it.

The simple-is-better formula works with almost all tools:

Remote controls, digital voice recorders, calculators, car dashboards, kitchen appliances… you name it, simpler is better.

And, the more the tool gets used the more work you get done and the less you think about the tool in doing that work.

Solve One Problem, Cause Another
Here are two examples of side effects of using tools that you might not consider.

You’re in high school or college. You’re dysgraphic and find it hard to take notes by hand. You decide to use your laptop or an AlphaSmart or a Palm PDA and folding keyboard to take notes in class.

You find a seat, get all setup and the lecture begins. You start typing. The person sitting next to you glares at you. You have no idea why. She then whispers, “can you type more softly?”

So, you’ve solved your handwriting problem but caused another person to be distracted because of noise.

You take another tack: instead of typing, you bring a tape recorder to tape the lecture only to find out that the teacher doesn’t like being taped (this could become an ADA issue but let’s not go there).

The important thing to consider here is that in a classroom full of kids or a meeting full of other people, some tools may be intrusive enough to be a problem for others.

What to do?

Ideal: re-engineer how teaching is done so that there is less listening and writing going on simultaneously.

Real: find a place to sit in a lecture hall that affects the fewest people (if you plan to pound a keyboard) and even then, acknowledge to your neighbors that you know you might be distracting them and will do your best to keep it down.

Means – Ends Issues
You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive to the store to get milk. In other words, there’s a difference between driving and car repair and car repair is not a prerequisite for driving.

If we had to prove our knowledge of cars by rebuilding an engine before we could drive, few of us would be driving.

Yet, many computer courses deal more with the tool than with its application, and this is a problem in that the application of the tool is where work gets done, unless you’re studying computer science or to be a computer technician.

The tool itself is means to another end, not an end in itself, and achieving that end, often, is what makes tools so meaningful for those of us who are dyslexic.

My Personal Toolkit
I’m over 50, dyslexic and dysgraphic. I touch type. I read. I make a living talking and writing about technology. We live in a two story saltbox house in rural Connecticut. We have cable internet although no cell phone coverage (go figure).

In the years that I’ve been interested in technology I’ve found two overlapping methods for choosing tools for my personal toolkit:

  1. Research online, ask friends, discuss the tool category and all options, join discussion groups, use loaners.
  2. Buy, try, either keep, return, trickle down, donate or throw out.

I tend to use #2 more than #1 (I’m impulsive) but I do a fair amount of research as well.

For example, if you were interested in buying a digital voice recorder here are some things to consider:

  1. Usability: what are the various features of voice recorders and which ones do I think I need? Will I be able to learn to use all of those features?
  2. Brand: are some brands better than others (with respect to #1 and just generally?). Sony better or worse than Panasonic or Olympus?
  3. Process of buying: Do I need to get my hands on it to feel it, see if the buttons are too small for my eyes and fingers? If so, I have to go to a store that carries a variety of these things. Can I buy it in such a way that I can return it if I don’t like it? Is the place I’m using to buy it useful (salespeople answer questions) or am I just using this place for low price?
  4. Price.

Notice price is last. Why? Because, if you don’t use it, it doesn’t matter that it was cheaper than another brand or if your buying experience is terrible it would have been worth it to pay more at another place to have a better experience. Price is important, but only after you’ve chosen what you want because it fits your needs and the way you want to buy it.

We use Macintosh computers and have since 1984 (the beginning of the Mac world). My wife uses a 12″ iBook and I use a 15″ PowerBook (TiBook or titanium PowerBook). These are our only computers. Both computers have AirPort cards in them (802.11b or WiFi) and we have two AirPort Extreme wireless base stations, one connected to the cable modem, the other wirelessly connected to and extending the range of the first.

With portable computers and WiFi we can move anywhere in the house and pretty far into the backyard (in summer) and remain on the internet. My wife usually carries her iBook into the living room to read and respond to email and visit with me (simultaneously!).

With this computer I can do online work anywhere on earth I have a high speed connection to the internet, which these days includes most Starbucks’, Bryant Park in New York, and thousands of other places including many hotels.

We live pretty far from shopping so we do almost all of our non-food shopping online: Amazon, Lands End, and more.

I co-wrote an article called Digital Independence on the impact of living and working like this and you can find it here: Digital Indepdence

I run OS X on my computer and I am writing this article with a simple text editing program that comes with OS X called TextEdit. It’s all I need to do most of the writing I do. I use its built-in spelling checker (not a great one but fine for me) and if I needed it (I don’t) it could easily have it read this text back to me out of the box, with no additional software necessary.

I use the program Sherlock for many things but mostly for its built in dictionary and thesaurus which is a good one. The Sherlock dictionary is actually a non-web front end for which I could also use but Sherlock is better.

Sherlock also has other tools for language translation, yellow pages and more that seamlessly use various online databases to find information.

I’m working on a program called Confusing Words which is a collection of over 3000 words that people have problems with, like affect and effect and there, their, and they’re. It’s a web-based reference tool that anyone in the world can use.

I use a Dymo Thermal LabelWriter printer to print labels for envelopes. It works like a charm and I’ve used various versions of this printer for many years to avoid having to handwrite envelopes.

We have an HP LaserJet 1012 that is connected to one of our AirPort base stations via a USB cable. We can print on this printer from anywhere in the house, wirelessly. It is our only printer (aside from the Dymo); we do not own an ink-jet or color printer of any kind.

I use iChatAV for daily work-related chat with two coworkers: one in Boston and one in Denmark who run the AlphaSmart Community Center with me.

I use OS X’s included Address Book as well as the iCal calendar program.

I use iTunes (a digital music-related program) not only to digitize CDs but to digitize radio programs like NPR’s This American Life and Fresh Air which I can then listen to on my iPod. I also buy single songs from Apple’s new online music store saving me from buying whole albums.

I have a new, 15 gigabyte iPod that I use to listen to music as well as to hold my address book and calendar. iSync synchronizes the iPod with my computer simply (much simpler than a Palm PDA syncs with a computer I might add). I also have my entire joke collection on my iPod (over 1000 jokes) because my memory is failing.

I use an electronic outliner called Omni Outliner which I could have used to write this article. I keep a single file called “Organizer” that holds detail that I don’t keep in iCal: detailed travel information for trips, serial numbers, passwords, magazine subscriptions, orders and invoices, notes, and more. This categorized list is at the center of my organizational life.

I have a Canon G3 digital camera and I use iPhoto to catalog and crop images. I use Apple’s (actually Kodak’s) online printing facility to make prints which are delivered two days after I buy them.

I use a Panasonic RRQR 100 digital voice recorder for notes on the road, for quick and dirty recordings of drumming practices, and for any recording I don’t plan to keep.

I use a Sony BM 575 micro-cassette recorder for all other voice and some music lesson recording. I had a mini disc recorder but while the digital technology made for excellent recordings, the small size and complexity of the tool made it hard to use.

We have a Franklin Bookman Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary reference tool on our coffee table in the living room. Sherlock’s dictionary has supplanted it but we still use it from time to time. My wife uses a talking Franklin reference product with her students at school.

I use an AlphaSmart 3000 keyboard to write at the beach on the lake down the road and in my kayak. I would never take this computer out in the kayak and with an AlphaSmart around there’s no need. We take the AlphaSmart on car trips and I carry it on planes and use it much more than this computer on almost all flights. When I’m lucky enough to upgrade to business or first class and the plane is new and has a power source in the seat I have the special power cord necessary to use it and use this computer more.

Being dysgraphic, I’m very particular about the pens I use. I like the Sanford Unable Gel Impact RT as well as the Pentel Energel. Both are smooth and a ton of ink comes out, perfect for masking my unsteady handwriting. I’d write all the time with a Sanford Sharpie but alas, it’s a marker, not a pen and it (literally) stinks.

I have a number of rolls of Lee Products’ Highlighter tape which I prefer to Crayola erasable highlighters and I still have and use a variety of colors of Avery Hi-Liters (just not on anything important or where the consequences of a mistake are harsh).

I’m left-handed and I have and use Fiskars Softouch scissors instead of traditional left handed scissors. I like the way they solve the handedness problem better: more inclusive, less exclusive.

I rarely shut my computer down, preferring instead simply to close it putting it to sleep. In the morning, after feeding the cat and making coffee for my wife and me, when I open it, email pours in (spam too although it’s routed to the trash) and sometimes my partner in Denmark (who has been working for 7 hours already) pops up opening a chat that we usually leave open all day.

I scan the headlines in Google News and look at the front page of Salon (of which I am a “premium” subscriber), see what’s up in the AlphaSmart Community Center as well as the Discussion area and the Warren, Connecticut Community area (my town).

By this time I’m finished with my one, large tumbler of coffee (Starbucks mail order which I buy from the web and they’ve just discontinued, rats!), my wife has left for school and the shower is free, my chat partner in Denmark is making dinner so I hop in the shower.

No, I do not bring any of this equipment into the shower with me, nor did I buy a Sharper Image CD player for the shower. One does need time to think, sans-tools, and hot water alone does the trick.

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