Tools for People With Writing Problems


© 1982 Richard Wanderman

I had a hard time with writing. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing it because it was such an unpleasant activity for me. Of course, it’s no wonder that I had a hard time with it, I didn’t write enough to get comfortable with it. My handwriting is so poor I can hardly read it, and my spelling used to be so far off that people who read my writing didn’t know what I was talking about, if they could read my handwriting.

I’m thirty years old (as I write this in 1982) and I have a language disability. As many other people like me know, these language problems undermine our ability to express ourselves in writing and by doing that, undermine our sense of confidence. Exposing these problems – which seem childlike – to other people can be incredibly humiliating.

Appropriate tools can help us compensate for these problems. Personal computers are the most powerful of these tools for people with language disabilities. Writing with a computer changes the writing process radically, making it much more accessible and enjoyable for people like me.

The Problem
I read a line and as I get to the end of it I start to lose the beginning. I go back and re-read the beginning and lose the end. This is assuming that what I’m seeing is what’s on the page. I may be transposing letters within words, changing their meaning or transposing words within sentences, changing their meaning. It can be a real mess.

I type a first draft on a typewriter, then go back and proofread it marking the mistakes. I type a second draft to correct the mistakes. Not only are there new typographical mistakes that anyone might make, but there are words misspelled that I spelled correctly in the first draft. When my writing problem is combined with my reading problem, I wonder how I can function at all in this language-oriented world.

Appropriate Tools
If a person can’t write, what difference does it make whether they use a pencil or a computer? It makes a big difference because writing isn’t only the physical act of putting marks on paper (with pencil or computer printer), it’s an act of thinking and composing. Writing is also about the interaction between the brain of the writer and the particular capabilities or limitations of the writing tool.

We have to learn to separate capabilities or limitations of tools from people’s abilities or disabilities. Let me explain. I had a hard time learning how to read clocks and tell time. It was humiliating not to be able to give the right time when asked and to rely on others to tell me the time. Had digital clocks and watches been available, I might have been able to avoid the humiliation without necessarily understanding how an analog clock is read, and what it represents. Digital clocks might have prevented the emotional scars that made telling time hard to learn and unpleasant for me. Yes, understanding the analog was important, but not as important as my emotional health and my growing (and fragile) image of myself as a learner. If I needed crutches, so be it. The object was to be able to use time as a means of getting along in the world. As it was, I eventually learned to tell time, pre-digital watch. But the deeper understanding of the analog came much later when I was ready for it.

The Learning Has to be Hard Fallacy
Had digital clocks been available when I was growing up, their remedial use might have been questioned as an easy way around the problem, a crutch. Is there an underlying cultural assumption that learning has to be hard and unpleasant to be effective: no pain no gain? If there is a connection between the brain and muscle, it falls apart in the case of the person with a language disability. Repetition and hard work doesn’t consistently make learning happen. There are other factors in play here. I was confused. I worked hard yet couldn’t tell time. I had no way of differentiating between my disability-caused difficulty and the possibility that I wasn’t working hard enough. I felt stupid. I couldn’t separate the problems in my head from the limitations and appropriateness of the tools (analog clocks) I was using. There was too much negative feedback associated with learning to tell time to keep me actively engaged in it.

A New Writing Process
Typewriters helped me read my own writing and allowed me to share it with others for the first time without quite the humiliation that I felt when I shared my handwritten writing. Writing with a computer goes further. A computer-aided writing process separates composition from printing. I can edit freely without committing anything to paper. I can move words around, change the order of sentences, insert new ideas, check spelling and proofread to my heart’s content, before anything is printed on paper. I can work and re-work a single page of writing for days, yet the finished printed piece has no white-out on it, and I’ve only produced one draft.

All of this allows me, the writer, to concentrate on what’s really important: what I am trying to say. And now that I’ve been writing for a while, I am beginning to believe that I have important things to say and that people find my writing easy to read. I now have an image of myself as a writer. This is why computers are so important to me.

Being a Dyslexic Adult
I can remember being measured and typecast by my relative ability to use language. It was frustrating, upsetting, and humiliating because I knew that there was intelligence inside; I just couldn’t share it in a way that other people understood and accepted. There is an assumption that the sophistication of one’s written language is a window on one’s intelligence, and that people, especially adults, who have problems expressing themselves in writing are lacking in their ability to think. Before I got a computer, I struggled with writing to convince people of the fallacy of this idea, but I ran into a brick wall – my writing wasn’t clear enough to be convincing, and no one could read it anyway. Finally being able to write about my disability has been an incredibly significant event in my life. Now I can attempt to explain what I was struggling with for so many years. Yes, just like the blind person who gets vision, I now have a voice, a means of expression that I lacked when I was growing up.

Many people know me as “the computer teacher.” I’m not a “computer teacher” like other computer teachers. I’ve never taken a computer course in my life. Never. My interest in computers comes from their significance in my life. Yes, I get enjoyment out of controlling machines and things technical, but that’s not what got me started. And that’s not what keeps me going. What keeps me going is what I’m doing now, writing – something I cannot do without a computer.

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