dyslexia

Rooster Rock, Julia King, and a climbing trip that changed my life

Preface

I recently scanned over 400 slides. I shot most of them on movie reversal film I bulk rolled to save money. The upside was I saved money. The downside was and is, they’re not in great shape compared with the (few) Kodachrome slides I shot. I recently had them all scanned with ScanCafe and while my slides were a mess (very dirty) the service did a good job on them.

This is the first of many posts telling some of the stories the slides illustrate. What I’ve learned in looking at these scans is that in order to tell a story you don’t need a perfect image, just a good enough image to illustrate the story. Of course, it’s only in retrospect that a story can be built out of images like these. Interesting to think about going forward.

Backstory

In the late 1970’s I got deeply into rock climbing. I started small and local in Eugene, Oregon and eventually did quite a bit of climbing all over the Northwest and in Yosemite Valley, California. Those were great years and I’ll be posting lots of images from many of the climbs I did back then. I shot most of them with one of two Olympus XA cameras I had back then (a fixed prime lens clamshell compact rangefinder camera).

I taught climbing classes for the Eugene, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and did a bit of private guiding on routes too remote or difficult for classes. In 1981 I dropped out of the climbing scene and pretty much everything else for a while to try to get to the bottom of a problem I’d had my entire life: dyslexia. In those days I wasn’t much of a multi-tasker: I found it difficult to do the work I was doing researching my reading and writing problems and at the same time carry on the rest of my life, so, I stopped everything until I got a handle on the reading and writing problems.

Richard and Olympia typewriter

Richard writing on his Olympia manual typewriter.

One of my most significant early tools was an Olympia manual typewriter. It solved my handwriting problems completely and for the first time in my life I could read my own writing. And, it allowed me to write without pain in my hands from bearing down too hard. But, the typewriter was just the beginning.

Julia King

When I came up for air in 1982 I decided to put an ad up at the local climbing spot that I was guiding again. I needed money and for me, this was a way to make some.

Richard's climbing instruction flyer

Richard’s climbing instruction flier.

Not long after I put up the ad I got a call from a women named Julia King. She had been on a mountaineering expedition on Mt. Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades and had watched as her then boyfriend slid down a snowfield to his death. That had shaken her up so badly that she got out of climbing. She wanted back in and wanted a gentle instructor to take her up a climb to break the ice.

We made a plan to drive up to a climbing spot called The Menagerie which is a collection of odd shaped rock formations in the western foothills of the Oregon, Cascades. The formations have names like Rooster Rock, Chicken Rock, and Hen Rock. The most well known climb there that I’d done numerous times was on Rooster Rock and that’s what Julia and I planned to start off with to see how she did.

Rooster Rock

Rooster Rock

We drove up to The Menagerie and hiked in to Rooster Rock. To be honest, even though I made this trip many times I have no memory of the various logging roads, trails, or route finding to get to this place. But, in those days I knew it all well. I carried a rucksack with a small rack of gear and we probably only brought a single rope as the rappel off of Rooster rock is short on the uphill side.

I have no particular memory of this but it’s a long enough drive so after picking Julia up, we had a few hours in my VW bus to get to know one another. Knowing what I know about her now, my guess is the conversation was wide ranging. Even though I’ve not seen Julia in 25 or more years, she remains one of the most interesting and brilliant people I’ve ever known (my wife has met her and agrees), but, I didn’t know any of this then, just that we were off for a climbing adventure and I was hoping to make it as much fun and as easy as possible for her.

Julia King under Rooster Rock

Julia King sorting slings and flaking rope under Rooster Rock.

The climb was uneventful as I remember it thirty two years later. Julia had climbing experience and knew about rope handling and belaying. Still, she was nervous and that meant I did a lot of talking to reassure her that I was well aware of her and taking good care of us while I led and she followed.

This climb was probably two pitches with a belay on a ledge between them although there are many routes on Rooster Rock and I don’t really remember which one we did. No doubt an easy one.

My foot and Julia King on Rooster Rock

Looking down at Julia belaying while I led the first pitch.

Julia King belaying on Rooster Rock

Julia setting up the belay for the second pitch.

At the top we sat on a ledge and had some food and water and talked both about her experiences climbing in Oregon and trekking in Nepal and my experiences of the past few years coming to terms with dyslexia.

Julia King on top of Rooster Rock

Julia on top of Rooster Rock.

The connection

In our discussion Julia mentioned that she thought that given the types of problems I was having with writing, writing with a computer would solve some problems for me. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about the effects of editing text electronically, but Julia explained what she thought would make it work for me in a way that was both clear and convincing. She said that her then boyfriend Greg Estes had an IBM PC and I should stop by their house when we got back to Eugene to try writing with it.

I don’t remember talking much more about this on our walk out and drive home. Climbing is an exciting thing to do and the purpose of our trip was to get Julia over her fear and it seemed like we’d done that. She was extremely happy which made me happy. And, I was happy that after a period of time away from climbing I could still climb well and safely lead someone up up a moderate climb. Most importantly, I’d met an amazing person who would remain my close friend for many years to come.

programmer's journal

I can’t remember if I went to their house and tried Greg’s computer that very day or a day later but it was very soon after we returned to Eugene. Greg Estes was a DBase programmer who wrote and published a magazine called Programmer’s Journal which Julia helped edit and lay out. They’d both trekked extensively in Nepal where they met and they were both my kind of people: informal, well informed, easy going, and worldly.

After meeting Greg, he booted up his IBM PC (no hard disk or PC AT yet) and put in a disk with a simple writing program on it. He typed in the command to launch the program and backed away from the computer, leaving a green screen with a flashing cursor and a keyboard.

He told me to sit down and type something out on the keyboard. At this point you should know that even though I could tell right away that there was little chance of humiliating myself in front of these people, I was petrified, not of the computer, but of exposing anyone else to my spelling and writing. Even though I’d spent the previous two years hunting and pecking on a typewriter and my writing had improved tremendously during that time, it was still crude and I was still sensitive about it.

I wish I could remember the first sentence I wrote but it might have been something like, “hello my name is Richard.” Whatever it was I made a few mistakes which was good as it gave Greg something to teach me with. He told me to use the arrow keys to back the cursor up (the term cursor was new to me at that point) and put it just after the problem I wanted to fix, then use the backspace key to delete the problem letter and type the correct letter, fixing the problem.

Anyone reading this in 2014 takes all of this for granted and has for decades, but back then only a small number of people had experienced electronic editing and they tended to be of the nerdy persuasion. Greg talked me through a bit more writing and editing doing a few different things, then he sat down and demonstrated some other things which blew my mind.

We’re talking rudimentary word processing here, nothing fancy. But in those days just a “block move” (cutting and pasting) was a big deal.

Then he and Julia walked out of the room to fix dinner leaving me with the computer and writing software. I continued to experiment and pretty soon formed a thought that has stuck with me to this day:

Writing with a pen or a typewriter is very much like sculpting stone, the consequences of making a mistake involve a complete rewrite. Writing with a computer is very much like working with clay because writing/editing and printing are separate pieces of the process, the consequences of making a mistake are eliminated because the writing remains plastic and editable at all times.

Note: I have both a BFA and an MFA in ceramics and while I was pretty much done with ceramics at that point, working with clay remained and remains an important piece of my life.

I would later go on to write numerous articles about “mistake tolerant tools and processes” comparing older analog tools with their newer digital counterparts. I had a gut feeling about this that very first day but it was unformed, just excitement and wonder.

We had dinner, talked more about it and about lots of other stuff and Greg offered to help me if I decided to get a computer. It was an incredible evening.

In the next few days I went to my local bookstore and did some research and poured through The Whole Earth Catalog which was just beginning to mention computers and got a copy of Peter McWilliams’ The Word Processing Book. In the end, I decided to get an IBM PC, MS DOS and WordStar mostly because I had Greg as a local resource and I really liked him.

Richard and IBM PC

Richard writing with his IBM PC, image by Gary Sharp

Writing with my computer

Once I got set up using my new computer one of the first things I did was a lot of enthusiastic writing on what it was like to write with a computer.

whole earth software reviewsoftalk for IBM PC

I did a piece for The Whole Earth Software Review, Issue #1, Spring, 1984: Word Processing Computers as Remedial Writing Tools. I also did a piece for the June, 1984 issue of Softalk for the IBM PC Personal Computer: Bridge to Clarity, the computer as a compensatory writing tool. And I did various software review pieces for Greg and Julia’s magazine, Programmer’s Journal reviewing various writing and editing software for the IBM PC.

I did a lot of other writing as well, some of which was published in both tech and learning related magazines I’ve long since forgotten.

Here are two later pieces that were posted online describing that early process:

Tools for People With Writing Problems

How computers change the writing process for People with Learning Disabilities

Greg was a member of the Eugene IBM PC user’s group (he may have started it) and I joined up for a while as well.

During this time a woman named Norma Fuller who lived near Anchorage, Alaska read one of my pieces and called me up to see about bringing me up to Alaska to do a series of workshops for a group of dyslexic adults there. I taught there numerous times and made a great connection with her and others in Alaska (that will be another post with more scanned slides).

During the first few years I got involved with computers I was not only writing about my experience as a dyslexic writing with a computer, I was also trying out lots of writing and spelling/grammar support software which was pretty crude in those days compared with what it’s like now. During one of my trips to a computer store in Eugene, I got to play around with Apple’s new Lisa computer. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it but it was definitely interesting. At $10,000 it was far out of my reach but it did get me thinking about another way of using these new tools.

IBM PC to Macintosh

In mid-1984, Greg and I decided to go down to San Francisco to attend the West Coast Computer Faire. Greg was trying to drum up new subscribers to Programmer’s Journal and I was always up for a trip to San Francisco and I’d never been to a computer trade show which were relatively new.

I don’t remember much about the trade show except that at some point I lost Greg and stumbled into Apple Computer, Inc’s booth which consisted of a fifteen foot 128K Macintosh with a projector in it such that a person operating a real Macintosh on a podium off to the side could demonstrate on it. The Macintosh had recently been introduced so it was new but the booth, amazingly, wasn’t all that crowded.

The person running the demo was Andy Hertzfeld and much of the first Macintosh team was hanging out in the booth, including Steve Jobs who I recognized immediately.

I watched the demo for a bit, then I walked up to Jobs and told him I was planning another trip to Alaska to work with adults with learning disabilities, I was taking twenty Compaq computers and I thought it would be great to have a Macintosh along so that we could see what LD adults could do with its mouse and graphical user interface.

Jobs loved the idea, called Mike Murray over (Murray was the first marketing manager for the Macintosh at Apple) and told him to send me a Macintosh immediately. Jobs gave me his card (with AppleLink email address) and told me to get back to him with whatever happened in Alaska.

I eventually found Greg and told him what had happened. In those days it was still possible to meet Steve Jobs in an Apple trade show booth and while it sounds amazing in retrospect, I did have small a sense of how important that encounter was. But, I had no sense of what was to come: my eventual migration from PC to Mac, starting the Eugene Macintosh User’s Group, presenting at numerous conferences for Apple on the Macintosh and LD in the next 6 months, moving to Connecticut to start the first Mac lab in the country for dyslexic high school students (with Apple’s backing), writing, editing, and publishing The Macintosh Lab Monitor with international circulation (also with Apple’s backing), meeting my wife at that school, continued consulting for Apple for the next twenty years, a few more meetings with Steve Jobs, many hundreds of workshops and presentations on the Macintosh in education all over the world, and much more.

Julia King, Richard Wanderman

Julia and Richard after the Rooster Rock climb.

Epilogue

Looking at these pictures of Julia and me on that climb brings back a flood of memories and what’s almost telescopic about it all is that the tool I’m writing this on and viewing the digital images on (a computer) is one that she helped lead me to and one that she and Greg were very early adopters of. They were both out in front of the digital revolution. I caught up fast but these two people were my introduction.

Julia also taught me how to make “sherpa tea” (she guided treks in Nepal before we met) and to this day I think of her when I make it. Of course, like many things, she was out in front of the wave: now chai is everywhere but back then…

Wherever you are Julia, thank you. You too Greg.

Small screens make reading easier for some

Personal discovery on dyslexia may aid many

Astrophysicist Matthew Schneps was waiting at a bus stop, scanning a scientific paper he had downloaded onto his smartphone, when it dawned on him: he was reading with ease.

That realization surprised Schneps, who has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading difficult. He had always felt comfortable in the lab, not the library.

While much of my personal research on how technology can make a difference for people with dyslexia was done before the invention of smartphones and iPod Touches, I learned then that reading was easier for me in narrow columns. The reason is that when the process of reading slows down (for a variety of reasons, including weak or slow automatic decoding as in dyslexia) staying on a line becomes more difficult because one isn’t so sure what to look for content-wise to stay on track (on the right line).

Narrowing the width of a column of text can make this easier. There are many ways to do this:

1. Increase typeface size on a larger screen

2. Put text in columns on a larger screen

3. Read the text on a smaller screen, adjusting typeface size to suit one’s eyeballs.

When you add attention problems to the mix I’m not so sure reading on a small screen makes things better because one’s peripheral vision can pick up distractors more easily making it harder to immerse in the text. This is one of the reasons I’m reluctant to get an iPad mini, even though I love the form factor and size, I do a lot of reading on my iPad and I don’t know how this would work for me. No doubt I’m going to try it but one of the things I’ll be looking for is how deeply I can immerse in text on it vs. the larger iPad screen or my Mac’s larger screen.

Well, let me restate that: I did a lot of reading on my iPad with the Reeder RSS aggregator app before the death of Google Reader but for the past week that’s changed because Reeder on the iPad is on hold and Mr. Reader, while a great app, doesn’t sync with a native (not a web app) Macintosh counterpart. So, I’m using NetNewsWire on the Mac and I have accounts with DIGG, Feedly, and Feedbin all of which I’m not happy with so I don’t use them much.

What (was) great about the Reeder app is that content ruled and the controls had just the right weight to stay out of my peripheral vision unless I needed them. Mr. Reader, while a beautiful app looks a bit like Tweetbot to me (also a beautiful app) but what they do is make the controls of equal weight visually and this doesn’t work for me. Reeder was the perfect mix of easy readability with controls there but in the background.

This is part of the reason I want a native app on the Mac and not a web app: I want to be able to make the screen and reading area smaller so I can scan narrower chunks of text. It looks to me like the new Macintosh OS: Mavericks is moving in that direction by offering things like maps in native application form rather than as web apps. This appeals to me, like “desk accessories” did in the old days.

Both of these ideas: smaller screens making reading easier and the bump in the RSS reader world are bumping into each other in interesting ways right now for me since I do most of my reading in my RSS feed reader.

[via Will Small]

Do Books in the House Make Smarter Kids?

Patrick James over at GOOD found an old post on Salon and commented on it: Do Books in the House Make Smarter Kids?

Here’s Laura Miller’s post at Salon: Book owners have smarter kids.

While I’m not sure I see how being exposed to books can make one smarter, exposure to books can certainly make one more literate, worldly, comfortable with print material and seemingly if not actually educated (different from smarter).

If you happen to be comfortable in bookstores or libraries — if you’ve been to them many times before and know what to expect, what you want and where to find it, or if you know whom and how to ask and feel entitled to bother the staff with your questions — it can be difficult to appreciate how intimidating these institutions of print culture can seem to someone who has little or no acquaintance with them.

This is very true and as someone with a reading disability I can tell you that the thought of walking into a library and not understanding the card catalog and having to ask for help kept me out of libraries. However, once card catalogs went electronic and I could use them on my own I started to use libraries more. I still had a hard time reading, but at least I could find what I then struggled to read.

I think there’s also a class issue built into this that is self-perpetuating: people with education have books, TV, computers, and lots of ways of dealing with information in the house for kids to use. People with less education might have fewer tools available relying more on TV than books.

At the end of his comment Patrick asks:

I wonder how electronic books and iPads would factor in to a future study like this. Does being surrounded, physically, by walls with shelves of books play any role in shaping a child’s perspective? Or is it simply the access to literature that’s important?

One needs both: the physical World Book to thumb through and an iPad with an electronic version along with wikipedia. It’s a matter of familiarity: if one is familiar with books, how they work and how to use them then they’re one more tool for finding things out and when the iPad doesn’t cough up what one wants one can go to the book shelf, or, the iBook shelf.

Dan Malloy, Connecticut Governor, Opens Up About Dyslexia Troubles

Dan Malloy, Connecticut Governor, Opens Up About Dyslexia Troubles

“I have to tell you, I’ll be right up front about it: I’m the governor of the state of Connecticut and I can’t write anything well,” Malloy told the rapt students. “This is who we are. I can’t write things. I’m embarrassed all the time about that, particularly if people don’t know that about me.”

I knew there was a reason I voted for him (other than that he’s a Democrat).

You go Dan!

Banks face action over dyslexia

Banks face action over dyslexia

“A man with severe dyslexia has launched a legal challenge against two High Street banks about the way they communicate with disabled customers.”

This case poses a fascinating question: At what point do those of us with dysexia have to take personal responsibility for our mistakes, whether caused by dysexia or not? I’m not saying that these banks provided the right kind of support for the plaintif, but if they did and he agreed that they did, and he still overdrew his account, would he be responsible?

Personally, I find writing checks and dealing with various accounts quite difficult but I use a credit card as much as possible, keep track of things in a spreadsheet, and do as many of my transactions electronically as I can. Still, yesterday I almost ordered 175 boxes of paper instead of 10 and it was only when I noticed that the shipping charge was huge that I realized I’d made the mistake. Had I gone through with the transaction and ordered the paper I could hardly fault the vendor, could I? I’m not sure I could fault my dyslexia either. Mistakes happen and those of us with dyslexia have to be careful to slowly check what we’re doing.

One person’s path to literacy

Note: this was first published for the now defunct web site: Half the Planet and has been online there or at ldresources since 2000.

I’m 52 years old, married, live in a nice house, have a successful career as an educational consultant, and I have a learning disability, dyslexia. My life was not always so great.

I was a premature breech birth, had meningitis, polio, and every childhood illness. I was tested for everything including language problems from an early age so I was labeled “dyslexic” early. I went to a special school until 6th grade where I had plenty of extra help and remediation. Still, I had to repeat 6th grade at that school. I suffered the rest of my school days in public schools where I did poorly.

When I went to college my life improved markedly because this is where I discovered art. The art world gave me a chance to express myself without words, so I took a lot of art courses. I got good at making things with clay and I learned my first important lesson about my language disability: I could be smart and articulate with clay and still have a language disability which made it hard to be smart and articulate with words.

My next big life lesson happened a few years later. I drove Volkswagens because they were the only cars I could afford. I knew little about cars and had never even changed the oil in one. One day the engine in my VW bus seized up and I didn’t have the money to have it fixed.

I bought the book How to Fix Your Volkswagen for the Complete Idiot. I started reading, slowly. I bought a few metric tools, pulled the engine, and dragged it into the backyard where I took it apart. Two weeks later when I got the engine into the car and it started I learned that when you feel good about yourself and are willing to take risks you can transfer confidence from one domain to another. I knew nothing about engines but took the confidence I’d gotten with art into a totally new domain.

My next domain was rock climbing. Hey, I don’t bungi jump; I’m not crazy. I got into climbing because it was a fun thing to do with friends. We all got into it at the same time and were all chicken from the start. However, we noticed that the more we did it the easier it was to take “exposure.”

So we did it more. And the more I did it the better I got. It wasn’t a talent thing, it was practice. After about five years of climbing I found myself in Yosemite Valley on a big wall. What had I learned? I’d learned that if you enjoy something and do it all the time you get better at it. Practice makes better.

Later I took that idea into a very scary place. I decided to see if I could actually learn how to read and write by practicing. I read and wrote every day for two years. This may seem obvious to you but it wasn’t to me; I had no idea that most people read things every day. I had avoided reading things as much as possible and avoided writing completely. Nevertheless, for two years I took my prior experiences and mapped them into learning how to read and write, and at the end of two years I’d learned a lot. Most importantly, I was literate.

Then came the dawn of personal computers. Once I used one, and then bought one, my writing and then my reading improved at a rapid clip.

Here’s the point: had I been given a computer as a child in school I doubt I’d have been mature enough to take full advantage of it and I doubt the school would have allowed me to use it in a way that would have been meaningful to me. I needed to go through the long, messy process that I went through with art, cars, climbing, and reading and writing to get to a place in my life where I knew I was smart enough to dive into an area that was totally unknown, hard, but interesting.

For me growing up was particularly painful and messy. My father used to tell me the bumps would build character and I would roll my eyes. Well, he was right. And even though I wouldn’t want to go through it all again I have plenty of character because of it all. And I can read and write.

Confusing Words

In 1990 my wife Anne came home from school and asked me if there was an easy way to collect the words that her students confused so that they might refer to their own lists on their own computers.

I put the question back to Anne: if you had such a list, what kinds of information about the confused words should be included, and how should the information look? I asked her to come up with some examples, the first few of which were effect and affect and there, their, and they’re.

We decided that we needed to show each set of confusables together so that an easy comparison could be made. We also thought that the list would include more confusables than just homonyms, words like aggravate and irritate, and good and well.

Each set of confusables would need:

– the two or more confused words

– definitions of each of the confused words

– multiple examples of usage in sentences of the confused words

Anne started collecting words, writing definitions, coming up with examples, and stored her collection in a text file until I could come up with another way.

My job was to think about how the information could be most accessible to writers using conventional word processing software like MS Word or AppleWorks (ClarisWorks back then).

A few things to consider in looking at the history of this project:

– We were (and still are) Macintosh users and the schools we were both working with were using Macs as well.

– I had little experience with databases, although FileMaker and others were out at the time.

– I had a lot of experience with HyperCard, the first user-friendly multimedia development tool, and even though its products only ran on the Macintosh, cross platform development wasn’t a concern since the audience we were building this for was mainly Mac users who could run HyperCard programs.

– There was no web at the time, and the idea of putting information like this online and having people use an online tool was unheard of except in the mainframe computer world.

So, I built a HyperCard “stack” that included:

– a field to hold the confused words

– a field to hold the definitions

– a field to hold examples of usage.

In time, Anne and I finished the stack and sold it as shareware for many years. It did well and thousands of people bought and hopefully used it. (Hopefully is correct if our users were hopeful about becoming less confused.)

Here’s a screen shot of an entry:

cw_screen3

Many things have changed in the computer world since Anne and I first started thinking about this:

– The Macintosh has been marginalized in schools

– The HyperCard project died at Apple

– We have mixed feelings about making and buying shrink-wrapped reference software because it’s out of date almost immediately

– The web has evolved into an important part of using a computer as a tool

– We know how to build web sites

So, we put Confusing Words on the web where it existed for many years. The code and site became out of date over time and we lost interest and so, we took it down and let the domain go. It was a great run and we learned a lot, both in building the HyperCard stack and in building the web site.

Questions and Answers About Technology and Dyslexia

© 1994-1995 Richard Wanderman

Author’s Note These pieces first appeared in the Fall, 1994 and Fall 1995 issues of Perspectives, published by the International Dyslexia Association.

Overview
I am a successful dyslexic adult and part of the reason for my success is the fact that I use computers and other tools to organize my life and express my ideas. I am extremely opinionated. My strong feelings come from personal experience and the experience of thousands of people who I have helped get started with computers. The fact that I recommend certain computers, software, and other tools does not mean that they are endorsed by The International Dyslexia Society.

Question
We are interested in investing in computer equipment for our ten year old dyslexic child. We are looking at a scanner to enlarge print, and also to be able to have the material read back to him. We are also trying to make a decision on what choices of computer hardware and software would be available. It would be both user friendly and have software to aid dyslexic skill building and/or for regular academic reinforcement. Where can I get information on these specific concerns?

The Computer
When you’re making a decision about what kind of personal computer to buy these days there are really two choices: DOS or Windows machines (IBMs or compatibles) or Macintoshes. People who use Windows will disagree with this, but, in my opinion and in the opinion of thousands of other dyslexic computer users, the Macintosh is the easiest, most consistent, best integrated, and most enjoyable machine to use. In my experience, more dyslexic people (kids and adults) use the Macintosh than any other kind of machine. With a Macintosh, the machine falls into the background faster than with a Windows-based machine. This is important because you don’t want to spend your time learning about the computer; you want to spend your time using the computer as a tool for exploring content or making your own content.

Once you decide between Windows and Macintosh then you have to decide between desktop machine and portable/notebook. For doing the things a ten year old is going to do with computers, a desktop machine will be better. In the Macintosh world all desktop machines are now color machines and many models can be bought with CD ROM drives built in (CD ROMs are a medium for distributing software, usually with lots of images and sound).

For a high school or college student I might recommend a portable computer (in the Macintosh world these are called PowerBooks) so that he might carry the computer to the library to avoid having to transcribe from a notebook into the computer.

Follow School?
Another variable for parents is the question of buying the kind of computer a child uses at school. My simple answer is, it doesn’t matter whether you have the same machine the school uses or not because you probably won’t be running the same kind of software the school uses anyway. And, the kinds of things your child or you will do with a computer at school will be different from the kinds of things he or you will do with it at home. Why be stuck with whatever the school has decided is best? The bottom line is that kids, even dyslexic kids, can adapt to various kinds of computers much more easily than adults (so stop projecting your uneasiness about computers onto your kids!).

Large Print
Any Macintosh computer that has ever been, and probably ever will be, can display text in a variety of typefaces, sizes, and styles. The size of type is only one of many variables that can effect readability. The typeface used is also an important consideration. Macintoshes come with many built-in typefaces and you can purchase hundreds more. Any Macintosh typeface can be displayed on screen and on paper in a wide range of sizes to make reading easier.

Possibly a more important consideration in readability is not the physical medium, but the quality of the writing itself; the quality of the author’s thinking and his or her ability to illustrate that thinking with words. That’s another story (and column).

Getting Text Into The Machine
Before a computer can read text aloud the text has to be in the machine. Either the user has to write the text or have written the text, or somebody else has to write the text, or have written the text.

Keyboarding
Even considering what will eventually happen with speech (see below), learning the keyboard is an important part of the writing process. It is not, however, an important part of using a computer, just the writing process. For this reason, there is little reason to learn to touch type until one wants to write faster. Yes, I know how to touch type and I’m glad I know. But, I learned only after being motivated by wanting to write faster, not because I was told that it was an essential ingredient for computer literacy, which it is not.

The positive part of keyboarding as many dyslexics already know is that it does not tap our weaknesses; it is purely the memory of kinesthetic sequences which have little to do with auditory or visual memory. For that reason and the fact that I can look at the screen while I type, learning to keyboard has improved my spelling and my writing as well.

In the end, my advice is to let the need to learn to keyboard invent itself and when it does, be ready with one of the many excellent electronic keyboarding programs.

Speech
There is another option and that is speech. The original question didn’t mention speech and I’m not going to go into it now except to say that there is technology available, both on the Macintosh and in the Windows world for doing speech-to-text (you talk into a microphone and the computer displays your speech as text). The Windows product is called Dragon Dictate and the Macintosh product is called Power Secretary. There are limitations to both products and they are both extremely expensive. But what was expensive in the past is inexpensive now so it’s important to track this technology because eventually it will compete with, if not replace, the standard keyboard.

Optical Character Recognition
One way to get text into a computer is to take a page of written text, say a textbook page, lay it on a scanner, and make a digital picture of the page in the computer. This is referred to as scanning. The problem with scanning alone is that the image the computer has is just a picture of text, it isn’t the real text that can be edited and read aloud. In order to turn the picture of text into text that can be read aloud, a special piece of software called optical character recognition software (OCR) must be used. This software looks at a scanned image of text and translates the image into text characters. Just to be clear, OCR software does the scanning too. All a user does is place a book on a scanner and run the software, it does the rest.

There are a number of ways of doing OCR. One way is with a hand-held scanner that the user drags over a page. Another way is with a flatbed scanner (looks like a photocopy machine) that the user places a book on face down.

Also note that many OCR packages have certain scanner and computer requirements. If you know that OCR is going to be an important use of your machine, make your shopping list accordingly.

A final note: I do not own OCR software, although I have a scanner which I use to scan artwork rather than text. I can read. I read slowly, but fast enough so that this technology would get in my way. I’m assuming that most dyslexics might have limited use for this kind of technology in the early parts of their reading careers, but after a while their reading will improve to the point that going through this process will seem more cumbersome than just sitting down and reading the material.

Electronic Books
There are also other options for getting text into your computer. Books that are out of copyright can be legally scanned or keyboarded into computers. This includes much of the literature that is studied in many high school curriculums. For instance, the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe are available on many online services for users to take, for free. And, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other electronic texts available, as well as electronic versions of Barron’s Book Notes and other study aids. Of course, once you have the electronic text on your machine, you can enlarge its type or have the machine read it to you.

Online Services
The easiest way to have access to this wealth of electronic information is to join a commercial online service. And, the easiest-to-use and cheapest online service is America Online (AOL). AOL is available on both Windows machines and Macintoshes and provides numerous resources for both kids and adults with dyslexia: electronic mail, a learning disabilities forum for questions, answers, talk with other people with learning problems, access to hundreds of electronic books and other useful software, and more.

A modem is required for access to any online services.

The Ability to Read Text Aloud
There are two ways of storing and retrieving audible text on a computer. You can read some text into a microphone and record it such that the computer will play it back like a tape recorder. This is called digitized sound. Just like an audio compact disc (CD), the content sounds very good. Most multi-media products that have fixed content use digitized sound.

The problem with digitized sound is that it is not interactive: it can’t read (play) what you type on the screen because that content wasn’t fixed ahead of time. Theoretically, I could digitize every word I might type, but what would happen when I made a spelling mistake? Would the computer read back the word spelled correctly? How could it?

To have text read aloud interactively: what you type is what you hear, a speech synthesizer is used. This technology is sometimes called “text-to-speech.” Text-to-speech technology is software that you install on your computer. The quality of the sound this technology makes is inferior to the quality of digitized sound, but the fact that it is completely interactive makes up for the drop in sound quality. With this technology you can have any text read back to you, text that you write or text that someone else has written.

You should note that for teaching basic vowel sounds to dyslexics with weak auditory discrimination, text-to-speech technology leave much to be desired, but you probably would use a program with digitized speech for this purpose anyway and leave the synthesized speech for use when kids are doing more writing and need more interaction.

Any current Macintosh computer is capable of doing text to speech synthesis and this capability is built into many products.

Question
How do computers change the writing process and what effect might this have on a dyslexic writer?

Answer
Using a computer and various pieces of software for writing makes the writing process easier, and so allows more writing to take place. Word processing software doesn’t necessarily teach people how to write; it simply allows more writing to take place (by making the process easier) and so, allows people to learn from their own writing experience. Here it is again: the way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing, and using a computer and software for writing can make the process of doing a lot of writing easier.

Why Write?
How do you get someone who hates writing to use a tool – even one as potentially interesting as a computer – to do something that is hard, unpleasant, or may have no personal meaning beyond getting through school? Just having access to a computer doesn’t automatically solve a writing problem; the computer has to be used regularly as a writing tool to produce a variety of writing.

One solution is to find a motivating force to get a person started with writing and keep them writing long enough to get hooked on the process. An external motivating force (an assignment or a reward) may work in the short term, but it’s not portable and may not work with every writing task a person has to do in life. What happens when the external motivation isn’t there? Better to learn how to produce an internal motivating force, for instance, sharing a piece of knowledge, an idea, an opinion, anger, or joy.

Separating the Tool from the Writing
It’s also important to help dyslexic writers keep certain ideas clear in their minds: the difference between their disability and their intelligence, and the difference between the tools they are using for writing and the content that they want to produce with those tools. The end goal is to use the tool to share the depth and complexity of one’s thinking in a form that others can understand, not to prove mastery of the tool.

With this in mind choose simple, easy-to-use writing software that will fall into the background quickly, letting the writer get to the writing without wading through layers of user interface that may confuse and undermine self-confidence.

How Computers Change the Writing Process
When you write with a pen and paper, the composition process (forming, organizing, and encoding ideas) and the printing process (getting ink on paper) are wed. Unless one has an incredible memory and can hold complex trains of thought in sequence long enough to get them written by hand, the pen and paper method isn’t very useful for anything more than short pieces of writing. When you fold dysgraphia into the mix, the pen and paper method isn’t very useful for anything more than writing checks. A typewriter solves the dysgraphia problem, but it does not solve the memory problem or the problem of needing to edit the writing later.

Computers change the writing process by holding all of the writing in memory (instead of on paper), freeing the memory of the person doing the writing, and because all of the writing is being stored electronically, it can be changed at any time with all sorts of electronic editing tools. Even the simplest computer printer will produce easier-to-read print than a dysgraphic person can produce by hand, making the print easier to proof-read, edit, and eventually share.

Electronic editing allows:

* Expanded vocabulary: The person doing the writing is freer to take chances with words that they use but don’t know how to spell because they can fix the spellings later
* De-emphasis of spelling: Dealing with spelling can be left until the content is set; then a spelling checker can be used
* Easy cut and paste organization: Easy reorganization frees a person from having to hold the entire organization of the piece of writing in their heads before starting to write
* Easier proofreading: Allows a person to finally get a sense of their own writing style and makes revision possible and bearable
* No more rewrites: Takes a huge weight off the dysgraphic person’s back.

Conversational Writing
I learned how to write by writing hundreds of letters. I was motivated by loneliness and anger. I had just moved to a new city and didn’t know many people and had left a lot of good friends behind, and I was in the process of coming out as a dyslexic adult. I had a lot to share and didn’t have close friends to talk things over with, so I turned to my manual typewriter. I started conversations through letters with many of my friends who then lived too far away to talk with regularly. It wasn’t an appropriate form for all of them, but a few of them kept up the conversation through correspondence. I was not a very experienced letter writer, but I tried to write the way I spoke. I thought about conversation, at times even speaking whole trains of ideas aloud before I typed them. I photocopied all of my letters and kept them though I didn’t know why at the time. What I started to see as I read through old letters was the complexity of my thinking. Seeing this hooked me, and I wrote more.

The lesson I learned here was simple: had you assigned me a paper on any one of the ideas I was writing about, I’d have been blocked, but in conversation, through correspondence, I was able to give form to the ideas.

What’s so special about conversational writing?

* The motivation of conversation with another person
* Shared language and ideas
* Informality (spelling and mechanics de-emphasized)
* Purpose
* Relatively fast feedback.

Conversational writing can take many forms: writing and sending letters through the mail; sharing a keyboard on a single computer and conversing through writing, writing and sending electronic mail or taking part in an online chat with a modem. The important part is the conversation – experiencing a less formal form of writing as a vehicle for sharing ideas.

To this day I spend a considerable amount of time on mail. Some of my best ideas germinate and develop in this kind of conversation. It’s also nice to stay in touch with people; they appreciate it and they usually write back.

List Making
Another simple but powerful technique to help a person get started with writing is list making. Rather than struggle with making complete sentences, punctuating them correctly, worrying about grammar and other technical language patterns, why not start by making a simple list of everything you know (or can remember at the moment) about the subject at hand?

For example, below I’ll list some of the things I know about rock climbing (I used to do quite a bit of rock climbing):

* Rock Climbing
* places
* equipment
* weather
* clothing
* Yosemite
* rope
* carabiner
* piton
* nut
* instruction
* falling
* yelling
* wind
* big walls
* El Capitan
* shoes
* signals
* ratings
* kind of rock
* technique
* schools

The object here is to list everything that comes to mind, in no particular order, without regard to spelling or even if its appropriate for this list. You can always prune and edit later. Many people have a hard time separating the editing process from the idea-generation process and as a result of this, they get in a bind each time a new item is added to the list. Computers allow easy editing later, so why worry? That kind of worry is a vestige of an old process, using pen and paper, where change was hard. Just making the list and exhausting the things you know about a particular subject is actually a self-contained exercise and stands alone nicely as a great way to build confidence. Many times before I write an article (like this one) I’ll make a list of all of the important points I can think of on the subject at hand, just to get them in writing before I struggle to make them make sense.

It can also be very impressive and confidence-building for a student who has never done much writing to see a long list of words and short phrases that represent his knowledge on a particular subject.

Logistically, this list generation can be something a student does on his own, with a teacher, with a partner, or something a teacher does with the whole class using a computer with a projection device so everyone can see and participate. The latter is a wonderful class activity and the teacher can act as talk-show host, asking questions to generate more items in the list. These questions are the kinds of questions a student needs to learn how to ask him or herself when writing independently.

Categorizing Lists
After a list is generated, but before any of the items in the list are eliminated, items should be categorized. This is where a specialized program like an electronic outliner comes in handy. Any word processor can facilitate list making, but moving the items of a list around by dragging (rather than cutting and pasting) requires an outlining program. With an outliner, one can literally grab an item and drag it next to another item until there are groups of like items close together.

If you’re using a color computer and a program like ClarisWorks, you can color-code the items in a list so that items of a particular category are all a single color. This makes it easier to visually group items by color matching.

Outliners also make it possible to take groups of like items in a list and make them sub-headings of another item. This kind of hierarchy building is the final step in categorizing a list. Once items have been grouped in a hierarchy the outline can be collapsed so that only the major category headings are showing; all the detail is hidden (temporarily). Being able to collapse and expand an outline is another technique that makes this kind of writing tool far superior to anything possible with pen and paper. Writers can work with one general idea at a time without the distractions of unrelated ideas showing on the screen or the need to scroll through many lines of text looking for things. What they are seeing is just the major categories with the detail hidden.

In the End
The way to learn how to write is to do a lot of writing, and using a computer and software for writing can make the process of doing a lot of writing easier. Correspondence and list-making are two techniques that have worked for me and are a natural for anyone who has access to a computer.

Tools for People With Writing Problems

richard_typewriter

© 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.

Image
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.

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 Dictionary.com 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.