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Dysgraphia is a neuromotor impairment and much more than “sloppy handwriting.” When kids have an actual dysgraphia diagnosis — or have dysgraphia related to another disability such as a physical impairment, autism spectrum disorder, AD/HD, or a learning disability — it will, almost always, be impossible for them to tell us everything they know using only their handwriting. This is true no matter what handwriting therapies are tried or how much occupational therapy or vision therapy they have.
Every public school student in the U.S. has a right by law to a free appropriate public education, often referred to as FAPE. Dysgraphic students have a right to be able to tell us everything they know in written form, just like any other student, in order to access their FAPE — with “appropriate” being the key word. Dysgraphic kids cannot do this without the use of appropriate technological tools for writing. With the help of occupational therapy, these students can sometimes improve their handwriting for letter and number formation in isolation and for very short written answers or assignments. However, as written demands increase each year, it’s very common for these students to write the minimum just to get by. Their handwriting ability falls apart when they are asked to write class and homework assignments. This is especially true of twice-exceptional students, who have so much to say and no way to communicate it adequately in writing.
As a general rule, if a twice-exceptional student is still struggling with handwriting by mid-third grade, it’s time to de-emphasize handwriting skills and teach an effective way of keyboarding and how to use technology to complete written work. Some students need to learn to use technology as early as first grade if their handwriting is extremely illegible and labored. For young students, work on improving handwriting skills can continue, but they should be using technology for the majority of their written work so that precious academic time is not lost.
Many schools try to help dysgraphic students by using “low-tech” ideas such as reducing assignments, allowing oral answers, emphasizing quality versus quantity, allowing extra time for assignments, and having a student or adult write (scribe) for them. While all of these ideas are good short-term solutions, they should only be considered as “bridges” to appropriate technological solutions. They do little to foster a twice-exceptional dysgraphic student’s independence over the long term — which should almost always be the ultimate goal.
It is extremely important to monitor the length of time that low-tech ideas are tried and the amount of help they provide. A child who has no or limited success with these measures is at high risk for emotional problems and stress-related illnesses that stem from the child’s inability to communicate effectively through writing. The risk to these students cannot be overestimated. Some can become clinically depressed as early as elementary school and may even consider suicide due to their inappropriately addressed dysgraphia.
While dysgraphic twice-exceptional kids should not totally abandon their handwriting skills in most cases, they should only use their handwriting when it is legible, timely, and non–stressful for them to do so. The reality is that dysgraphia is not curable — but it can be easily compensated for. Students can learn to complete all but a tiny portion of written schoolwork with the help of technological tools. This can be accomplished through either special education and an IEP (Individual Education Program) or general education and a Section 504 Plan. [For information on the difference between these two types of plans, see “Special Education Process: IEP vs. 504 Plan,” in the January, 2009, issue of 2e Newsletter.]
You will know that it’s time to replace low-tech strategies with a “high-tech” approach when you see one or more of these warning signs.
When a dysgraphic student is going to begin using “high-tech” equipment — electronic hardware and software — the first thing to consider is whether the student can type. If not, an appropriate method of keyboarding should be taught. Some students benefit from learning adapted keyboarding skills which reduce the number of fingers needed to type and allow kids to look at the keyboard when typing. Even very young children can learn to type over 50 words per minute using this method! Adapted keyboarding can be easily learned by most students in eight weeks or less. Even high school students can use this method for completing all of their written schoolwork in a timely manner.
After a student learns to keyboard, formatting of assignments comes next. Teach age-appropriate formatting such as how to create a heading, how to center a title, and how to do paragraphed and numbered assignments.
Next, consider whether the student needs any special software. Many dysgraphic students need to use special software to complete legible math and science equations, scan class worksheets, help with severe spelling issues that are often related to dysgraphia, complete mapping assignments, fill out student planners, and organize compositions on the computer. A student who has need of special software will require a computer to run the programs. A student who does not can use a word processing keyboard to complete assignments. (An example of this type of keyboard is an AlphaSmart.) [To learn more about these types of devices, see “Handheld Technology in the Classroom: Respecting and Meeting the Needs of All Writers,” in the March, 2006, issue of 2e Newsletter.]
Students who use technology need to have a “work station” in the classroom where they can print and, if needed, scan their completed work. If they cannot print and scan their own work, an adult should be designated to do this for them. The work station is a table that can accommodate a laptop and printer/scanner. For younger children, this is usually located in the classroom where they spend the majority of the day. For older children, a convenient location for the work station should be decided upon by school staff.
It is extremely important that technological tools for completing written schoolwork are implemented correctly for both the student and the school staff. Before a student starts using special needs equipment and software in the classroom, an assistive technology implementation meeting should take place with school staff so that they know what the student is using and why, how it will be used, and who will monitor the use of this technology on a on-going basis with the student and staff. Answering these questions ahead of time really helps smooth the transition from traditional to technology-based methods for completing written schoolwork.
In our work with 2e dysgraphic students, we have hundreds of success stories that demonstrate how the use of appropriate technology for completing written schoolwork can truly “level the playing field” in the classroom for these bright kids. Here are a few examples of our 2e students who found success through the use of technology for completing their written schoolwork.
Alex has severe dysgraphia related to his Asperger Syndrome. When we began working with Alex in first grade, his handwriting was illegible. At that time, he had a full-time para-professional and had many ASD behaviors. Whenever he was asked to write any assignments, he would crawl under a table, scream, cry, and refuse to come out. We taught him an adapted method of keyboarding and how to complete scanned worksheets on a laptop. He also learned how to do all of his math assignments on the computer using special math software that allowed him to complete the same assignments his peers were doing. Throughout middle and high school Alex was an straight-A student, completing all of his work on a school-issued laptop with special software — even for advanced math and science. As the years progressed, his para-pro time was reduced until he eventually was a totally independent high school student. Alex is now attending a small private college, lives in the dorm, and just traveled to Hawaii with a group of students.
Austin has spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive neuromuscular disease, and is twice-exceptional. He is now a senior in high school, has very limited movement, and is in a motorized wheelchair. He was taught an adapted method of keyboarding in early elementary school and has used a laptop computer and special software throughout school to complete almost all of his written schoolwork. Despite his serious disability, Austin has always completed the same amount of work as his peers. He has been an all-A student throughout his school career and is one of the highest achieving students in his high school. Just before his graduation this year, Austin will be attending a special out-of-state leadership academy.
Christopher has dysgraphia with no other disability. His handwriting is absolutely illegible. He moved to our area in 10th grade, and we taught him to complete all his written schoolwork using a laptop computer. He is exceptionally brilliant in the areas of math and science and, with the help of special software, was able to complete all of his math and science equations in high school on his laptop. Christopher is now a 4.0 biochemistry major at Michigan State University and continues to use special software for all of his written schoolwork.
Teagan is a first-grade student that we just started working with this year. Due to a head injury from a fall when he was two years old, Teagan’s handwriting is totally illegible. An excellent student, Teagan achieved the highest reading score of any of his peers at school. He learned an adapted method of keyboarding and how to scan and complete all of his worksheets on a laptop computer. In addition, he is completing all of his math assignments on the computer using special math software. Teagan has gone from a student who could complete no written schoolwork to a student who can complete all the same assignments as his peers. He often finishes his work before they do! Using technology to complete his schoolwork has truly changed Teagan’s life.
While the seriousness of dysgraphia for 2e students cannot be overestimated, the good news is that these students, through the use of appropriate technological tools, can learn to complete finished written products as similar to those of their peers as possible. Not only can technology increase their academic independence, but their self-esteem as well!
Sue Ramin-Hutchison and Merri Domer have created Handwriting Problem Solutions, a resource guide for parents. This approximately 85-page booklet is a compilation of information the authors describe as “a ‘One-Stop Shopping Resource’ to assist you through the process of obtaining help for kids with handwriting disabilities in order to ultimately increase their academic success, independence, and self-esteem.” They refer to the resources included in the guide as “’test-driven’ solutions we use with our students every day.” The guide was last revised in 2010, but the authors provide more current updates in printed and electronic form.
The guide is divided into 13 sections that address these aspects of children with written output disorders:
Ordering information is available on the Handwriting Problem Solutions website.
Sue Ramin-Hutchison is a certified special education teacher consultant for physically impaired students. Merri Domer is a special needs technology consultant. They are currently consulting and teaching in multiple Michigan school districts. They specialize in assistive technology assessment and classroom implementation of “low-” and “high-tech” equipment and software to help kids from K-12 with dysgraphia learn how to complete finished written products as similar to those of their peers as possible. The students they work with have dysgraphia related to physical impairments, autism spectrum disorders, AD/HD, and learning disabilities. Ramin-Hutchison and Domer have developed a website, www.handwriting–solutions.com, to bring their expertise to parents and professionals who may have need of it — no matter where they are located. They may be reached at email@example.com for more information.