Challenges for Writers with Disabilities

Stephanie White,
Writing Across the Curriculum,
Ohio State University Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator’s Office

Many students experience difficulties with college writing. For some students with disabilities, however, there may be even greater obstacles to college writing because of the nature of their disability. For example, writing challenges for students with learning disabilities may be rooted in processing deficits. These students may have significant difficulty in organizing and
arranging text effectively. They may know the rules of grammar, but may not be able to regularly apply them. Or they may be intimidated by writing and therefore try to avoid it. As another example, students who are deaf may use American
Sign Language (ASL) as their primary language, but because ASL is a visually-produced language, aspects of written language by students who are deaf may include errors in terms of word order, spelling, and word choice.

Below are some best practices for helping with these challenging writing situations.

In-Class Writing

Challenges may include lack of technology and time, environmental distractions, and possible disclosure of disabilities.

Best Practices:

In-class writing activities help maximize the critical, analytical, and self-discovery capacities that writing often brings to learning. They also offer flexible, frequent, and typically less threatening ways for students to respond to and engage various elements of a class, aiding students’ abilities to learn as they go. Bearing these possibilities, uses, and challenges in mind, the best in-class writing assignments:

  • Are those that students have learned how to best respond to via instruction in the classroom where they are being used (thus, the instructor first teaches students how best to read, interpret, respond to the kind of in-class writing being used)
  • Are also then first practiced and modeled before they are counted for grades in any way
  • Require a minimum of preparatory analysis on the part of the student either before class or during the writing activity itself
  • Are devised with alternative approaches in mind—offering other ways that an activity might be completed—in the event that a student encounters significant challenge(s) in completing an assignment as originally assigned
  • Are designed more for student-centered knowledge and self-discovery purposes rather than for instructor-oriented evaluation purposes
  • Do not carry a great deal of the course grade weight, especially in a single instance
  • Engage students in collaborative and peer interactions over the course material

Notebook or Journal Writing Activities

Challenges may include a lack of structure and boundaries, too much structure or boundaries, lack of personal connection, or too much demand for personal disclosure.

Best Practices:

These kinds of writing activities give students the time to compose their texts and the opportunity to engage more in a process of writing. Reading logs that are combined with focused response questions help students learn how to read, analyze, and respond to class readings at their own pace and can equip students with valuable contributions to in-class discussions. Double-column journals and writing process logs are particularly useful to all students because they give them an opportunity to articulate and criticize their own decision-making process in writing and to thereby develop their repertoire of writing skills. In order to maximize the potential of notebook/journal writing for all students, instructors should:

  • Consider, as the course is being constructed, how to routinize the student writing and instructor/peer responding.
  • Give prior thought to the kinds of journal writing to be engaged in relation to the frequency of this writing; the frequency and depth of instructor or peer response to it; the level of formality/informality for this kind of writing; the length and depth of responses; the degree of structured or open-ended prompts for such writing.
  • Imagine ways that the journal writing can be used in conjunction and conversation with other kinds of classrooms activities. For example, could the student be asked to compose an in-class essay based on a particular journal entry or might students begin a class period by sharing in small groups a journal response—verbatim or summarized—to a specific issue or reading?
  • Be prepared to offer some flexibility and options for students who have difficulty with the parameters of this kind of writing in any one designated dimension (such as the frequency of the responses, the public use of journal responses in the classroom, the instructor’s method of responding to them, the level of structure in the prompts for such writing, the level of complexity of the prompt).
  • Engage students in collaborative and peer interactions over the course material at the same time as they allow students options to respond individually and privately to such materials.

Shorter Writing Assignments

Challenges may include vague requirements; difficulty synthesizing large amounts of information into a short assignment; anxiety over personal disclosure; disproportionate time-on-task necessary compared to the weight of the assignment; or confusion about how an assignment relates to the overall course goals.

Best Practices:

In general, students must first be taught how to best complete these assignments; successful models should already exist and some time should be spent in class on how to understand and best carry out the assignment. In addition:

  • Shorter writing assignments especially need to grow out of, be grounded in, connect back to, and help support the overall instructional goals of the course—their power should be connected to their purpose in facilitating the student’s learning.
  • These activities should provide thoughtful engagement from the student but not necessarily entail undue time or anxiety in completing them.
  • The instructor should try out his/her own assignments given to the students; often a student’s potential interest in completing such writing, his/her process of completing it successfully, and his/her ability to do the assignment satisfactorily (as assessed by both self and another “evaluator”) can be imagined best with such instructor modeling.
  • Engaging students in collaborative and peer interactions over the process and product of these assignments helps students learn further from each other and encourages student responsibility to the assignment and its overall purpose in the course goals.

Sustained Writing: Research Papers, Critical Writing, Creative Writing

In general, these are all sustained kinds of writing that require multiple skills in order to be completed well; this kind of writing

calls on a complex repertoire of abilities. Specific challenges may include the need for careful planning; the need for specific instruction; lack of access to necessary materials in libraries or online, because of either physical or cognitive barriers; difficulty determining what is relevant to research and writing; difficulty managing time; difficulty maximizing strengths and using these strengths to their maximum potential.

Best Practices:

These assignments give students an opportunity to call on respective university support networks and various bodies of texts and knowledge; such uses for writing may also provide a good method of learning and evaluating course materials. Strategies that will benefit all students with regard to successful research and critical writing include:

  • Providing opportunities to review their research and writing progress in peer group workshops or individual conferences with their instructor.
  • Offering small-group and individual guidance in the selection of appropriate research information and direction in the development of their thesis/argument/purpose for these kinds of writing.
  • Encouraging multimodal approaches to the research process—in topic development, organization, source collection, etc.—that involve alternatives to reading- and writing-intensive activities such as spatial, kinesthetic, or tactile approaches to the subject.
  • Giving students chances to examine good models of subcomponents of the writing task as well as of the whole.
  • Engaging students in class discussions about time-on-task and knowing the extent of the subject to be covered.
  • Helping students construct audiences and purposes for these larger kinds of writing activities.
  • Offering in-class opportunities for, and discussions about, pre-writing, arrangement, and organization techniques in writing.
  • Devoting class time to revising and editing strategies for completing a final written product.