Coaching Writers with Disabilities to Succeed

Stephanie White,
Writing Across the Curriculum,
McBurney Center for Disability Resources

For some writers with disabilities, these disabilities may be visible, such as a physical impairment. For others, these may be invisible, such as a learning disability. Either way, writers with disabilities may face unique challenges when it comes to writing assignments, and instructors may not always know the best ways to coach them. The National Council of Teachers of English emphasizes that it is vital to ensure full inclusion of students with disabilities, regardless of these challenges:

We acknowledge the right of full inclusion for all members of society. Full inclusion for people with disabilities means moving beyond narrow conceptions of disability as a flaw, deficit, or a trait to be accommodated.… Educators should ensure that alternatives for those with disabilities are built into physical and intellectual spaces, rather than “added on” in ways that segregate and stigmatize those with disabilities. Making writing classrooms and curricula inclusive and accessible to those with disabilities means employing flexible and diverse approaches to the teaching of reading and writing to ensure pedagogical as well as physical access; using multiple teaching and learning formats; welcoming students with disabilities in course syllabi; and including disability issues or perspectives in course content and faculty development workshops.1

While every situation is different, and we cannot make blanket statements about how to best coach writers with disabilities, it’s useful to think about some common challenges students and their instructors may face in these circumstances. In addition, it’s helpful to consider some best practices for teaching writers with disabilities. It’s vital, however, to remember that every situation is unique and will require its own flexible approaches.

Common Challenges for Writers

  • Writers with disabilities may have difficulty organizing their thoughts and ideas during the writing process.
  • They may have difficulty accessing a standard keyboard and mouse.
  • They may have difficulty monitoring their writing for errors in spelling, grammar, or word order.
  • They may have difficulty producing legible handwriting.
  • They may have difficulty sustaining endurance and attention during the writing process because of a health condition or medication side effects.
  • They may have difficulty completing research for longer writing assignments. For some writers, materials may not be available in an accessible format. Other writers may struggle with the large volume of materials they need to read and organize during the research process.
  • They may have difficulty producing writing under timed circumstances or meeting deadlines.

Common Challenges for Instructors

  • Instructors may not know which writers have disabilities, and that can make it challenging to be of help. In some cases, writers may choose not to disclose their disability, which is their right.
  • They may not feel qualified to facilitate learning for writers with disabilities.
  • They may be unsure of whether a student isn’t meeting expectations due to a disability or due to other factors.

Best Practices

To address some of these challenges, there are a number of approaches instructors can take. The Office of Disability Services and the WAC Program at the College of Staten Island-CUNY explain that “research shows that students with disabilities benefit most from explicit instructions and pre-writing activities.” The following approaches, adapted from        CSI-CUNY’s WAC program, can be effective for teaching writers with disabilities. The original document can be found at

In the same way that buildings designed to be accessible to people in wheelchairs are equally useful for people pushing strollers, so courses designed with writers with disabilities in mind are also beneficial for all students. These universal design practices can help all of your students more effectively use writing to learn. 1 

  1. Include a statement about the McBurney Center for Disability Resources in your syllabi.

The McBurney Center offers examples of such statements, which can be copied or adapted from this site:

  1. Give both written and verbal writing prompts and instructions.

When instructors explain an assignment in class, expectations are clearer for students with learning styles that favor the spoken word. When instructors explain assignments in writing, expectations are clearer for students who learn best when looking at text. Using both approaches helps more students understand the assignment.

  1. Ask students to paraphrase the writing prompt and instructions.

When students verbally explain or jot down the requirements of the assignment in their own words, their brains switch into an “active” mode and they are likely to begin to think about ideas for their writing, how they will organize their work, and what they need to do to complete the piece. Pre-planning may help students with many types of disabilities work steadily on the assignment and can help students feel less anxious about writing.

  1. Let students know from the beginning how their writing will be graded.

When they work on writing, students benefit from knowing their instructor’s tangible goals for their work. One way to communicate these goals is a rubric or list of expectations included with assignment instructions. There are multiple examples of such rubrics and grading criteria in this sourcebook.

  1. Show models of finished assignments when giving initial instructions.

Having a model to emulate may help students feel more confident to start their assignments sooner, leaving more time to organize and revise their work.

  1. Break longer assignments into smaller steps, providing feedback along the way.

Receiving regular feedback at multiple stages in the process of researching, organizing, writing, and revising longer assignments can help students with disabilities feel more confident that their work is on track. These checkpoints help break the work into manageable segments that students can use when they set goals for their work throughout the semester.

Common Accommodations for Writers with Disabilities

In addition to observing the best practices above, faculty can provide academic accommodations to student writers with disabilities as recommended by the McBurney Disability Resource Center. These may include:

  • Extending deadlines for writing assignments
  • Extending test-taking time for essay exams
  • Permitting the use of a computer for essay exams
  • Providing large-print handouts and visual aids

The McBurney Center may assist student writers with disabilities by providing adaptive technology such as speech recognition, concept-mapping, and screen-reading software and modified keyboards.

Contact the McBurney Center:

702 W. Johnson Street, Suite 2104
Madison, WI 53715

(phone) 608-263-2741
(text) 608-225-7956
(fax) 608-265-2998