AT for Writing: What About Low-Tech Access?

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Examiner, Volume 8, Issue 3
October 2019

By David C. Winters, PhD

Dr. Dave's Assistive Technology Lab LogoAh! There you are! I am so glad to have you visit my AT Lab again. Just the other day I was thinking about all that we have covered during our previous visits. We have talked a good bit about AT for reading and note-taking, so now I think we should turn our attention to AT that can help us with writing.

I suspect that we will need quite a few visits to cover this topic because writing involves so many facets. First, we will need to think about the physical aspect of getting our thoughts from our minds to paper or screen. And then there is always the issue of being sure that we can check and correct our spelling so that others can easily understand what we are trying to say. Sometimes just planning what we want to write can be hard—I am known for staring at an empty document on my computer screen with a “train of blank” instead of a “train of thought.”

For people with writing challenges, having some low-tech AT strategies is especially important because many situations still exist when a person must handwrite rather than keyboard.

Sometimes knowing what word to choose or using proper grammar can be the problem. And then there are those pesky standard writing conventions like capitalization, punctuation, and language usage that we have to remember. And as we are writing, we must keep in mind the type of writing we are doing and who our target audience is. Whew! There is so much involved in writing! It is like trying to juggle six or more balls in the air at the same time.

So where do we start? Thinking about all those pieces at once is much too overwhelming, so today I think we should begin thinking about the physical aspect of writing—which I like to call “Access to Writing.” As usual, we will begin with some low-tech AT ideas.

Whenever possible, as we have discussed previously, it’s a good idea to try low-tech AT first. For people with writing challenges, having some low-tech AT strategies is especially important because many situations still exist when a person must handwrite rather than keyboard. While my occupational therapist (OT) friends are experts at finding appropriate low-tech AT, I have found a few types of low-tech AT particularly helpful for individuals who need some support but not at the level of support involving an OT. Let’s look at some pencil/pen grips, line guides, and slant boards.

A well-designed pencil/pen grip can make a significant difference in controlling a pencil or pen.

Pencil/Pen Grips. A well-designed pencil/pen grip can make a significant difference in controlling a pencil or pen. Look at these in this bucket. You see that these grips come in many shapes, including triangular tubes, indented spheres, and ones with finger pockets. Grip preference is very individually-based, so it is a good idea to have several styles available to try out. In addition, when choosing a grip, pay particular attention to handedness, especially if the person is left-handed. Some of the grips work better for a right-handed person than a left-handed one. Since I’m left-handed, I remember that I used to turn one of my favorite grips upside-down to make it work for me. 

Line Guide. Sometimes we need to write on unlined paper, such as when writing thank-you notes. Personally, I’ve found it frustrating to watch my writing lines slope downwards as I move across the note. Making a line guide to place underneath the paper is one solution to this issue. Let me show you. Take a piece of ruled notepaper. Now, take a black marking pen and carefully draw along each line to make it darker. If you want, use a ruler while making the lines darker so that your lines are nice and straight. Or you could try what I did yesterday—I used my word processing program to draw thick lines with the spacing between lines that I wanted and then printed it out. Next, place this line guide underneath the plain piece of writing paper.  Of course, if the paper is too thick, this might not work; however, watch what happens when I put the two pieces of paper on a light box. Success! Light boxes come in many sizes and some are not expensive. You could probably even make one yourself. As you can see, this light box is thin and just a bit bigger than a piece of paper, while others are built into an actual table.

Slant Board. Do you know someone who has difficulty writing on a flat surface? If you do, you might want to suggest using a slant board that can provide a slightly inclined writing surface. These boards usually have a clip at the top or a lip at the bottom to keep the paper steady while writing. Look at this wooden clipboard that I’ve had for a number of years. I’ve always liked writing on it. However, it used to slip away from me while writing. To solve that problem, I put two rubber or silicone non-slip adhesive grips on the bottom  to help keep it in place. You also need to think about the width of the board and whether the slant angle is adjustable. Both of these aspects are usually a matter of personal preference.

Well, once again, our time has flown by. It seems like we just got started! I hope that you found our discussion of low-tech AT access to writing helpful. Be sure to take one of these pencil grips home with you. We will need to wait until you come again to talk about some high-tech AT access to writing options. But in the meantime, Happy Writing!

More of Dr. Winter’s AT Labs:

July 2018

AT for Note-taking: Another Approach

November 2017 

AT for Reading: Reading by Pen

February 2017

AT for Reading: More Web Reading Options

October 2016 
AT for Reading: What About the Web?

June 2016
AT for Reading: Ear Reading for Everyone

March 2016
AT for Reading: Ear Reading for Individuals with Print Disabilities

September 2015
AT for Reading: Even More Alternative Strategies Using AT

June 2015
Reading E-Text: Alternative Strategies Using AT

February 2015
AT for Reading: Alternative Strategies using AT

October 2014
AT for Reading: Young Children

May 2014
Did You Catch All That? Note-Taking and AT

February 2014
Welcome to Dr. Dave’s AT Lab!

David C. Winters, Ph.D., Fellow/AOGPE, is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at Eastern Michigan University. He has been a classroom teacher, tutor, diagnostician, administrator, and tutor/teacher trainer for more than 30 years and is a member of the International Dyslexia Association Orton Oaks. He currently teaches courses introducing preservice teachers to special education; in addition, he teaches courses in instructional and assistive technology, writing, and assessment in special education for preservice special educators and speech language pathologists.


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