Writing Assignments

Most postsecondary instructors rely heavily on written assignments as a means of communicating knowledge and understanding. Some students with disabilities face challenges with written handouts, exams, and/or assignments. Writing may be difficult due to physical limitations in the arms, hands, or fingers. Visual impairments may impact a student's access to standard word processing programs and computers; they may require assistive technology to enlarge screen images and/or provide speech output. Medication side effects can result in unsteady hand movements or fatigue. For some students the writing process, includeing spelling and grammar, may also be difficult due to hearing, language, or learning disabilities. Finally, accessing journals, publications, or other library resources for written assignments may be difficult for some students with disabilities.

Assistive Technology and Other Accommodations

Computers, assistive technology, and software programs have increased the number of written communication options for students with disabilities. Adaptive computer technology has improved access to word processing programs. For example, students who are blind can use screen reading programs and speech output systems as they complete written assignments. Students with learning disabilities can benefit from access to programs that assist with spelling, grammar, and writing organization. The Internet provides students with options to do online searches from home or submit assignments via email, which is helpful for individuals who find travel or access to standard library resources difficult.

Despite improvements in technology, many students with disabilities need accommodations to complete written assignments. General accommodations for students with various disabilities that impact writing include extended assignment deadlines, allowing alternative assignment formats, extended test-taking time, or the use of adaptive technology. Other accommodations may include considerations for grading grammar and spelling versus content when evaluating writing assignments.

The following strategies can be used to facilitate participation of students with specific disabilities in writing assignments.

Learning Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities may have difficulty organizing thoughts and ideas during the writing process. Writing mechanics such as grammar and spelling may be inconsistent, depending on the demands of the assignments. Proofreading and editing may be difficult for a student with a reading disability such as Dyslexia. Some students with learning disabilities also have poor fine motor skills. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate maximum participation of students with learning disabilities in writing activities are:

  • Word processors with grammar and spelling checkers.
  • Word processors with outlining and highlighting capabilities.
  • Word prediction software.
  • Phonetic spelling software that can render phonetic spelling into correctly spelled words.
  • Screen reading software and speech output systems.
  • Speech recognition products that allow students to dictate assignments or course papers as well as navigate the Internet using voice commands.
  • Concept mapping software, which allows for visual representations of ideas and concepts and can be used as a structure for starting and organizing poetry, term papers, resumes, schedules, and computer programs.

Blindness

With the availability of computers, adaptive technology, and word processing programs, students who are blind are able to complete writing assignments independently. They can also access publications, journals, and resources to prepare written assignments. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate maximum participation of students with blindness in writing activities are:

  • Screen reading software and speech output systems.
  • Braille translation software, Braille refreshable displays, and Braille embossers.
  • Locator dots on the keys of computer keyboards.
  • Scribes.
  • Alternative test or assignment formats (e.g., audiotaped, Brailled, electronic).

Low Vision

Students with low vision may have difficulty writing in a standard format. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate maximum participation of students with low vision in written assignments include:

  • Large-print handouts.
  • Software that enlarges screen images.

Hearing Impairments

Hearing impairments do not interfere with the physical aspects of writing. However, students who use American Sign Language may have poor grammar because of differences between the structure of English and of American Sign Language; English is considered a second language for many individuals who are deaf and use sign language. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate maximum participation of students with hearing impairments in writing assignments include:

  • Provide written examples of writing expectations (e.g., sample of a completed assignment of acceptable quality, including content and grammar/syntax).
  • Grade writing and content separately.

Mobility Impairments

Students with mobility impairments who have difficulty using their hands, may have difficulty writing and accessing a standard mouse and keyboard for word processing programs. Fatigue may also be an issue during lengthy writing assignments or exams. And, gathering resources and publications for assignments may be time consuming. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate participation of students with mobility impairments in writing assignments are:

  • Computer modifications to access word processing programs.
  • Extended exam times.
  • Extended assignment deadlines.

Health Impairments

Students with various health conditions may have difficulty attending class regularly. They may fatigue easily and/or have difficulty writing due to physical limitations. Medication side effects may impact endurance, memory, and attention during the writing process. Gathering resources and publications for assignments may also be difficult. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate maximum participation of students with health impairments in writing assignments are:

  • Word processing programs.
  • Extended exam time.
  • Extended assignment deadlines.

Psychiatric Impairments

Students with various psychiatric conditions may have difficulty attending class regularly. They may fatigue easily and/or have difficulty taking notes. Medication side effects may impact endurance, memory, and attention for learning. Typical accommodations that can be used to facilitate maximum participation of students with psychiatric impairments in writing assignments are:

  • Options for electronic assignments.
  • Notetakers.
  • Audiotaped class sessions.
  • Laptop computer for note taking.
  • Flexible attendance requirements.

Check Your Understanding

Consider the following example. A student with Multiple Sclerosis has enrolled in a graduate level psychology course. There are three written exams and two research papers due in the class. The student uses a word processor for writing, but needs to take a break every 30 minutes or so. What would be the best way to help this student complete the writing assignments? Choose a response.

  1. Provide extended exam times and assignment deadlines.
  2. Provide a scribe to do the writing assignments.
  3. Provide a word processor with word prediction software.
  4. Allow the student to use a laptop computer for exams.

Check Your Understanding Responses

  1. Provide extended exam times and assignment deadlines.
    This would be an important option to consider. Extended exam and assignment deadlines would allow the student flexibility in her schedule. Consult with staff from the disabled student services office.
  2. Provide a scribe to do the writing assignments.
    A scribe might be helpful during the exam process, but may not be effective for writing assignments. Consult with staff from the disabled student services office.
  3. Provide a word processor with word prediction software.
    Word prediction software would help decrease the typing load for the student. If the student does not have word predication software he could discuss this acquisition with the disabled students services counselor.
  4. Allow the student to use a laptop computer for exams.
    The use of a laptop computer may be an effective accommodation in this situation.

For more information consult the DO-IT publications Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction and Universal Design of Instruction: Definition, Principles, and Examples.

Questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the searchable AccessSTEM Knowledge Base.