FAQ: Writing assignments

(Used with permission from DO IT:Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology doit@u.washington.edu University of Washington)

Many instructors rely heavily on written assignments as a primary means for students to communicate knowledge and understanding. Some students with disabilities face challenges with written handouts, exams, and/or assignments. Writing may be difficult to 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. Medication side effects can result in unsteady hand movements or fatigue. The writing process, which includes 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.

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 support spelling, grammar, and writing organization. The Internet provides students with options to do on-line searches from home or submit assignments via e-mail, 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 to meet course requirements. General accommodations for students with various disabilities that impact writing include extending 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.

Q. GRAMMAR: How do I grade written essays when syntax and grammatical errors are evident for students who have a hearing loss and use American Sign Language (ASL)?

A. English is a second language for many people who are deaf, and therefore, presents unique challenges for the student and professor when written language assignments are evaluated. For students who rely on American Sign Language, transferring thoughts to a written form is difficult because ASL does not have verb tenses. As a student who is deaf explained, "I cannot hear the tenses in phrases such as 'I have been doing,' because American Sign Language uses symbols."

You must provide a reasonable accommodation for a disability, but should not lower your academic standards. Correct his grammar and syntax and assist the student in developing his English skills. You may wish to refer him to a tutor or writing lab.

You may suggest that the student submit two copies of each written assignment. This provides the opportunity to comment and grade an essay for content and then to note or grade grammatical errors on the duplicate essay, as applicable to the course criteria. The student rewrites the essay given grammatical feedback, then places the grammatically corrected copy in a "personal grammar journal" and uses it as a reference in future writing.

Q. LITERATURE SEARCHES AND ACCESS: How does a student with low vision conduct a literature search and access the literature in preparation for a writing assignment?

A. Many students with low vision are able to access library catalogs and other databases on the Internet to search for relevant articles and books as long as computers are equipped to enlarge text on the screen and/or read the screen with speech output software. Students may also work with library staff or the accessibility resource services office to request a library assistant.

Q. BLINDNESS: In what format can a student who is blind turn in written assignments?

A. In most cases, a student who is blind will type written assignments using a computer that is equipped with speech output. The assignments can then be submitted in print form, via electronic mail, or on computer diskette, depending on the preferences of the instructor. At times, students may also choose to dictate short answers to a reader who will handwrite responses. The reader is typically provided by the campus disabled student services office.

Q. EXTENDING DEADLINES: Do I need to extend assignment deadlines for students who have learning disabilities that affect their writing or students who have limited use of their hands?

A. An extended assignment deadline might be a reasonable accommodation for students with these types of disabilities as well as those with low vision, health, or psychiatric impairments. The need for and length of an extended deadline depends upon the student's disability, and the nature of the assignment. Consult the staff at your disabled student services office regarding the most appropriate accommodation for a specific student.