The Literacy Needs of Differently Abled Students

After I began drafting this response, my Composition II students and I participated in an event for my college’s One Book program. The first “I want to scream” moment came when I saw that the speaker’s area was arranged in such a way that would make it difficult for my deaf student’s interpreters to work. The second “I want to scream” moment came when I learned that they organizer planned to show a video that wasn’t captioned.

Hand signs for accessibility

National Park Service Signage, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The “I definitely want to scream” moment came when a former student, whom I’ll call ‘Liz’ took a seat in the first row. Liz is blind, and she was there, alone, to complete a class assignment. No one warned her that a film would be shown, and no one had made arrangements to provide visual description for the blind and visually impaired. More importantly, Liz had just spoken to our Board of Trustees about the lack of accessibility on campus. I went into the bathroom and settled for the head smack.

Such incidents only “stack the deck” even more highly against differently abled students. It’s little wonder that the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 5% of students with a disability achieved writing proficiency; 60% failed to reach basic writing achievement levels (qtd. in Graham, Collins, and Rigby-Wills 199). Grim best describes the results of Graham, Collins, and Rigby-Wills’  meta-analysis of Learning Disabled (LD) students’ literacy skills:

  • The overall quality of LD student’s writing was lower than their peers.
  • LD writers experience more difficulty organizing their ideas.
  • Students with learning disabilities have more trouble simply “getting words on paper.”
  • LD students have more trouble with sentence construction.
  • LD writers had more difficulty applying writing conventions to their work.
  • These writers make more errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax.
  • LD students are less likely to apply appropriate genre elements.
  • LD writing utilize a less mature vocabulary than their peers.
  • They are also less motivated and less likely to believe in their skills than their peers (209-210).

Yet, as Graham, Collins, and Bigby-Wells point out, in an educational setting, writing is used to assess student knowledge and comprehension as well as facilitate the learning process; more importantly, writing is now being used to make workplace hiring and promotion decisions (199). As a teacher, I find all of this a call to action to best serve the literacy needs of my students.

We seem to have a good grounding on how to especially support blind and deaf students learn to decode texts. We can utilize Braille, audiotexts, American Sign Language, and signed English where and when appropriate. For learning disabled students “technology can be useful in promoting literacy learning” and “existing evidence-based practices for literacy instruction may be of a benefit to teaching and students if repacked and delivered using technology” (Kennedy and Deschler 290).

As a college instructor, however, this week’s assigned reading and my own search for sources indicated a gaping hole in knowledge. We teach a different kind of literacy. The reading and writing we do in college goes well beyond simple decoding. I have to teach my students how to read and understand peer-reviewed scholarly journals–something even high-achieving students find difficult at first. We expect students to be able to produce 1,300-word texts at least four times per semester, and I am expected to hold ALL students to that standard.

As I already have throughout the semester, the literacy needs of differently abled students more often than not, comes back to access. For example, Luckner, Bruce, and Ferrell emphasize, “Education of students with visual impairment has always been about providing access to print or finding an alternative modality that will provide an equivalent quality and quantity of information” (231). Similarly, one of LCC’s sign language interpreters told me this week that using “signed English” (direct translation of writing or speech rather than the syntactical shortcuts utilized in ASL) can help deaf students learn to follow the conventions of standard written English. Again, Luckner, Bruce, and Ferrell note that “visual phonics” as well as correlating signs and finger spelling can support students in decoding print (230). It just means that students need access to these tools, which sadly might not always happen.

As Sisk points out, the Americans with Disabilities Act, “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity on the basis of disability in employment, services, programs, and good provided by state and local governments, which includes colleges and universities receiving federal funding” (6). Yes, accessibility is the law. But when it comes to the literacy challenges our differently abled students face, the entire college must work to create a culture of accessibility–an underlying theme in many of the pieces I read this week. Like all of the best writer-teacher collaborations, that culture is about relationships and respect for another human being.

Sisk points out we that cannot try to provide too much assistance and must find out what the student really needs from us. Like Whitcomb, we should give students “opportunities to make mistakes, test corrections, and get the detailed feedback that informs…” (15). In short, we have to remember that our differently abled students are still just normal students in many respects. Despite all of the problems this week, my deaf student provided some great insights. The presentation we attended was about workers who pick tomatoes in Florida. She was able to share how she grew up and lived in Florida until recently, yet she never knew about the modern-day slavery that existed in her own backyard. All of these students have something to contribute to our classes, so we cannot allow the extra work such responsibilities can require of us to interfere with how we perceive their efforts and presence in class.

accessibility word cloud, shaped like a speech bubble

Image by Jil Wright, under Creative Commons, via Flikr

Similarly, we have to keep the principles of good teaching in mind. In seeking assistance with my own situation this semester, I selected and article entitled, “Evaluating Deaf Students’ Writing Fairly: Meaning over Mode,” by Kathryn L. Schmitz and Susan K. Keenen. They argue, “Evaluating the written work of deaf students…requires instructors to first focus on the purpose of the written text, rather than the errors contained therein” (376). When I asked for a one-paragraph reflection about this week’s presentation, I received two sentences from my deaf student. She got her meaning across and it was almost error-free. Knowing that she is “translating” into written English and that is was an informal piece, I knew I needed to cut her some slack. On the other hand, I must have a different expectation when her portfolio comes in two weeks from now. “Although the message is paramount,” Schmitz and Keenen admit, “if a student lacks sufficient control of English to express that message with reasonable clarity, surface errors not withstanding, the instructor must evaluate accordingly” (376). In other words, I treat my deaf student the same way I would treat any student with English difficulties.

Above all, it’s important to keep in mind that what’s good for our differently abled students is good for all of our students. As Luckner, Bruce, and Ferrell point out, “All learners benefit from a literacy rich environment” (234). Using Mayer’s Design Principles promoted by Kennedy and Deschler would benefit all students, not just those with learning disabilities. I may not have all of the answers to teach my differently abled students the complex and advanced literacies required in college, but I do know that following the principles of Universal Design for Learning will help them and all of their classmates.

Works Cited

Graham, Steve, Alyson A. Collins, and Hope Rigby-Wills. “Writing Characteristics of Students with Learning Disabilities and Typically Achieving Peers: A Meta-Analysis.” Exceptional Children 83.2 (2017): 199-218.

Kennedy, Michael J. and Donald D Deshler. “Literacy Instruction, Technology, and Student with Learning Disabilities: Research We Have, Research We Need.” Learning Disability Quarterly 33.4 (2010): 289-298.

Luckner, John L., Susan M. Bruce, and Kay Alicyn Ferrell. “A Summary of the Communication and Literacy Evidence-Based Practices for Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, Visually Imparied, and Deafblind.” Communication Disorders Quarterly 37.4 (2015): 225-241.

Sisk, Karen. “Assisting the Visually Impaired in the Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter Mar. 2001: 6-9.

Schmitz, Kathryn L. and Karen L. Keenan. “Evaluating Deaf Students’ Writing: Meaning over Mode.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College May 2005: 270-278.

Whitcomb, Amy. “Blurring My Boundaries: Insights from Tutoring a Student with Visual Impairments.” The Writing Lab Newsletter Jan./Feb. 2015: 14-15.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *