Two Journeys with Dyslexia
and Assistive Technology
Therese Willkomm and Carolyn Phillips share their stories and some favorite ways to write
Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects the processing of written and, sometimes, spoken language. It is the most common form of language-based learning disability in the United States, yet it is often poorly identified or accommodated in school. For this reason, ATPN offers a look at two experiences with dyslexia and assistive technology (AT) gleaned from our AT program community--those of Therese Willkomm, Director of AT in NH, and Carolyn Phillips, Director of Tools for Life and the Pass It On Center in GA. Both Willkomm and Phillips were students with dyslexia; and each navigated her education to come out the other side evangelizing AT.
Act I: Therese Willkomm
"I want kids to know that even though they may learn differently, they still have an important contribution to make, that the way they see the world has value," emphasizes Therese Willkomm, PhD, speaking with ATPN last May. Willkomm grew up farming in Wisconsin; today she is a clinical assistant professor in the Dept. of Occupational Therapy at UNH, and the author of two how-to books on low-tech solutions for individuals with disabilities.
"When you grow up in a rural area farming, you know you're valued--I was one of ten kids--you have chores to do with animals, important things to do." It wasn't until she entered school that she received a different message. "Children love to explore the world, and up until age six they're allowed to color outside the lines. But in first grade you learn there are rules for how you should see the world, rules for how you should write. I had a hard time right away because my letters kept going upside down and backwards."
With her dyslexia unidentified, Willkomm struggled to read and write far into high school. As result, her expectations were vocational not academic. But then an English teacher, a woman who enjoyed her creativity, recognized her challenges. "She said to me, 'You're not stupid. You have a learning disability, and you can go to college.' "
She ended up at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. There she acquired her books on tape through Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic (RB&D, now Learning Ally
). Instead of writing papers, she created slide presentations and gave oral reports. She achieved straight A's her first semester, and went on to graduate summa cum laude. Years of feeling stupid were mollified. "It was an incredibly positive experience," she says.
Early AT Strategies
Her success, however, had as much to do with her own ingenuity (and, of course, motivation), as with the accommodations themselves. It was the late 1970s, an era before software for text-to-speech with text highlighting and bookmarking (i.e. Kurzweil 3000
, Read&Write Gold
)--before, even, the mainstream adoption of the personal computer. On her own she discovered listening to books on tape while following along with the hard copy and a highlighter. The discovery was empowering. Words she knew, but rarely recognized in print, were now instantly decoded; she could see, for example, what "frontal lobe" or "neuroprogramming" looked like. She could highlight important words and return to them for study and memorization. It worked because it made her engage the material in a way that was visual, tactile, and auditory. And it became especially effective when she then spoke those newly-decoded words into her own tape recorder, creating condensed audio notes in her own voice. These she'd review over breakfast, while driving, whenever.
With recording lectures, she applied the same resourcefulness. The problem with lectures, she'd found, was that audio recordings were too long and unwieldy. Years before the invention of the Smart Pen
(or software like Audio Note
and Audio Notetaker
), Willkomm devised a method for highlighting audio lecture content; during class she would tap-tap next to the microphone on her cassette recorder to mark the location of content she judged important or that she'd need to review. Those taps were easily discernible when she'd scan for them later on fast forward with her RB&D tape deck. She could listen for a quick "click click" and find and listen to that part of the recording she'd missed in class or didn't understand.
Learning and Teaching Emerging AT
Willkomm matured professionally in tandem with the development of AT. By 1982 she was training other students entering the university with learning disabilities on her strategies, as well as learning emerging AT herself. In the 80's there was the Arkenstone Reader
which could scan print and read it back (in an awkward digitized voice). In the early 90s, while working on her PhD, she used Dragon Dictate
, the first mainstream speech recognition program, making possible writing with her voice; and equally revolutionary was a Voice Organizer
, aiding with her executive functioning. Through her own experiences and her experience helping others, she came to see acquiring the tech itself as just a third of the battle. There was also learning to use it effectively, and maintaining the equipment--a lesson painfully lived when her Voice Organizer failed in graduate school (and gone were all her appointments and reminders). Journeying personally and professionally with AT in this way, Willkomm became an expert on software for individuals with learning disabilities as she formally pursued her doctorate in rehabilitation technology. Today she advocates a range of AT for individuals who experience dyslexia or other print disabilities.
Cutting Edge AT
Her current favorite writing strategy is the built-in speech-to-text tool available on her iPad. The feature is now integrated into all of iPad's functionality (the pop-up keyboard includes a mic). And helpful for editing is iPad's recent adoption of text-highlighting with Speak Selection (targeted text-to-speech available in the Accessibility settings). Now when her iPad reads aloud her words (with its high-quality synthesized voice), the text highlights in synch with the audio (useful for locating errors). Indeed her latest book, Assistive Technology Solutions in Minutes Book II: Ordinary Items, Extraordinary Solutions
, was created entirely with her voice and the Pages app
, in this way.
Another strategy Willkomm uses for writing is to combine Dragon Naturally Speaking
for text creation with Ginger Software
for correcting grammar. Dragon is speech-recognition software for use on a computer (or smart phone). It allows users to create text by speaking (and also navigate applications with voice commands). For speech to text, its advantage over iPad's voice recognition is its playback options. It can read out loud a user's text with its synthesized voice or it can play back the user's own voice recorded while speaking that text. Both options highlight words on the screen in synch with the audio. And comparing each allows Willkomm to hear how Dragon captured her words against her original intent.
Next Willkomm uses Ginger Software for editing. Unlike Microsoft Word, Ginger suggests revisions for awkward sentences and poor grammar. Used with Dragon, Willkomm can hear her sentences, compare them with Ginger's suggestions, and accept or reject a revision.
A Creative Cutting Edge
As a kinesthetic learner, rehabilitation professional, and teacher, Willkomm has become something of a low-tech and high-tech diva of AT. From childhood forward she has explored and enjoyed materials--problem solving with wire and twine on the farm, building with scotch tape and paperclips in the back of her high school English class, and finding solutions to every day problems with every day materials (which her books now document). Indeed, for Willkomm, "cutting edge AT" now ranges from the latest apps for mobile devices to literally "cutting edges" with an exacto knife and corrugated plastic (recently she received a patent for her do-it-yourself A.T. Pad stand
Ultimately, seeing the world upside down and backwards, Willkomm believes, has given her a creative edge for problem solving. In her hands a plastic microwaveable plate, turned upside down, becomes a mounting surface for an iPad stand. A nylon flag pole holder, turned upside down, mounts a tablet computer to a wheelchair; and right side up it holds a fishing pole or umbrella. "Dyslexia," she says, "is a gift to be embraced."
As for writing, Willkomm says the message she most tries to convey is that not all students need to write with a pen, pencil or keyboard. The important thing is getting out your thoughts. "We need to educate teachers about different ways and different methods. If you're so incredibly exhausted after twenty minutes because you are forcing yourself to write, and you're fatigued and depressed and have anxiety, and all of that, because you're trying to do what society is expecting you to do, then stop! There's nothing wrong with using assistive technology! Assistive technology is wonderful."
Act II: Carolyn Phillips
College became possible for Therese Willkomm only once her learning disabilities were identified. Carolyn Phillips's story is different. She was already there.
Phillips is director of Tools for Life, Georgia's AT Act program housed at Georgia Tech. There Phillips relishes working with individuals with disabilities, especially students, and whole families, helping to identify assistive technology strategies. "I don't want anyone to go through what I did," she says.
As a freshman at the University of Georgia, she began the year a standout student in her English class. She participated in classroom discussions, and received an A on her first paper--created outside of class--on Kafka's The Metamorphosis. But then her teacher asked her to write and turn in a reflection composed entirely in the classroom. Phillips knew the jig was up.
Longhand she wrote with letters turned backward, repetitive word choice, and misspellings. Her teacher was astounded. "I never would have believed it," she told Phillips, "if I hadn't seen it myself. It's not like you left class and came back drunk!" That day she referred Phillips to the LD Clinic on campus. Years of hiding had come to an end.
Mom's Home-baked UDL
Phillips explains she was lucky growing up. Her mother, Francis Phillips, was a talented grade-school teacher, and likely dyslexic herself. "Mom taught me to read and write, and she practiced Universal Design for Learning
(UDL) before anyone really did that," she says. "Mom always said, 'You're smart. You just think differently, how else can you show what you know?'"
Her mother also went to bat for her at school in the fourth grade. It was during a parent-teacher conference, and Phillips was supposed to be on the playground with her sisters. Instead she hung back and listened at the door to a devastating report. Her teacher declared she was failing every subject, and warned she faced a lifetime of struggle. She said she knew Carolyn had tested well on her IQ--indeed in the gifted range--but she couldn't explain those scores because she didn't think she could learn. Ahead she saw a future of delinquency for Carolyn, low-wage work, and probably, early pregnancy.
Phillips heard her mother stand up and knock her chair over backwards. "Mom told my teacher that she clearly didn’t know how to teach her child." The next day, Phillips entered a new fourth grade class where the students were busy writing poetry. To her surprise, the new teacher saw through her poor spelling and backward letters, told her that her poem was brilliant, and went on to have it published in two places.
From there Phillips was in and out of gifted classrooms while masking and covering for her writing deficits. In high school she won awards in science and technology; she even edited the student paper. "I'd say to my teachers, 'You don't really want another paper to grade! How about I write a poem? Do an interpretive dance? Bake tacos? Most of the time they thought it was a creative way to demonstrate my knowledge and it worked. I thrived in educational environments that allowed for alternative ways to show that I know the material, whatever it was."
When a term paper was unavoidable, her parents provided a unique way to accommodate the task. It was a kind of early relay or home-grown speech to text solution; it was... her father's secretary, Miss Helen.
Straight through to her first year of college, Phillips dictated her papers to her father's secretary over the phone. Miss Helen would listen and type, and then send home the hard copy for corrections. "They were always my words, in my own 'voice.' She knew I was very sensitive to that." But Phillips's first year of college was in the late 80s, predating email and fax. To meet her Kafka paper's deadline, she'd had to drive it back and forth, more than an hour each way. She earned an A on that paper, but the routine, she feared, was unsustainable.
Once diagnosed with dyslexia (among other learning disabilities), Phillips was provided with general accommodations that included Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic, extended time for papers and tests, a person to read to her, as well as assistance with note taking. Like Willkomm, her experience with accommodations, and then learning emerging AT, would influence her career choice.
In college she helped run the university's first computer lab and had her own set of keys. There she learned about word processing, especially spell check, and she worked on her papers at all hours. When the university invested in Dragon Dictate, she helped train students with spinal cord injuries to use it, and adopted it herself. Then, as a psychology major, she counseled students with academic anxieties, and increasingly found she sought them technology solutions. "Often I would end their sessions in the computer lab. That's when I started to figure out I needed to change my career plans."
Still, in those early days of AT, she says it was tough going. It took her ten years to finish her bachelors degree. Her masters, on the other hand, she completed in just two (and with a 4.0 grade point average).
These days Phillips estimates she uses over twenty different forms of AT in the course of a day. They include many apps for the iPhone that contribute to her living, learning, work and play. For reading she uses a range of screen readers (text to speech), from the built-in and free options (i.e. Natural Reader
) to TextHelp
. For writing, she uses Dragon voice recognition on her computer and iPhone (or Siri for quick emails). She also writes with a keyboard. Two of her favorite typing tools are word prediction and abbreviation expansion.
Word prediction (Read&Write, WordQ
) is software that anticipates the words a user will type, provides options for quick selection (similar to spell check), and generally makes writing possible with far fewer keystrokes. She prefers TextHelp (Read&Write Gold) for its high quality word prediction
. (See a comparison chart of word prediction software at this Spectronics Web page
Abbreviation expansion (or "text expansion") allows writers to paste text they use repeatedly with just a few letters or symbols. For example, Phillips types T-L-M-S for the Tools for Life mission statement; the abbreviation will generate the entire sentence. Options for abbreviation expansion include TextExpander and TextExpander touch
for Mac and iOS devices, and Texter
A Revolution--A Calling
Like Willkomm, Phillips marvels that Dragon once cost over $20,000 and is now a free app for her iPhone ("We are, absolutely, living a revolution," she says). She thinks back to those generalized accommodations she received in college, compared with everything available today, and describes how satisfying her work is now. "I get to come up with customized solutions for people to help them be successful."
Indeed, she likes to say that people with learning disabilities are "my people," that she feels a kindred spirit that shapes her attitude at Tools for Life. "For me, the best solutions are not always discovered through evaluations. Sometimes the best approach is to hang out with the person, to hang out with intent... with the intention of making life even better. I encourage people to relax, play, and try out some new solutions until they find the best one for them. I love the technology, the process and the positive outcomes. I'm lucky that that I get to play with people to help them reach their goals!"
In her latest book, Willkomm mentions approaching her work with love. Phillips clearly feels the same way. "It doesn't feel like work," she says. "It's more of a calling."
Thanks to Therese Willkomm and Carolyn Phillips for sharing their stories with ATPN!
For a quick visual summary of some AT options for students who experience dyslexia, check out this Infographic by Jamie Martin
of the Kildonan School. Also of potential interest is this recent New York Times op-ed
by Blake Charlton (a novelist and physician with dyslexia).