Adaptive Technology

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By Alexandra S. Neumeister

Editing to perfection isn’t possible without first having something to edit. I have heard many writers speak about the benefits of longhand, scratching out a rough draft in a notebook or legal pad with none of the distractions of technology. Getting thoughts out as easily as possible is an important part of the writing process, but when it comes to handwriting, some people struggle with more than just thinking of a first sentence.

People with carpel tunnel, arthritis, injuries, and certain neurological disabilities may find that writing by hand is an obstacle rather than a release during their first draft. They know what they want to say, it’s just harder for them to get it out of their heads. I can tell who these people are because they look down with not just curiosity but a bit of hope when they ask me, What is that you’re writing on?

But I’ll get to that.

Adaptive technology is a term referring to anything designed to assist people with disabilities, such as braille or prosthesis, and this can easily be applied to writing difficulties. There are Speech to Text programs to make getting out some rough ideas a hands free experience, from free and online like Speechnotes to the bestselling Dragon NaturallySpeaking. There are theraputic keyboards and desks, though these aren’t as portable. If you have difficulty with sensory input or concentration, there’s everything from apps that block your access to the internet for a certain period of time to sound apps that provide white noise and gentle rainstorms. All of these and more are available to people who need physical help writing out that first draft, but for me personally, there is only one device necessary.

Founded with the purpose of putting out adaptive technology for classroom use, the Alphasmart company created a wonderful product called the Dana. Bear with me as I gush.

A dedicated word processor, this machine can be plugged in to the computer to download whatever’s been written onto a document which can be edited from there. It has a short but wide screen, only a paragraph is visible at a time but I find that’s useful for concentrating and it’s easy enough to navigate. It doesn’t have a screen to flip up like a laptop would, but that means it’s easier to transport and doesn’t block my vision if I’m taking notes at an event, not to mention it’s much less delicate and wouldn’t lose all my personal information if I dropped it. Plus the battery life is absurd, usually lasting a week or more even when I’m furiously hashing out a story.

As much as this sounds like a pitch, and as much as I would love to be a spokesperson for this company, the models were, unfortunately, discontinued. A shame since they provided such a valuable, pragmatic service for school children with disabilities, but for those intrigued by my description it’s easy enough to find used models.

I’ve found few equivalents, because of my high standards and because dedicated word processors are rare in the days of do-everything portable devices, the most prominent of which seems to be the Freewrite by Astrohaus. I’m brand loyal and already biased, but looking closer I don’t find it as useful. It’s bulkier, when I mainly carry mine around in a purse, and the screen is smaller. It’s also more expensive. The only plus I would say is that it can sync to Dropbox, which is advantageous in this day of back up redundancies. If you feel the need for a modern-day typewriter, though, this machine could be useful.

My Alphasmart has lasted over a decade and shows no sign of wearing down, so I’m not really concerned about being forced to replace it with an inferior machine just yet. Disability is no hurdle to writing when we have such wonderful adaptive technologies available to us. Find out what works for you, and start a sentence. I will always be on the lookout for similar products, and I will tell everyone I can that there are different ways to get a story out of your head.

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