Empowering Students with Disabilities: Enhancing Writing Skills with Pressto

A Special Guest Post By Marina Shallcross.

For generations, students have been taught to process and organize their thoughts, about a book or poem or historical event or personal experience, and then write about their topics. Ideally, there is a level of reflection and empathy that students engage in while writing that helps them both express themselves thoughtfully and connect with others. Ultimately, writing fosters benefits that give voice to their creativity, agency, and community. Unfortunately, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are often left out of these benefits because the traditional processes for writing instruction don’t work for these learners. As a result, their voices are unheard.

For people with IDD, this gap can be harmful to social inclusion and the development of social capital. Often, these individuals are already at a disadvantage for developing strong social capital due to the propagation of stigmas and stereotypes about disabilities and for having certain non-normative needs. The ability for people with IDD to engage in facilitative environments for expression can help them reclaim narratives of disability, as well as help others understand and empathize with experiences that differ from their own.

I spent the past year working with young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a variety of settings as a Direct Support Professional. Through this experience, I cultivated strong relationships and saw that one foundation for these individuals is interdependence with one another. Identity does not exist in a vacuum; so much of it is relational, and I saw how creating an environment for open communication and expression helped both me and the individuals I worked with to develop a stronger sense of self and a level of trust. I learned that there are a wide range of support needs and preferences across the population of people with IDD; nonetheless, the commonality was an interest in socialization and written communication.

Pressto provides an accessible environment for children and adults with IDD to practice writing and share their creations in an effort to connect with others and create strong relationships. The Personal Narrative writing plan focuses on storytelling without parameters and allows students to reflect on their own memories and interests, which can help increase the motivation to write for individuals with IDD. The ability to input multimedia elements into their writing can help them express ideas and concepts that they might struggle to articulate through traditional writing. The Personal Narrative writing plan has two formats: the Zine and the Doc. Both of these have writing blocks that help individuals organize their writing and reduce their cognitive load. The Zine has 8 small pages and functions as a small booklet. The Doc is only one page, but the page expands as you write. Both of these options are more accessible than a blank page and can help facilitate the writing process.

After learning about Pressto and seeing how it could serve as a writing tool for people with IDD, I decided to try using it with one of the young men I worked with this year. He found it both easy to navigate and understand. I made an individualized assignment based on his current interests and chose the Zine format for him, as I knew that he would like the small pages and ability to add different images to each page. I also thought that the Zine was a good format for storytelling. He asked that we select images for the Zine before writing; as a result, the pictures served as a guide for his ideas and recollection of memories. There were some parts that he preferred to write, and others that he preferred to dictate to me as I typed for him. He was excited to see the stories come together around the photos he chose and even more excited about reminiscing on moments that we shared together. I saw how the act of creating a Pressto helped him engage with meaningful memories that connected him to people and places in his community.

I have an older sibling with autism who has a proclivity for communicating through text versus speech. Throughout his life, I have seen him both struggle and thrive in different environments based on his comfort with communication, and he often defers to text communication in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations. He has never tried a guided online writing platform, but I think that he would benefit from being able to express his ideas and communicate through scaffolded storytelling. I also believe that Pressto’s AI-powered support chatbot, Writing Buddy, would help him and potentially other people with IDD who struggle to articulate certain questions or prefer more support for generating ideas. Writing Buddy provides a personal space for individuals to ask for help and receive immediate guidance tailored to both their writing plan and what they have already written. Incorporating AI assistance into the writing process also teaches students the advantages of working with AI to enhance their writing rather than replace it.

As writing instruction continues to merge with technology, I see more opportunities to include underrepresented communities. Through writing, we engage in critical thinking and reflection; it serves as an agent for us to learn about certain topics as well as our own thoughts about the topic. Writing allows us to memorialize our thoughts, opinions, and experiences, ultimately creating a self-narrative with every piece that we write. Pressto has the ability to include so many people of all ages and abilities in this process of creating and sharing a narrative by making writing more accessible and enjoyable. I am excited to see how they continue to shape the future of writing for people of all backgrounds and abilities.

For a guide to using Pressto with students with disabilities, click here.