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Beliefs affecting handwritten communication (excerpt).

In a world of high technology, some find handwriting unimportant. They may look with bemusement, for example, on Wendell Johnson's listing of poor penmanship among the communication difficulties amenable to a general semantics approach ("The Urgency of Paradise," People In Quandaries, p.475). In fact, Johnson not only lists "inadequate handwriting skill" among the deficiencies of written communication, within that listing he gives it first place:

B. Writing deficiencies

1. Inadequate handwriting skill

a. Due to faulty training

b. Due to maladjustment

c. Due to organic conditions, such as paralysis, etc.

Does handwriting today matter as much as this listing suggests it may have mattered to Johnson? If so--if adequate or inadequate handwriting skill really does still make a difference in the computerized high-tech world of 2003--how, if at all, does this relate to a conference on belief-systems and their impact?

Why it Matters

Five years ago, a hospital administrator who had learned about the handwriting-improvement services I provide informed me that the doctors at his facility fortunately needed no such thing, "because we have entirely computerized the hospital. Starting in three months, all hospital records will use our integrated technology system."

Last year, the same administrator reminded me of the conversation and stated that the hospital needed my help--putting "all" hospital records and procedures into computerized form had not entirely eliminated handwriting. Approximately one in a hundred daily communications at this hospital continued to involve or to produce handwritten data--and, about half the time, those handwritten data did not permit clear, easy, or certain reading. The results included not only patient deaths, injuries, and delay of care, but (more disturbing in the eyes of that particular administrator) a potential for malpractice suits. (The past five years had already seen the first medical-malpractice suit related solely to a death-by-handwriting issue--Vasquez versus Kolluru, 1999 with a $450,000 judgment. Another suit, initiated in 2002 and now pending in New York State, revolves entirely around an infant death caused by an unclearly written decimal point.)

The impact of handwriting goes far beyond medical error. I hear almost daily, for instance, from teachers who have realized that they cannot write clearly enough for the students to read it. One first-grade teacher wrote "cat" identically with "cut" and "eat" for years, and habitually made other similar errors, before noticing this and beginning to suspect that it might have something to do with the prevalence of slow readers in her classroom. A college-chemistry teacher sought my help because, whenever she wrote on the board during lectures or labs or tests, at least half the class would erupt into worried whispers: "What did she write? Can somebody read it?" The class had no problem reading typed worksheets, which suggests that the inquiries related to poor handwriting on the part of the teacher, not illiteracy on the part of the students.

Worse portends--the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), will add a handwritten-essay section counting for 1/6 of the student's score in 2005. According to advance information released to media by the Educational Testing Service, which creates and administers this test, students will have 20 minutes to write a two-page essay which graders will have 4 minutes to read and score. Teachers and students have commented to me that (in their opinion and experience) few American high-school students, given 20 minutes to handwrite two pages, could do this legibly enough that 4 minutes would suffice to decipher, let alone to grade, the result.

How this Relates to General Semantics

People who seek my help for hand writing (or who send a child, student, or employee to me for help) usually see their/others' handwriting problems as arising only from factors related to faulty training and/or a disability of some kind. They do not normally imagine or consider (and I myself once did not imagine or consider) that a person's beliefs about communication in general, and about hand written communication in particular, could also play a part in both causing and remediating a handwriting problem.

I began to change my views--and to consider as an important factor what Johnson calls "maladjustment"--when, over and over, I encountered clients who worked with me on handwriting-skills--who visited medical specialists, if needed, to do whatever they could do for any organic condition--yet who showed little or no improvement despite their efforts, my efforts, and the efforts of other specialists. I began understanding the situation differently when I heard one student's chance comment: "I realize I need to change this [pattern of poor writing], but I know I can't really change this because my handwriting is me. If I could change it, I would stop being me." Hearing this led me to listen for, and to think about, similar comments from other students in my individual and group classes. I have begun to isolate some of the specific semantic "maladjustments" (false-to-fact beliefs impeding success) which (in at least some cases) play a part in creating and/or maintaining a handwriting difficulty.

Example: 36-year-old "Dave" asked for ways to correct his serious handwriting errors, which (according to his statement and that of his employer) interfered with the successful performance of his job. Dave stated, however, that he "could not" accept any correction which would involve changing any detail in the way he wrote one or more letters, e.g., he would not accept closing the tops of a/d/g to differentiate them from u/cl/y. (These letters had provoked the most complaints from his employer, who had referred him to me as a "last chance" before firing.) When I asked Dave why he said that he "could not" accept specific changes, he replied: "Handwriting is something I do and so it is me. Every detail of my handwriting is my handwriting, so changing it would mean changing me, which I am not prepared to do. I know that I need to change, so I feel I need to have you give me an overall change that would be a change without changing any specific thing, because changing specific things would be changing me, and I have an issue with that. I never closed the tops of my a's, so I don't think I'm going to start now."

Dealing with this: I spent a few minutes discussing with Dave his identification of "a handwriting" and "the person who made the handwriting," reminding him (e.g.) that a set of written marks on paper does not "equal" a person. A person uses handwriting to represent himself (as in a signature), to convey his/her ideas (as in other written communications), but producing handwriting (plainly) does not equal producing a person (or we would have already had cloning for several thousand years by this time!). As the word differs from the thing, so handwriting differs from the person who produced it.

Example: One mother brought her 9-year-old son "Frank" to me at the request of his teacher who reported that he seemed "entirely unmotivated to write readably." Early in the visit, the mother anxiously asked if some way existed to make sure that learning to write legibly wouldn't lower Frank's IQ. The question puzzled me and I asked Frank's mother what had brought that possibility to mind for her. She answered: "Everybody knows that the intelligent and creative people write so you can't read it; the people with legible writing are dull and dumb and boring. So if Frank figures out how to write so that his teacher can read it, won't that take away his IQ and make him dull and boring?"

Dealing with this: It occurred to me that what Frank's mother claimed "everybody knows"--that "dumb and boring" people write so that we can read it--might well have something to do with Frank's lack of motivation in this regard! Not wishing to embarrass or contradict, I met the mother on her own level, agreeing that we certainly did not want to risk doing anything that might lower intelligence. "So let's find out for sure whether or not legible writing always does mean 'dull and dumb and boring.' Before you and Frank even start the handwriting-exercises I'll give you to do at home this week, I'd like you both to look at the handwritings of people you know, and see if all the legible ones really do come from 'dull and dumb and boring' people, and if all the illegible ones really do come from 'intelligent and creative' folks. You could also look up famous people on the Internet--a lot of websites about famous people include samples of their handwritings. Let me know what you find--do all the creative, intelligent, famous folks really scribble? Absolutely all of them? Or do some of them actually write so you can read it?"

They did the experiment, found at least a few intelligent and creative legible writers: Frank became willing to work on handwriting, showed noticeable improvement, and his mother stopped worrying that the improvement would ruin his fine mind.
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Title Annotation:Conference Papers
Author:Gladstone, Kate
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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