One of the great things about the English language is that it changes over time. This can also be problematic, however, especially when words take on new definitions — or different connotations.
The word "crutch" is a term that falls into the latter category. Today, it has two common definitions, each of which is at odds with the other. “Crutch,” in the context of assistive technology (AT) and how students with dyslexia learn, can spark debate that is driven both by semantics and emotion.
"Crutch" as a Negative
One definition of “crutch” refers to something that a person uses for help or support, maybe too much. It is sometimes even considered risky or counterproductive, for fear that the user will develop an overreliance on the aid it provides. Regrettably, these negative connotations seem to attach themselves when people talk about assistive technology getting in the way of students’ learning.
Teachers and parents who are apprehensive about AT “don’t want it to become a crutch” for their dyslexic students and children. Advocates who are supportive of AT are skilled in explaining the ways in which “it is not a crutch.” Unfortunately, by making even a well-intentioned argument, those advocates are effectively perpetuating the negative connotations the word has taken on.
I have used “crutch” in a negative sense more times than I would like to admit. Luckily, a strong-minded parent set me straight. After giving a recent community talk (during which I presented my case against “AT as a crutch”) the parent came up to me and resolutely expressed her displeasure with my use of the word in this way. She explained that her daughter, in addition to having a learning disability, uses crutches to accommodate a physical disability. In my presentation, I had overlooked the other common definition of “crutch,” and I had been unintentionally offensive.
"Crutch" as a Positive
Perhaps the more common meaning of “crutch” is the one that refers to a device to aid in walking. That definition lacks negative overtones, and I do not believe that anyone would argue against the use of crutches for fear that a physically disabled person would become too reliant on them.
So how did we come to refer to AT as a negative “crutch” when it comes to learning disabilities? Maybe it has something to do with a reluctance to identify such tools as operating in effective ways. Maybe it involves a lack of understanding about the ways in which assistive technology works, or how it can help students reach their potentials in school. Whatever the reason, the time has come to dispense with the negative connotations that are associated with the word “crutch.”
I recently gave an interview to Belinda Luscombe at Time magazine, who wrote an article about AT for students with dyslexia. In her piece, she refers to assistive technologies as “crutches” — not in the negative sense that we have come to expect through colloquial usage, but in an empowering sense. She describes the ways in which the various tools mentioned in the article give dyslexics the help they need, when they need it. That is a healthy way to look at AT — the technology may not always be necessary, but it is available when it’s required.
You can find similar articles, including AT tips for dyslexic students, elsewhere on Noodle.
As assistive technology continues to develop and meet the needs of more students, it is important to realize that software, apps, and websites that aid with reading and writing are just tools. They provide alternative ways of receiving information and of demonstrating knowledge and understanding. Because students still have to think for themselves in order to comprehend a piece of writing or articulate their thoughts, they are in little danger of becoming overly dependent on their computers and smartphones. In fact, all the students that I have trained to use AT would rather read and write without the technology if they could.
Using the word “crutch” pejoratively should never be part of any discussion about assistive technology. This rule should hold true for AT proponents and naysayers alike. If someone must use the word, it should always be as a positive. Just as we should not be afraid to use the word "dyslexia" to name a neurological condition that causes difficulty with language, we should not be afraid to use the word "crutch" to describe the assistive technology that can help alleviate that difficulty. After all, we all need crutches of some kind to help with the things we cannot do on our own.
Jamie Martin has written many articles on assistive technology for Noodle, and our site also hosts many other resources for students with learning disabilities and differences.