Friday, February 5, 2010

Handwriting Disasters – Part 5 of an Interview with Kate Gladstone

“You may not be able to read a doctor's handwriting and prescription, but you'll notice his bills are neatly typewritten.” – Earl Wilson

Today is the final installment of my interview with Kate Gladstone, the Handwriting Repairwoman. If you missed part of the interview or would like to review a section or read Kate's replies to comments, here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

In this day of technology, many people believe handwriting is no longer relevant, yet you have a site devoted to it. Why do you think it’s important not only to learn handwriting but to improve poor handwriting?

Kate: Well, for starters let's think back to Hurricane Katrina. Katrina hit right before the beginning of the school year – a lot of schoolchildren and teachers, who'd supposed that handwriting couldn't matter, got a scribal wake-up call when they had to go through most or all of the year without computers. And did you know that some of the Katrina survivors – at any age – found rescue only because they'd dropped handwritten messages into bottles? Imagine having an urgent reason to write something quickly; now imagine you cannot write legibly, decipherably, or at all, without an electric power supply that you don't have.

Still, it doesn't take hurricanes or other long-term disasters to make handwriting important. Let's look at the field of medicine. We all joke about doctors' bad handwriting, but you might think that it wouldn't matter in a world of electronic record-keeping and prescription systems. However, even in the most modern hospitals and pharmacies, handwriting legibility still matters. Hospitals that “computerized everything” two or five or ten years ago have called me to give classes, because a doctor given the latest computer will still have occasion to walk down the hall and slap a scribbled Post-It® onto a colleague's door or the wall of the nurses' station. And who usually sits in front of the computer, anyway? Not the doctor – usually a ward clerk or data entry specialist, trying to read three to six hours' worth of the doctor's hand-scribbled paperwork in order to type it all into the “paperless” entry system.

Even when doctors actually use their computers – think how many times a computer crashes, or the whole network goes down! When something can't wait for the computer and the network to restart, out come the pad of paper and the pen: two of the potentially deadliest medical instruments ever invented.

But it doesn't take disasters – or doctors – to make handwriting important. If you have kids or teenagers in school, you probably know that the SAT and other high-stakes exams have been relying more and more on timed handwritten essay questions.

Can you give us a few examples of disasters caused by bad handwriting?

Kate: Well, there are the medical disasters of course – in 1994, the AMA's summer conference revealed that 10% of Americans have suffered serious health hazards caused by illegible, incorrectly interpreted doctors' handwriting. Electronics haven't helped this as much as you might think: the electronic systems have a high failure rate, not all medical practices can afford to install them, and – even if the electronics are put in place and they actually work – practical considerations at most clinics and hospitals ensure that “computerization of records” normally turns out to mean that the doctor still writes the records by hand before sending them to the ward clerk or data entry specialist to enter into the computer. So any wrong guesses the ward clerk makes, trying to decipher 3 or 4 hours' worth of bad handwriting, get typed into the computer and immortalized erroneously until someone else eventually finds and corrects the mistake – if that ever happens, which often does not happen until the mistake has killed or seriously injured someone.

And of course, all the electronic medical recordkeeping in the world does not one bit of good when an emergency like Hurricane Katrina tears out the power lines. Doctors in emergency medicine situations – everything from civil disasters to battlefields – often have to work without an electrical power supply. No electrical connection means no electronics. At one hospital where I worked – in Florida right after Hurricane Katrina, the first week that this hospital got its generator back up – it turned out that they had computerized shortly before the disaster. Almost the first thing they had to do with their new computer system, right after they had it back on-line, was to go through the accumulated piles of not-quite-understandable emergency scribble and try to type this into the computer system: much of it defied decipherment. This may explain why a lot of the hospitals that use my handwriting instruction service make sure to have emergency medicine staffers attend the classes.

Of course, not all the handwriting disasters cause are medical. Bad handwriting caused an airline crash in December 1992 when a co-pilot scribbled a note to a pilot in such a way that certain letters and numerals looked like others. This caused the pilot to interpret a directional heading incorrectly, crashing the plane into a mountainside.

In 1965, a NASA satellite exploded during its launch because an engineer's hand-scribbled last-minute correction to a few lines of programming code left a semi-colon looking like a comma.

Because of an illegible address on a note to a fuel company staffer, at least one heating company pumped a full load of oil into a house that did not even use oil heat. By the time that homeowner returned from work, the “trivial” address error had flooded the basement with oil.

And if you want a financial disaster to go with all these dangers to life and limb – did you know that, since the mid-1990s, the US Postal Service has had to set up several facilities just for deciphering the illegible handwriting on packages and envelopes? They're called “Remote Encoding Centers” – there's a big one in Cohoes, New York, just down the road from me. There are ten of them across the country, staffed 9 to 5, each with a full-time staff doing literally nothing else but trying to decipher handwriting that's too dysfunctional for the regular post office staff to untangle. When a letter or package is addressed too indecipherably for processing, a post office employee makes an electronic scan of the illegible address, sends the scan to the nearest Remote Encoding Center, and the staff there tries to read the address and process it into the system. Think of the one or two misdelivered letters or badly addressed packages you probably get in a year – multiply that by 300 million Americans sending and receiving illegibly addressed items – and you'll see why it's a disaster, when you consider how much time, money, and effort must go to paying people to spend their lives just trying to make sense out of other people's bad handwriting.

But it doesn't take disasters – or doctors – to make handwriting important. If you have kids or teenagers in school, you probably know that the SAT and other high-stakes exams have been relying more and more on timed handwritten essay questions. Ironically, the same schools and tutoring centers which claim they “teach to the test” ignore handwriting – or don't do much more than occasionally show the kids a chart of alphabet-letters and ask them to please try to write like that somehow: a bit like trying to prepare kids for a basketball tournament by just showing them photos of the Harlem Globetrotters and asking them to please make that happen on the big day.

Every so often, some school or school district thinks about getting rid of pens, pencils, and writing altogether – “going paperless,” as they say. As far as I know, no school district that has ever gone paperless has stayed that way for more than four months – and, in the one school district that stayed paperless for four months (Macon, Georgia), those were summer months. The school board voted in May 2004 to switch all schools entirely from handwriting to computers, but by September the paper and the pens and the pencils – and the handwriting books – were right back in the classrooms where they had always been: because, between May and September, the school board had figured out that we haven't yet invented a computer as small as a pen or pencil that needs no power supply, that is cheap enough to give out in ten-packs and to replace immediately at need, and that can survive recess or a drop (accidentally or otherwise) onto a tile floor.

Are there any sites, books or articles you’d recommend for people wanting to find out more on handwriting?

Kate: Well, there's my own site, of course: Handwriting that Works – and I have a colleague in Texas, Maureen Vickery, who shares other information on her similarly named web-site Handwriting Makeover.

Where can people find out more about you and your work?

Kate:Visit my web-site at HandwritingThatWorks. You'll find tips, tricks, surveys, and statistics on handwriting, links to the resource sites mentioned above and to many, many others, an Amazon ordering portal so that you can conveniently order the handwriting items I recommend, many more handwriting help pages including one designed specifically for left-handers – and, of course, a link to the Politician Legibility Act petition and the World Handwriting Contest information.

The site gets regular updates as I find new information, resources, and links to share. The most recent pieces of new information there, of course, are the Contest launch announcement for 2010, and the links to the Better Letters personal handwriting trainer software which Dr. Castro and I designed for the iPhone and the iPodTouch. You may also wish to go directly to the Better Letters application's own informational page – or see a video of the software in action at BetterLettersVideo.

On my site, you'll also find links to many of the other sites I recommend for handwriting information and improvement: The Society for Italic Handwriting, Handwriting Makeover , BFH Handwriting,, Handwriting Success, and Christopher Jarman. The first of these sites is the web-site of the Society for Italic Handwriting – the others belong to various colleagues of mine: some of whom, like myself, are members of that society.

Thank you, Kate, for a very interesting look at a side of bad penmanship I had never considered before. It makes me want to double check a pilot or doctor’s penmanship before I put my life in their hands.

I hope you all have enjoyed Kate’s visits as much as I have. I had no idea that the subject of handwriting could turn into a week’s worth of blogs. I know I’ll never look at handwriting the same way again.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Earl Wilson, Kate Gladstone, handwriting disasters, Hurricane Katrina, NASA,


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Can't imagine a school going totally paperless. What about the kids who can't afford a computer at home?
Every book I've ever written has been hand-written first before I enter the words into the computer. And I'll probably always do it that way, as I feel more creative and unihibited hand-writing than typing.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This has been a really interesting series. Thanks, Jane, for having Kate over and reminding me to take more effort with my own handwriting.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Tamika: said...

Wow- I never realized the impact this has had recently. This is notewortthy for sure.

Over the years my handwriting has taken a turn for the worse.

Joanne said...

Very enlightening series. Handwriting seems like such a necessary form of communication, for all the reasons you've mentioned. I think to physically create those words, through cursive, gives us a better understanding of communicating, in a way. It adds to the thought process. Thanks for sharing.

Carol Kilgore said...

Thanks to both of you for this series. Jane, thanks for hosting. And Kate, I learned a lot. Thank you.

joe doaks-Author said...

"...most or all of the year without computers." I nearly died after a few days of no Internet! Nor did I realize there had been actual NASA disasters attributable to this issue. Interesting stuff. Fortunately, the only danger I face is the inability to read my grocery store note...Lettuce or Legumes?

Best Wishes Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

KateGladstone said...

L. Diane -- of course, another (and even bigger) problem when schools try to go paperless is that the kids VERY quickly find out that they can go "study-less" (for a while at least) by ... well, "accidentally" taking their laptops or other expensive technology onto the playground, dropping it on a tile floor, or doing something else that puts it out of commission and therefore puts their education "on hold" for hours, days, or even weeks until the school can scrounge up a replacement for the smashed item.
Pencils, pens, and paper -- on the other hand -- are cheap and easy to replace (and usually survive recess and tiled floors).

Elizabeth and Tamika -- let me know if I can help in any way with your efforts to improve your handwriting.

Joanne -- you write on the importance of "physically creat[ing] those words, through cursive [my emphasis]... "

Why specifically "through cursive"? As a user and teacher of Italic handwriting, I have always had a very hard time understanding why a number of the people who write in cursive believe, apparently, that some particular magic inhabits cursive and no other style of handwriting.

To all who have contributed to, or who have read and pondered, these recent postings on Jane's Ride -- thanks for thinking about this topic.

Thanks especially if the discussion is motivating you to improve your handwriting (whether you choose to better your existing style or to explore another style) and particular thanks if you are now considering how to improve the handwriting instruction that your children receive. Again, I will help with any of these areas: you'll find my contact info on my web-site.

And to Jane Sutton -- thanks for inviting me to visit!

Darcia Helle said...

Jane, I really enjoyed this series of interviews. The issue with doctors and medical error is a huge one that I've read quite a bit about. I've often wondered why doctors aren't held to a higher standard as far as legibility. Your medical records and prescription information is important stuff that should be easily read. Yet, I swear they are purposely taught to scrawl illegibly in medical school!

KateGladstone said...

Darcia -- medical schools do not teach MDs to scribble illegibly (yes, I've asked!) ... but, as far as I know, writing illegibly does not disqualify a student from finishing medical school.

I wonder what it would take to persuade medical schools to make legible handwriting a requirement for graduation ...

Nancy J. Parra said...

Oooh- fabulous series. Sorry, it's taken me so long to read it. Thanks Jane for hosting and thanks Kate for thoughtful insights.

My daughter has essential tremor-her hands shake- but her handwriting is so much better than mine because she writes with thoughtful care. It really helped her in school and college. Cheers~

Enid Wilson said...

Very interesting views. I admit I can't write stories with long hand any more. The laptop has ruled over my life.

Really Angelic

KateGladstone said...

Nancy -- Please congratulate your daughter for me. Also congratulate her teachers, who didn't just excuse her from something she could do well and usefully. (Realistically, some people never will write legibly -- or at all -- and should not be tortured to do what they cannot do. You can't necessarily tell in advance, though, until you give it a try. After all, I am one of those people who was told that I would never write competently by hand, would never enjoy it, and should stick to keyboards or recording devices for everything.)

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world