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Students Complain About Changes in RSI Assistance

Scribe service 'drastically' reduced for afflicted typists


Students who suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)--arm and wrist pains usually caused by excessive typing or poor typing skills--are finding it more difficult to get help from the University this year.

Rachel W. Podolsky '00, a leader of the RSI Action Group, said the Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC) has cut back its services "drastically."

"I used scribes all spring semester to do all my problem sets," she said. But Podolsky did not get a scribe this fall.

"They dropped the program, which is really too bad for a student who's at his or her wits end," she said. "They'll give the student scribes for a month, then they expect him or her to work it out for themselves."

The SDRC will provide free scribes for students "on an as-needed basis," Louise Russell, SDRC director, said in an e-mail message.

Russell added that students suffering from RSI may obtain voice recognition software for free from SDRC.

"Students who are registered with our office can have the software installed on their personal system (compatibility permitting) and receive training in its use for no cost," Russell said.

Although voice recognition software, such as "Naturally Speaking," is often an effective way for students to complete text-based work, the software is less helpful with math homework and problem sets.

The Harvard RSI Action web site, (, tells students who are looking for help beyond dictation software to check the Student Employment Database for typists and scribes, whom the SDRC will pay for a limited time.

While there are no exact statistics on how many Harvard students suffer from RSI, many said they believed the number has been increasing over the past few years.

"My guess is that there has been a trend towards increase," said David C. Fox, a member of Harvard RSI Action.

Dr. Jeffrey N. Katz, chair of the provost's study on Keyboard-Associated Upper Extremity Disorders, said an increasing dependence on computers may be the cause of the trend.

"I think that students are on their computers all the time," Katz said. "They run their social lives by e-mail, they correspond with their families by e-mail."

According to Katz, 95 percent of Harvard students own their own computers.

"Virtually all students take courses that involve picking up and transmitting assignments on the Harvard web page," Katz said. "There's no doubt that there's been an extra dependence on the computer."

Fox said costs are a barrier to providing more services to students with RSI.

"The big problem overall is finding someone willing to take responsibility or pay for what services are needed," Fox said.

Although Podolsky said she had not been planning on utilizing the service of scribes this year, "it [still] affects me in the sense that I am one of the leaders of the RSI Action Group."

"I can no longer tell students that they can go to the office and get scribes," she said. "That was a comforting thing."

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