ISU's 'Writing Through Change' online course assists Iowans with disabilities

AMES, Iowa -- Mary Swander has had to work through several disabilities in her life on her way to becoming Iowa's poet laureate. She sustained debilitating injuries in car accidents, and also had to overcome a severe environmental allergic reaction that required her to grow her own foods while remaining largely isolated from others for eight years.

While dealing with her disabilities, writing remained a therapeutic outlet for Swander, an Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of English. For that reason, she's made it part of her poet laureate platform to bring awareness to people with disabilities and offer them creative outlets through writing. And that's why she helped establish "Writing Through Change" -- a six-week, noncredit ISU online creative writing course for Iowans with disabilities.

Taught this summer by Kim Rogers, an Iowa State Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing and the environment and instructor in composition, the course is designed to be an online version of the University of Iowa's "Patient Voice Project," which offers free creative writing classes to individuals with chronic and mental illness in the Iowa City area. Because the course is conducted online through Moodle -- an online course management system that provides a virtual learning environment -- this summer's 14 students have come from all over the state and don't have to leave their homes.

"Essentially, the University of Iowa's program serves only those in the Iowa City area," Rogers said. "And Mary's (Swander) idea was, 'Why don't we do something online that can serve all of Iowa rather than just a small region?' And I would say the class has done that relatively well."

As part of the Iowa's Patient Voice Project, ISU's Writing Through Change is funded by Johnson & Johnson/Society for the Arts in Healthcare. The class encourages creativity and builds self-expression through short readings, journaling, and narrative and visualization exercises.

Diane Kolmer (photo right) of West Des Moines says she's found the class to be therapeutic. A former lobbyist, news reporter and TV assignment editor and producer who has multiple sclerosis, Kolmer is using the class to refine poetry writing and storytelling skills that she developed in college. And she's been touched and inspired by Swander's writing.

"It [Swander's writing] focuses on her own journey of writing through her illness and learning what that illness and her writing means to her life," wrote Kolmer, who will receive a "Volunteer of the Year" award from Gov. Chet Culver on Friday. "I just finished reading 'Desert Pilgrim' by Professor Swander. That book has so many things that correlate with my experience, both with illness and spirituality."

The daughter of the late dean of Iowa State's College of Agriculture (Lee Kolmer), Kolmer is trying to follow Swander's lead through the ISU class, producing fiction narratives that touch on conflicts born of disability, including this excerpt:

The worn, county two lane highway was not the thoroughfare of its early days, now it was more of a local's road, on the way to coffee with neighbors or to church just off the intersection. Like the locals it was a bit seedy around its edges, no manicured white gravel shoulder but a tall collection of dandelions, milkweed and Kentucky bluegrasses so close to the pavement it could overtake the concrete path any day now.

This desolation is what feeds my peace. Anxiety attacks and generalized social/population pressure brought me back home, even in its heyday this little piece of ground was a quiet venue of seasons and souls.

Rogers has been impressed with both the quality and quantity of the writing that students, like Kolmer, have produced this summer. She says that may reflect how the class is having the desired effect.

"The whole idea behind it [the class] is based on art therapy," she said. "While someone is struggling with a disability, being creative through your writing or your artwork can be a diversion. And so art can heal you, or at least aid in your healing. It can also keep you both mentally active and socially engaged while giving you a chance to express yourself. And there are many studies that prove the therapeutic benefits [of this kind of class]."

Funding for the Writing Through Change program will run out this summer. Swander and other organizers are actively seeking additional funding to expand the class to be offered in both the fall and spring semesters, as well as the summer.