Dyslexia – Not Just Word Blindness

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A blog piece by Barry Hill

In the third of our events, which took place on July 12th, we met two people with different perspectives on dyslexia and how the condition has impacted their lives and careers.  Over forty people attended, and I don’t believe this was just for the free beer and pizza.

Rob's talk

Although I’m part of the host team, I felt more like one of the attendees.  I thought I knew what dyslexia was and how it impacted people with the condition, but Robert and Fraser showed me that I was way short of the mark.  Attending this event was emotive, instructive, and inspiring. 

Robert Coop 

Robert Coop, who has mild dyslexia, is the founder of Hippo Digital, who provided the venue for the evening.

Robert opened the event with some very interesting facts and what he described as “vague statistics” on dyslexia.  It wasn’t Robert’s fault that the stats were a little vague; there simply aren’t any reliable stats on the condition.  He explained that this is because there isn’t even a reliable worldwide definition of dyslexia!

He went on to describe some of what he called “irritating things about dyslexia” that effect his life.  For example, he has to work out every time which his right and left hand is, and he also has difficulty following signs that are not blatantly obvious.

Fraser Davidson

Fraser Davidson, who has severe dyslexia, described some of the difficulties he has had from when he was a young lad at school.  Because words were so difficult for him, he preferred art and rugby. He has always hated words and so, when he left school, he chose a physical career in engineering where he now manages a team of over 60 staff and travels worldwide with his work. 

I’m sure he won’t mind me telling you that he got quite emotional when he started telling us about some software that transformed his life ten years ago.  Clarospeak works with popular programs such as Microsoft Word and Outlook to turn digital text into speech (as long as it’s not an image of text), can be used to correct spelling errors by giving Fraser definitions on the fly, and can even be used on a mobile device to read printed text.

Both Robert and Fraser also explained that there are other issues that “come with dyslexia” that are not directly connected to reading and writing.  Prioritising things in their personal lives wasn’t always straight forward and having to avoid reading/writing was sometimes embarrassing.

Joint Q&A Session

The event ended with a Q&A session with both Robert and Fraser.  Out of this, Fraser explained that there is a growing awareness and understanding of dyslexia, but that the understanding falls over when a person is unaware of how it can affect him.  

Robert challenged content writers to be careful what and where to put important content on the page:

“Don’t put something you want me to read halfway down the content because I might not read that far even if it is large font and in red.”

Robert and Fraser taught us that despite the learning difficulty that comes with dyslexia, people with dyslexia can learn and achieve; they just learn in a different way and work harder to achieve. 

Conclusion

The take home messages for digital practitioners were:

  • make sure that digital media follows established and familiar conventions;
  • don’t rely solely on text – use a combination of text and images;
  • follow the teaching of Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common-sense Approach to Web Usability … “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left”.

We are very grateful to Robert and Fraser for their honesty and candid presentations.  With just two people, we saw how diverse dyslexia can be and that it is much more than difficulty reading words.