How technology will help people with dyslexia graduate (and how it already has)

Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disorders, affecting between 5% and 10% of the population, so it’s no surprise that technology is being developed to help students with dyslexia.  And the need is there – high school dropout rates for students with dyslexia is 35%, nearly double the average rate.

At the most basic, the common definition of dyslexia is a learning disorder that impairs one’s ability to read, but it is also a very loosely defined disorder, and symptoms can range between difficulty in recognizing voices to reversing letters to being unable to count objects.  The breadth of symptoms alone is one of the biggest challenges faced by companies that would like to develop software to aid people with dyslexia, which has resulted in there being more programs that aid specific symptoms rather than dyslexia as a whole. 

Some programs such as Word Wizard and Pocket Phonics help people with dyslexia translate the written word into an auditory one, and hopefully teach users how to do this themselves over time.  Other apps such as Naturally Speaking work the other way, taking the spoken word and transfer it to text, which can help students who understand what they want to say but have difficulty actually writing it.  Games such as Boggle or WordShark can be used to teach children and adults with dyslexia how to be better spellers.

These programs are great for treating the symptoms of dyslexia, but there are significantly fewer programs designed specifically for dyslexia, as you can see in this most recent post of “Motherload,” a NY Times blog.  One of the more interesting programs out there is Ghotit, a contextual spell checker and text-to-speech program founded by people with dyslexia to aid people with dyslexia, named after the joke that you can spell the word fish as “ghoti.”  Some of the difficulties people with dyslexia face that Ghotit addresses are homophones and words that are spelled too poorly for a common spell check to understand, such as when I recently spelled syllable “silabal.”

As someone with a mild form of dyslexia, I find all of these programs are very interesting, and I can’t help but wonder how my education might have been different if I’d had these to help me out.  However, the one type of program that has aided me the most, and I’m sure this is true of many people with dyslexia, is the humble word processor.  I literally could not have a job with even basic business writing responsibilities without a spell check, and I probably couldn’t have graduated from college, or at least not with an English degree.  A word processor is especially useful for me, because among the many, many symptoms associated with dyslexia is bad handwriting, where the hand struggles to keep up with the brain.  If I’d had to turn in a handwritten cover letter, it would be not only filled with spelling errors, but practically illegible, no matter how much time I spent practicing.  As someone who simply can’t learn to spell (I only learned my b’s and d’s apart from thinking of the word “bed” forming a headboard and footboard, and I still can’t spell the words “tongue,” “alcohol” or “review” on my first try), I can’t imagine my life without a word processor, which might be how some students will feel about Ghotit or Naturally Speaking.

This is still a marketplace for apps and programs helping students with dyslexia.  No one can cure dyslexia, but technology can help a student graduate.  It will be interesting to see how programs such as Dyslexie, a font that weights letters to make them more easily recognized by people with dyslexia, are utilized by teachers working with children with dyslexia.