Life is funny sometimes. We create technology to solve a problem, only to create a new problem. Then we create more technology to solve those problems.
Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by a difficulty reading. It is not a sign of laziness or low intelligence. In fact many dyslexics are very bright and highly creative. The list of famous people with dyslexia is prestigious.
Dyslexia is a brain disorder. It’s not that they can not see or read the letters in front of them, it’s that they have trouble converting those symbols into words. Dyslexia runs in families. Their brains are slightly different on MRI scans and they use different portions of the brain to compensate for the way their brains are. (Please note, different does not imply better or worse.)
Dyslexia is a man made disease. Writing is a technology and a recent one at that. Our brains simply didn’t evolve to read. We have to learn to do it. There is nothing natural about the process.
How recent is writing?
Sumerian cuneiform is generally recognized as the first written language, originating around 3100 bce, over five thousand years ago. There is a yet undeciphered Harappan language that might predate it by a few hundred years. Counting and trading tokens predate actually writing and may go back nearly nine thousand years. While nine thousand years is a long time in history, it’s a blip in human evolution.
This kind of symbol processing is new to our brains. If you do not have dyslexia, that’s pure luck. You happened to have the right neuro-pathways in your brain to complete a completely unnatural mental task. You should really quit telling dyslexics they have a disorder and admit you got lucky.
Even though writing has been around for more five thousand years, widespread literacy is much newer. For most of history, writing was kept for an elite few. Broad public education for the masses was a notion that only became common in the 1700’s. Even then many labor class children dropped out of school early to work. Throughout the 1800’s for example, literacy in Great Britain hovered around fifty percent.
The biggest change in the last century, the change that has led to a rise in dyslexia in the western world is not just a rise in literacy, but a rise in it’s importance. The dwindling labor economy and growing service economy of the late twentieth century and today require literacy.
This is not only true of dyslexia, but also for ADHD, Asperger’s and many learning disorders. A hundred years ago having a learning disorder limited your academic life, but there were many other avenues to having a good life. Gone are the days of apprenticeships, learning skills hands on from a master craftsman. Gone are the days of making a decent living without an education. My point is not that people didn’t suffer from dyslexia before the twentieth century, but that it wasn’t the same barrier to success that it is today.
None of these disorders are diseases in the medical sense. They are differences in brain chemistry or make up, but they make it incredibly hard to succeed in our highly specialized society that demands reading and academic achievement of every citizen.
So what are we going to do about them? That’s always a good question. Technology has recently provided some interesting answers to the question of dyslexia.
Dyslexics often have difficulty translating letters into the correct mental meaning in their minds. Certain letters offer a greater challenge than others. Flipping letters, perceiving a b as d or vice versa, is a common symptom. It was probably not surprising that someone would decide that maybe we should look at the letters themselves, instead of the brains of dyslexics. Open Dyslexic is a font created for dyslexic readers. The letters of Opendyslexic are shaded in such a way as to help readers avoid flipping or inverting them. The creators admit that it doesn’t work for every single dyslexic, but it can be a godsend for some. If you or someone you love has dyslexia, you can download the font here.
Once the font is installed on a computer, using it with any word processors should be a snap, so if you can get editable files from school or wherever, you can convert them to this font. For ereaders it might be tougher. The Kobo allows custom fonts. Epub files, like Apple and Kobo can include custom fonts. If you are a little bit of a geek, you can use Calibre to add Opendyslexic to your favorite epub books. As of right now, Kindle doesn’t allow custom fonts but maybe someday they will, or at least include Opendyslexic in their fonts.
This page will show you how to change your fonts on most web browsers. With so much of our reading being done digitally these days, there is hope that we can adjust that reading to suit the reader, rather than forcing the reader to adjust themselves.
But there is more to reading, and reading issues, than the shape of the letters. Another interesting development is Asymetrica. This article talks about how the spaces between letters affect reading comprehension and engagement. A web browser tool can be found here.
Human beings have a real knack for changing the environment around us. Unfortunately we often create as many problems as we solve in this way. Writing has been one of our greatest inventions of all times, and has revolutionized our world many times over. However for an estimated one in ten people that have dyslexia, it has made life a lot tougher. They struggle to learn what is increasingly an essential skill. They may be told they are stupid or lazy; lies that simply hold them back.
Hopefully the same knack for changing the environment can be turned to good. As we learn more about this disorder and as we come to rely more on digital technology, changing the reading environment to make it easier for dyslexics to read seems like a life changing idea. Hopefully we can get the word out about these projects and others like them.
In my science fiction serial The Galactic Consortium, humans living in the consortium don’t have dyslexia, ADHD, or any of the learning disorders common on earth. At first they wonder why this is, they aren’t so different from us after all. The truth is buried so deep in their history that they’ve forgotten it. Their educational system and digital environment was adjusted millennia ago to accommodate a wider range of human neurology. Their script has been optimized for comprehension and their educational system is flexible and works with many different learning styles. I can only hope our real world systems will learn the same lesson in our near future.