Dyslexia and tech - help is at hand, but there's still more to do

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett July 12, 2021 Audio mode
Summary:
Dyslexia is much more common than many people think but it can cause significant challenges for those with the condition. So what can technology do to help – and is it enough?

dyslexia

According to latest estimates, as many as one in seven, or about 14%, of the global population has some level of dyslexia, according to global neurodiversity consultant, Darren Clark.

But the reason why the figures are just estimates is that, while most people these days are identified as having the neurological condition when still at school, others continue to slip through the net - Clark included, who only received his own diagnosis at the age of 36. In the meantime, he developed various mechanisms to cope, which ranged from creating a support network of people willing to help if needed to going for a walk if starting to feel overwhelmed.

Because as Clark, who is a member of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group advising the British Government on issues associated with specific learning difficulties, points out, although people tend to associate dyslexia with difficulties in reading, writing and spelling, in reality it has a “behavioral element” too, which for him often manifests as restlessness.

Donna Stevenson, Commercial Training and Development Executive at the British Dyslexia Association, explains:

Everyone has their own unique manifestation, but there are some general characteristics. Literacy issues are often part of the experience, but there isn’t one size fits all. So while some people will have severe literacy challenges where things like assistive technology really help, others may not have much of an issue - or they did when they were kids but had lots of support and so either overcame it or developed coping strategies. For still others, numbers are a challenge. But many people focus on the literacy side of things and don’t realise it affects other areas of the brain, such as executive function, as well. Dyslexia is about how you visually process information, so it affects how you think and use it, how you organise yourself and your thoughts, and there are also short-term memory issues too.

Although the vast majority of people are born with dyslexia and live with it throughout their lives, for a small percentage, it can manifest as a result of brain injury following an accident, such as a car crash. But the condition does have its benefits, or “super powers”, as Stevenson calls them:

Due to neuroscience, we understand that people with dyslexia are good at atypical problem-solving, that is thinking in creative ways – and not just in the arts. A large number have great people skills, a lot of empathy and are very good verbal communicators. But they’re also often ideas people and thought leaders who change the world with their inventions - Leonardo De Vinci, Steve Jobs, Einstein and Henry Ford were all dyslexic and were most likely able to do what they did not despite of their dyslexia but because of it.

As a result of these gifts, dyslexics tend to be disproportionately represented – current guesstimates are that between 20% and 25% work - in people-centred professions, such as the emergency services and beauty, or in practical jobs where problem-solving is required, such as science, construction, and design.

The power of assistive technology

Nonetheless, because of the problems dyslexic people can face in a neurotypical world, the condition is now classed as a learning difficulty or disorder. It is also recognised as a disability in the UK – it is the country’s highest instance disability, in fact - under the Equality Act 2010, whereas in the US, each individual’s situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, it is something that employers are expected to take seriously and accommodate as much as possible.

A key way to help in a workplace context is by providing technological support. At a basic level, the Microsoft 365 desktop suite provides a range of functions, such as a calendar and list-making software that can alert dyslexic people to deadlines, thereby helping them to organise their time more effectively. It also includes applications that enable users to listen to text or convert speech to text. As Stevenson says:

The ability to listen to documents is in the top five most popular technology options as it helps people speed up the time it takes to process information. Recording things like meetings on phones or tablets, or using a dictaphone if employers don’t want things recorded on phones, is also useful as people can go back and listen to something again, which helps with executive function issues, such as memory. Many folks with dyslexia get nervous when it’s a long meeting, but if they know they can record it, it takes the stress out of the situation.

Another useful tool, she adds, are communication platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, as they enable users to stay in touch with ‘buddies’ or mentors who are able to provide them with the support they need.

But there are also various add-on tools that can be integrated into existing applications to make life easier too, says Ryan Graham, Chief Technology Officer at assistive technology specialists, Texthelp, which produces Read&Write for Work. The software provides everything from text-to-speech functionality to grammar checking, word prediction and screen masking tools, which provide an overlay on top of Word documents that enable people to focus on only certain areas of a given text, thereby making it easier to read. But as Graham says:

Employers often don’t necessarily know if people have dyslexia and, even if they do, people can feel uncomfortable in being singled out for support. So it’s generally in the organisation’s best interest to ensure everyone has access to appropriate tools and that they don’t interfere with people’s life and work. Many tools ask you to use a special interface, but it can be a real productivity killer if you’re moving in and out of applications, so there needs to be as little friction as possible.

In terms of the disclosure issue, a 2017 report by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission for Dsylexia and Neurodivergence, revealed that a huge 73% of job-seekers fail to disclose that they are neurodivergent at the interview stage due to fear of discrimination - and not everyone feels comfortable enough to do so once they have been taken on either.

Taking a bespoke approach

But for people who have obtained and shared their diagnosis, Clark advises both IT and HR professionals to work in partnership with them in order to understand their needs and avoid simply imposing things on them. He explains:

Don’t just take a ‘one size fits all’ approach and say ‘this will solve everything’. It’s important to understand what technology’s out there and how people can best use it to help themselves, which means they should have the opportunity to provide input. Assistive technology helps lessen anxiety and stress, so it’s something that should be embedded into the structure of company. When people start work somewhere, they’re given a laptop and phone, so it’s just about thinking a bit beyond that.

He himself routinely uses OrCam Read, a handheld, wireless device with a smart camera that reads out text from any printed surface or digital screen, to support his needs.

In Stevenson’s view though, what it all amounts to is taking a “bespoke” approach, particularly as people with dyslexia are often neurodivergent in other ways too. Another important consideration is checking in at least annually to ensure an individual’s needs have not changed and that their software does not require an upgrade.

Despite the valuable role that technology can play, however, she believes that in and of itself it is simply not enough:

The most important thing is the organization’s culture, atmosphere and attitude because if it’s inclusive and positive and people feel listened to, everything else flows from that. There’s nothing that can’t be figured out then as people feel they can be open in talking about things. It’s a much better way to work and also makes good business sense – if you get the culture right, you’re more likely to retain staff and get the most out of them too. Too many people are still scared to speak up and there’s still a stigma in many industries, but that’s not the way to get the best out of anyone.

Graham agrees:

Technology is a really great thing to help remove the barriers if you’re dyslexic and there are people who rely on it. But you also need a supportive culture that raises awareness of the issues they face. Technology can support people to a certain extent but it has to go hand-in-hand with an inclusive culture. It’s not enough in isolation.

My take

As is always the case when dealing with people-related challenges, technology can only ever go so far. While it’s a useful tool and can make a significant impact on individuals lives, the key thing is creating a supportive, inclusive environment in which everyone is able to flourish.