Putting dyslexia first with technology

One of the things that it is all too easy to forget is that if a child is ‘playing up’ in class, it could be a disability issue rather than a behavioural one. I have known that for a long time, but attending a Technology for Print Disabilities Training Day served as a useful reminder. That training day, just to put this article in context, was run by Load2Learn, a partnership venture between Dyslexia Action and the RNIB.

Reading doesn't HAVE to be this hard. Photo by Jixar http://www.flickr.com/photos/j1x4r/One root cause, for example, could be one of the many manifestations of dyslexia. Fortunately, there are ways that technology can help. Unfortunately, knowing that is of little use to the teacher trying to restore some semblance of order in her classroom. What needs to happen, in my opinion, is that potential disability issues are addressed first rather than last – or, more accurately, as part of the natural thinking process when devising a new scheme of work or even a single lesson.

For example, to stay with the dyslexia and related issues theme, here are some questions you might want to ask when evaluating any resource you are thinking about using or buying (see below). You might like to ask them of salespeople peddling their latest product that is destined to change the world of education as we know it. I can almost guarantee that if you do, the reply you receive will be something along the lines of:

“Yes, that’s a very good point. We’re looking at addressing those issues in a future phase of the project.”

Translated as: “Oh gosh, we didn’t think of that!” or “We wanted to deal with the mainstream ie majority of students first, and then these other people when we’ve perfected the product.”

Attempting to address so-called mainstream issues first is understandable, but is actually not entirely sensible for one very simple reason: if you produce something that will satisfy the needs of students with special needs, you’re almost bound to satisfy everyone else.

But this could be pretty costly, right? Wrong! Or at least, not necessarily. Many dyslexia-related issues can be resolved through features within the software you already use. Adobe Reader, for instance, has a zoom feature that goes up to 6,400%, as shown in the screenshot below. Other products are open source, such as the My Study Bar suite of applications.

Adobe lets you zoom up to 6,400%

In fact, there’s a lot you can do without doing very much at all. Look at the BBC’s accessibility suggestions, for example, and the inclusion technology advice at JISC, both of which were cited in the course of the training day I’ve referred to.

So here are seven very basic questions to consider when buying or creating a resource:

  • Can it be magnified?
  • If so, by how much?
  • Can the colour scheme be changed? Easily?
  • Can the text be read out?
  • If so, can it be read one word at a time?
  • Can the voice be changed?
  • does it have appropriate illustrations?

Another approach, and one adopted on the training day itself, is to start with your students’ needs rather than with the resource or the technology. That is to say, when creating or buying resources ask yourself and discuss with colleagues what technology would be appropriate for, say, Fred, who does his utmost to get out of any task which requires him to write something.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course.

As well as any ethical or legal reasons for doing one’s utmost to fully include students with special needs, there is also, of course, the simple one of enlightened self-interest. Unhappy and disengaged kids can ‘act out’ ie be manifestly disruptive, or ‘act in’, ie say nothing to contribute to group work or class discussions. The probable outcome from either type of response is that less learning will take place. Given that dyslexia is on a spectrum, rather than an either-or phenomenon, it’s more than likely that some of your students will have a reading difficulty of some kind.

In fact, according to Dyslexia Action, 1 in 5 children are excluded from the classroom due to a reading difficulty. The term ‘excluded’ is meant in the sense of  ‘not included’, with the child not being able to engage with or access the lesson as they can’t read the whiteboard or text, rather than in the sense of the child being chucked out of the classroom (although, as Madeleine Penney of Dyslexia Action reflected in an email to me, one tends to lead to the other).

Either way, 1 in 5 is 20%, which in my book is a pretty sizeable proportion.

I wrote this as a guest blogger on behalf of Dyslexia Action, but my opinions are my own.