Back to blog

Dyslexia - how to support users with hidden disabilities

Thu, 18 Apr 2013

Jan Seabourne, Guild Administrator and Librarian at the training and education department at Dyslexia Action, looks at easy ways to support your dyslexic users (reproduced from the Prison Libraries Group Journal)

We hear the word dyslexia a lot.

“Dys” means difficulty and “Lexis” means language, so Dyslexia = difficulty with words. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Label someone as a dyslexic and basically they can’t read and write. Actually, it is a bit more complex than that. Dyslexic people are intelligent and often very competent in many disciplines. Their reading, writing and spelling abilities do not measure up to their intellectual ability. As well as some drawbacks in a very literacy focused society, dyslexia also brings strengths. Many dyslexic people will have good interpersonal skills, be good at practical activities, 3-D and visual-spatial activities, lateral thinking, problem solving, and are often creative and imaginative. Some famous dyslexic people include Sir Richard Rogers, Eddy Izzard, Kara Tointon, Ozzy Osbourne, Anthea Turner, Albert Einstein and poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The dyslexic person may appear confident in some situations but quite fragile in others. The only thing we can say with certainty is that no two people are exactly the same and the impact of dyslexia on each individual is different.

Dyslexia is classified as a disability but many people go undiagnosed all their lives. This is because there are varying levels of severity and many people develop coping strategies that may mask their difficulties. Around 52% of the prison population have a disability and around 21% have dyslexia. 48% of prisoners have literacy skills at or below Level 1 and 65% have numeracy skills at or below Level 1. Level 1 is what is expected of an eleven year old. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people in the general population have dyslexia and about 50% of those also have another Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD). Some of these co-occurring difficulties include:

  • ADD affects attention, concentration, planning and regulating.
  • Dyspraxia includes spatial awareness, motor skills and co-ordination (clumsiness).
  • Autistic Spectrum Disorders affect interpretation in context (it is raining cats and dogs) and social significance and interaction.
  • Dyslexia itself affects words, sounds, memory and sequencing.

Hold on, how am I going to remember all this?

Learning involves three main processes that operate across our five senses: encoding (or taking in information which depends on focusing and concentrating on what we hear, see, smell, taste or feel); storage (or holding this new sensory information in memory which depends on organisation strategies) and retrieval (or being able to recall stored information at will, or being able to recognise something that you have heard, seen, smelt, tasted, felt before).

A lot of this information fades from memory, unless we make a conscious effort to remember it. If you need a plumber, you look up the number and, by the time they answer, you have forgotten the number. You have lots of other things on your mind and it is not something you need to keep. There are some things such as birthdays, the route to work, number of the bus to college, your doctor’s name etc. which you need to transfer to long term memory and you have to find a strategy to do this. For example, learning multiplication tables. You may repeat it over and over, write it down somewhere safe (and have to remember where you wrote it), you relate it to something else which you already know – whatever you do, you make an effort to get it into long term memory. It is then filed until you need the information again. Some of the difficulties that dyslexic people face are to do with auditory or visual discrimination, capacity, speed of processing and manipulating the information.

Working memory

This is the capacity to remember new information while thinking about it, for example, mental arithmetic. If you have a poor working memory things such as copying from screens, white boards or books becomes difficult. You have problems remembering verbal information whilst simultaneously writing, remembering verbal instructions, messages, directions and also visual information. Speed of Information processing is the speed at which you can think through and respond to simple, routine information such as transcribing lists of numbers. Slow processing can make it difficult to make a rapid decision or react quickly in a new situation, write under time constraints, read long documents or respond quickly to a question. Visual processing is where you recall visual or spatial details. Poor visual processing causes confusion of letter and number shapes such as b/d or 2/5, mistakes when copying, difficulty remembering the visual pattern when spelling, losing place when reading text, misreading words, a dependence on phonetic spelling.

Motor Skills

Motor Skills can be poor leading to: difficulties in controlling a pen, untidy handwriting, many crossings out, difficulties getting ideas down on paper, other co-ordination problems. Auditory short term memory is the ability to remember and repeat a sequence of verbal information such as telephone numbers and verbal directions. Problems can occur with note taking and concentration, especially in a noisy environment. Difficulties with storage and retrieval in long- term memory cause problems such as convoluted explanations, erratic spelling, and repetitions. There are common dyslexic strengths and dyslexic people may learn well when they can make personal meaningful connections to secure things in long term memory. When they can remember patterns rather than sequences, remember landmarks rather than directions, think all at once rather step by step, learn literacy skills by being very interested in the subject, learn by experience rather than being told.

So how can libraries help support people with dyslexia?

There are five key areas in which libraries can assist: Alternative formats, Enhancement of Services, Assistive Technologies, Signage and Promotion and Staff Training and Development.

1. Alternative formats

There are the obvious Alternative formats such as audio books from some really good services such as The Seeing Ear online library. Seeing Ear offers a wide range of fiction and nonfiction books for adults and children, mostly available in plain text format or Word. The material can be read in a number of different ways such as through screen readers, Braille terminals, or on screen in varying text size and colours. Librarians can join on behalf of someone who is print disabled, getting around the problem of internet access restrictions to prisoners. Seeing Ear is currently working on providing an on demand transcription service and facilities for readers to convert the books online to their preferred format. JISC offer some wonderful advice on alternative formats such as DAISY and MOBI. Be aware of the accessibility benefits of any e-book and e-journal systems to which you subscribe, they might include: ability to resize text, change colours or contrast, search by keyword or heading level, use keyboard alternatives to mouse navigation, integrate with text-to-speech software or screen readers.

Barrington Stoke produces a range of books for young adults that have targeted interest against reading ages. For example, a book may have an interest age for 16 to 18 years olds but a reading age of 8 to 10 years. Graphic Novels are also a good way to pull readers in visually but not putting them off with too much text as are books such as the Dorling Kindersley Eye Witness Guide series.

2. Enhancement of Services

Enhancement of Services can be something as simple as discreet, confidential advice and support. It is hard for a dyslexic library user to ask for help or explain their problem in public. If library staff can work more closely with Disability Support Tutors or education services they can be seen as an ally for both advice and enhanced learning experiences. Being aware of learning styles can also help. Learning styles are behaviours that serve as indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment. The person’s learning preferences are important as they can affect job performance or course success and influence the quality of the experience for the learner. For example, a visual learner may have difficulty following auditory instructions or a person with a kinaesthetic preference may require a “hands on” learning experience rather than just being shown what to do.

3. Assistive Technologies

Assistive Technologies include some free software for print disabilities such as:

  • Balabolka – converts documents to voice, can read live and save as MP3,
  • WordTalk – Word plug-in to read text in Word documents and save as MP3,
  • Amis – Reader for DAISY files (a type of talking digital book),
  • Adobe Reader – allows zoom of Pdfs over 500%, includes text to speech,
  • PDF X-Change Viewer – allows for writing inside a PDF and allows large zoom,
  • VLC – Universal video and audio player that allows creation of playlists and setting of bookmarks plus good keyboard navigation in audio/video,
  • MyStudyBar – a collection of accessibility tools for easier access to text on screen and can be installed on USB memory stick,
  • NVDA – Free screen reader that is ideal for website accessibility testing.

For a lower tech approach for those who experience visual disturbance when reading, you might want to purchase some literacy aids such as Dual Purpose Reading Rulers. The rulers are text highlighters measuring approx.150mm in length and can be kept in the pages like a bookmark. They offer a narrow strip of coloured acetate for highlighting single lines of text plus a broader strip for scanning ahead in a paragraph and for studying diagrams, tables or columns of figures. A mixed pack of 10 different colours will enable your readers to find out which colours are most suitable for them personally. Once they know which colours work best, you could invest in A4 Coloured Overlays with a matt and gloss side and are more suitable for those with co-ordination problems such as Dyspraxia. Virtual Reading Rulers do much the same thing but is a mobile tinted overlay that “floats” above any application and is moved around the screen with a mouse.

The Load2Learn project, run by Dyslexia Action and the RNIB have produced a handy set of Computer Productivity and Accessibility Cue Cards that give you keyboard shortcuts and advice on Enlarging Text and Zooming in Word and Accessibility Features of MacOS. These are also available free from their website. Load 2Learn also provides accessible curriculum resources to support learners who cannot use standard print materials. You can sign up for free to browse the collection, contribute your own resources and get guidance in creating the best solutions for your learners.

4. Signage and promotion

Signage and promotion can be enhanced for dyslexic library users by providing colour coded guidance, visual markers such as posters in the appropriate subject area. Keep spine label class numbers short for those with short term memory problems. Try to print guides and leaflets on off white paper and ensure that you use a good font size, over 11 point and a font such as Arial that is not too fancy (Vivaldi) or makes letters such as o, e, and a etc look too similar. Some people like fonts such as Comic Sans MS as it seems “friendly” and less intimidating.

5. Staff training and development

Staff development and training are an important part of enhancing library service and it is important to be aware of some of the difficulties and frustrations that dyslexic people have. The training and education department of Dyslexia Action often run events such as conferences and webinars which are offered at a discount for Dyslexia Guild members. Although aimed at teachers with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD), non members are always welcome. Dyslexia Action Centres offer some good awareness courses for parents, partners and support staff of dyslexic adults and children. Ensure colleagues supporting disabled learners are aware of the accessibility pros and cons of your systems as well as the benefits of PDF documents from publishers. The latter are well documented on the JISC Techdis website.

The views expressed in this article are personal do not reflect Dyslexia Action’s policies.

Copyright © Prison Libraries Group. All rights reserved. Copies of articles may be reproduced for educational advancement. Otherwise, please obtain permission from the Prison Libraries Group.

Dyslexia Action logo

This post talks about: