My son was only 5 years old when his mom and I first suspected he had dyslexia. As we read children’s books with him, we noticed how he seemed to struggle decoding letters.
It took his school another 3 years before we got a call in the vaguest way they knew, “Please come to the school, we need to discuss your son.”
Fidgeting their way through the sentences at the meeting they finally managed to get to the point, “We think he has dyslexia.”
“Of course he does,” we replied, relieved that they had finally figured it out.
After all, research shows that it’s highly hereditary and his mom has it too.
Dyslexia, a form of learning difference (or neurodivergency) that makes it difficult to read and write, is a variation in the phonological area of language processing part of the brain.
People used to believe it was a visual processing difference but it isn’t.
It’s a product of genetics and the way the brain works and is characterized by difficulties with decoding symbols such as words and numbers, rapid automatic naming, and/or reading comprehension skills.
Imagine the whole world spoke Greek to you.
Everything you read and write, you have to translate in your head as you go along. It is mentally exhausting to do this all day, every day.
That’s what it’s like for my son.
And he isn’t alone.
The latest research suggests 1 in 5 people worldwide has dyslexia.
At 1.5 billion people, that’s more than the entire population of China.
Of all the different learning differences, it’s the most common one.
So common that you probably know someone who has it.
If you don’t, you’ve probably heard of one of these people;
Leonardo da Vinci, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, Albert Einstein, or Muhammad Ali.
Or Agatha Christie, the self-proclaimed, “extraordinarily bad speller,” whose detective novels have made her the best-selling novelist of all time.
Dyslexia is no barrier to greatness.
But it is an obstacle to reading.
What can we do to reduce this?
There are a few typefaces which have been designed to help dyslexic readers, such as Dyslexie, Opendyslexic, and Read Regular.
But, because dyslexia isn’t rooted in visual processing, independent studies show no improved reading speed or comprehension for people with dyslexia when using these typefaces.
Some of them can still have a dramatic effect for individuals and if you have dyslexia I recommend trying them.
Don’t focus your efforts on typefaces with minimal-to-no effect, instead review how your text flows in its layouts.
Use real copy to review your typography because your tone and voice matters and should match the typographic style you choose.
- Don’t use large blocks of heavy text, instead, support text with images and diagrams
- Don’t use italics, write in capitals or underline words that aren’t links, instead, use sizes to distinguish hierarchy and bold for emphasis
- Don’t justify text, instead, align your text to the writing direction of the language (e.g. left for English, right for Arabic)
- Don’t put too much information in one place, instead, keep content short, clear and simple
- Don’t force people to remember things from previous pages, instead, give contextual reminders and prompts
- Don’t rely on accurate spelling, instead, use autocorrect or provide suggestions
- Don’t use text only, instead, produce content in other formats (for example, audio and video)
We all have circumstances when reading text becomes harder than it needs to be; from dyslexia, seasonal flu, or being intoxicated.
By designing for one group of people, like those with dyslexia, the result often helps all groups of all people.
As for my son, once the school started making accommodations that recognise his dyslexia, his reading and writing have improved dramatically.
And last year, he started learning actual Greek.
Every other Tuesday morning Carlos Eriksson writes Inclusive by Design, where he gathers a decade of knowledge and experience packed into a 5-minute piece of thoughtful and actionable advice on accessible and inclusive practices.