Making the Written Word More Accessible to People with Dyslexia

By Melanie Jameson of Dyslexia Consultancy Malvern (opens in new window)

There are two reasons why producers of paper-based and website materials should take account of dyslexia. The first is the prevalence of the condition: with up to 10% of the population showing some signs of dyslexia (of which about 4% are severely affected) there are bound to be people with dyslexia amongst readers of your materials. Although dyslexia can present a formidable barrier to the written word, many individuals nevertheless learn to read but most will never become completely fluent. Skimming though text is rarely possible so other methods are used to get an overview such as focusing on summaries, introductions and conclusions, subheadings and absorbing information from charts and diagrams.

In addition to the handicap of being essentially a word-by-word reader, a considerable proportion of the dyslexic population contend with a further barrier to reading: a condition that has been variously referred to as Visual Stress, Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome or Meares-Irlen Syndrome 1.

Typical symptoms reported by dyslexic people when reading include a ‘glare’ from white paper which obscures the text drawing the eye to the streams of white space meandering down the page, the blurring, fading or swirling of print, together with headaches or eye strain when reading. Some individuals are hampered in their reading by continually losing the place as they transfer from one line to the next, while others unintentionally skip words or misread them. People with dyslexia do not have a monopoly on these symptoms, in fact it was work with photo-sensitive epileptics and migraine suffers which first highlighted visual Stress.

The way forward is often a combination of treatment from a specialist optician / optometrist2 to correct any visual dysfunction and investigate colour sensitivity. Some people find that intuitive tinted overlays (placed on to text) are helpful whereas others ‘go all the way’ and acquire spectacles tinted to their personal requirements.

Why is Visual Stress an issue for all producers of written materials? This brings us to the second point: the text you produce may actually exacerbate Visual Stress.

Research by Professor Arnold Wilkins3 over several years has confirmed that the physical features of text can greatly aggravate Visual Stress. A fundamental way, therefore, of tackling the problem is to encourage those who produce manuals, magazines, articles, public information leaflets etc. to make their texts more ‘dyslexia- friendly’. The points of good practice, outlined below, will make the written word far more accessible to dyslexic readers. Many of the guidelines also refer to web design.

Try to avoid or limit the following:

  • fonts below size 12
  • cramped spacing – between words, lines and throughout the document as a whole
  • printing whole words, phrases or sentences in capital letters (dyslexic people often read by recognising the shape of a word – this is destroyed by capitalisation)
  • use of italics (words in italics are harder to decipher)
  • use of ‘fancy’ or unusual fonts
  • glossy or bright white paper (the shine causes intense glare, especially under artificial lighting; the best colour for most people is pale blue or cream)
  • printing in either red or green (colour-blind people also report problems reading text written in green or red)
  • over-elaborate desktop publishing and ‘busy’ backgrounds

Wilkin’s research concludes that the first two factors present the biggest handicap.

Incorporate the features below where appropriate:

  • justify left only leaving the right hand margin unjustified (this format leads to equal spacing between the words and makes it easier for the eye to move accurately from one line to the next)
  • use lists and bullet points
  • use bold text selectively
  • use no more than two columns
  • stick to one font and style throughout

The recommendations below focus more on assisting the process of assimilation than minimising Visual Stress:

  • always aim for a clear text, laid out in a consistent fashion, uncluttered by unnecessary features
  • only use graphics if these underline the textual content, otherwise they can distract and lead to incorrect understanding of the content
  • include icons and pictograms as markers to enable readers to find what they want more easily
  • incorporate clear headings and sub-headings
  • boxed summaries are useful, given the short-term memory problems and loss of concentration usually experienced by people with dyslexia
  • if shading is used, keep it pale and only overprint text in black, not in a colour.
  • on the whole, dyslexic people are visual thinkers so will find diagrams far more accessible than a written account and flow-charts ideal to explain procedures
  • since dyslexic readers often struggle to recall the ever-increasing number of abbreviations and may not always have internalised new jargon, it is good practice to provide a glossary of terms at the end – this also assists newcomers in the field

Following these guidelines should not hinder us in conveying information to the non-dyslexic majority. In the case of readers with dyslexia, however, it could make the difference between accessibility and necessitating considerable extra effort on the part of an already disadvantaged minority.

1Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome’ was the initial name given to this condition by the pioneer Helen Irlen but the term ‘scotopic’ was rejected as a misnomer by eye professionals. ’Meares-Irlen Syndrome’ also recognises the contribution of Olive Meares. I prefer the term Visual Stress and believe that treatment by specialist optometrists rather than (expensive) Irlen Practitioners are the way forward (MJ)

2 See: www.ceriumoptical.com and www.s4clp.org for further information

3 Full details visit Professor Wilkin’s website at www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays