This section and the remainder of the material in this manual on technology has been prepared by E. A. Draffan, formerly Assistive Technology Consultant at TechDis, University of Sussex. E.A. has been a member of the Computer Committee of the British Dyslexia Association for several years and has lectured on technology support for adults with dyslexia at national and international conferences. She now works as a consultant on technology and disability but retains links with the University of Sussex.
Why technology support?
In this manual we have chosen to focus strongly on technology support for adults with dyslexia, for several reasons.
- It is widely accessible.
- It does not require the assistance of a specialist dyslexia teacher, although training is beneficial and sometimes essential.
- It generally costs less than specialist tuition and is more cost-effective.
- Developing the necessary technological skills is faster and takes up less time than following a remedial programme. Great strides can be made in a relatively short period.
- It is very flexible, and can support dyslexic adults in education, at work, and in their leisure pursuits.
- The technological skills acquired are transferable and can enhance employment and promotion prospects.
The strategies included in this chapter are intended to encourage adults with dyslexia to take up the challenge of using technology that could enhance both their work and their personal life. Although most of the technology described here is computer-based, it is not entirely so. Sometimes, great benefits can be achieved by use of simpler technology (so called ‘low-tech’ solutions). However, technology can never provide the answer to all the problems. Other, non-technological, strategies may need to be acquired.
There are several elements that often cause people to shun technology as a solution to their dyslexic difficulties. One of the main reasons for not trying technology is lack of experience and support. Without support and training many feel that they may fail, or that it may even make the experience of reading and writing more difficult. A few determined individuals may be able to succeed on their own, but usually adequate support is essential for success. Many sources of support and advice are available and these are listed in Section 7.
Another common reason for not trying technology relates to the costs involved. No one wants to make an expensive mistake. Government funding may be available to assist with payments, support and advice. For further information employers and employees can seek help from their local Jobcentre Plus or use the website: www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk
Students who are taking full or part-time undergraduate or postgraduate courses can apply for the Disabled Students Allowances (DSA) through their Local Education Authority, which can provide information on this. The DSA can be used to purchase suitable technology to support their studies. Further information can also be obtained from the Department for Education and Skills, which publishes a free leaflet called Bridging the Gap (Tel: 0800 731 9133).
Technology that may be extremely helpful for one dyslexic person may prove ineffectual for another. Wherever possible, try things out before making a purchase, or visit a centre that may have a large selection of items on show (some centres have been listed in Section 7). All items of technology will require a period of learning in order to develop the necessary skills. It is beneficial if the person concerned is prepared to ‘have a go’ and learn from trial and error. It is essential not to become downhearted when things go wrong and to be realistic about what the technology can achieve. In all such matters, it helps to have someone who can be called upon for advice and support.
The environment in which the technology is being used should also be a consideration. For instance, more desk space will be required if a scanner is to be used as well as a printer (although it is possible to buy machines that fulfil both these functions in one). Tape-, disk- and digital-recorders, as well as speech recognition software usually require a quiet environment. A microphone can pick up external noises (especially in busy surroundings) and this may disrupt the activity. This will probably mean that the user needs a headset.
Computers require maintenance and are not necessarily cheap to run. It is vital that a purchaser thinks about guarantees and warranties as well as insurance and technical support to cope with the upgrades, repair and renewal of systems, especially if they have to be adapted to suit a user.
However, with well-chosen, software and a computer system that is specifically designed to suit the user, successful work practices can be achieved. Ideas can be recorded without any manual handwriting skills. Text and graphics are relatively easy to edit and the finished work can be shared with others. Learning to use a word processor is often an essential skill in the employment market; it also has the potential to make reading, spelling and writing a much speedier process improving both confidence and self esteem.
Ergonomic and health issues
Ergonomic issues are particularly important when considering the use of a computer, for both health and comfort. Comfort and ease of use can encourage better concentration over longer periods and enable the person to get the maximum out of their equipment.
It is essential that before anyone uses a computer they consider how they are going to work at the machine. A computer and its many peripherals form a useful toolkit but they can cause damage to health if used for too long and without due care. It is important to be able to concentrate in comfort so a good height adjustable back supporting chair must be set to the correct height in line with the table with the eyes focusing towards the upper centre of the monitor without the need to crane the neck or shift the body. The forearms should be at a comfortable angle (usually at right angles) to the upper arms when using the keyboard and the latter should be an appropriate size for the user. A mouse that is used too far away from the keyboard affecting the central body position can also cause repetitive strain injuries.
Supporting desktop items
Copy holders assist with eye tracking when copying text as they can be positioned between the monitor and keyboard for a non-touch typist or at the side of the monitor for those who are able to concentrate on the screen rather than looking down at the keys to type. There are versions that clamp on the side of a table and can carry heavier papers or the very lightweight versions that are on a stand and have a ruler that can be placed beneath a line of text.
Wrist rests and mouse rests can help prevent strain and encourage ergonomic positioning when pausing in between keyboarding and using the mouse. Fellowes manufacture a range of sets which are comfortable for most people. These come in both foam-filled and gel filled versions. It should be noted that many computer users do not like using such devices and that, as with most items mentioned here, ideally the individual should try the equipment before making a purchase. It may be more helpful to change the types of mouse used and/or keyboard to achieve comfort and ease of typing.
Reflections on the computer screen do not help and are often caused by poor positioning of the monitor or overhead lighting; however, a task light can help to focus light on the papers being used beside the computer. Some people find the glare and flicker from the monitor causes problems, although higher refresh rates have helped. Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screens (flat screen monitors or laptop screens) with their quick reacting liquid crystal displays are another option. Glare guards fitted to a monitor surround can cut shimmer and dull the output. The Osmond Group are one of the many companies that have provided helpful websites with descriptions of the products mentioned www.ergonomics.co.uk
There are many ergonomic keyboards on offer but these tend to have a central dividing area with a gap between the keys, intended to encourage correct finger positioning with slightly splayed hand and wrist positions. This may help the trained typist but is not so easy for the ‘hunt and peck’ typist who is looking at the keys and tends to cross over to the left or right side or uses one hand more than the other. There are times when it is easier for a small-fingered person to use a mini keyboard, which does not require quite so much movement around the keys. Coloured keycap overlays can also encourage good finger positioning with appropriate colours for each finger. It is surprising how much is expected of the little finger!
If the user is left-handed then they should consider a mouse that is designed with the right-hand button for actions. This is possible in most system software but the shape of the mouse should also be generic or curved to the right. The Logitech wheel mouse, which allows for easy scrolling up and down pages, and wireless optical mice are easy to position on either side of a keyboard and can be used on virtually any surface. For users who find it difficult to control wrist movement, items such as the Kensington Orbit Trackball can be of great benefit. The sensitivity of mouse trackballs should be altered to suit the individual.