It is impossible to state a definitive number for the percentage of people who suffer from dyslexia because there is no single definition of dyslexia, delegates heard at this month’s conference on Dyslexia and the Civil Service.
“It is a spectrum, a continuum,” Rachel Davies, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), told the conference, hosted by the Adult Dyslexia Organisation.
“If you set the bar low, 40% may have some indications, but the most commonly quoted figures are around 4% for severe dyslexia and around 10% for mild and severe dyslexia,” Davies said.
“But it’s also important to remember that lots of people who don’t have dyslexia will find the adjustments that you make useful.”
David Evans, Education development manager at specialist computer access firm Microlink PC (http://www.microlinkpc.co.uk/), said some 74% of disability recorded in the UK is dyslexia-related, making dyslexia by far the biggest single disability issue.
Evans said that research carried out by his company in schools had found that the average take-up of software designed to help people with dyslexia was around 28% of pupils per day. “I don’t know if it was the same 28% – we will test for that next time – so the true figure of total pupils helped could be even higher. But schools actually only budget for about 4% of pupils who need assistance.”
Other factors which could increase the number of people benefiting from software designed to help people with dyslexia include people with English as their second language (about 18% of entrants to the workforce, many of these suffering from dyslexia in their own language as well); attention deficit disorder sufferers; people with impaired vision; and people who prefer to learn in a more visual way.
“My inclination is that the true proportion of people who could be helped by access software is probably closer to 40%,” Evans said. “But even if we accept that only approximately 10% of the UK workforce can understand and present data much more quickly than they can read or write, it is clear that much talent is being wasted.”
One practical definition of dyslexia is simply the condition whereby people are able to understand spoken information faster than they are able to absorb it through reading or set it down in writing, he said. I know one extremely bright individual at Cardiff university who will get a first class degree, got three As at ‘A’ level, and can mentally process around 700 words a minute, but can only manage six words a minute reading, and even less writing. The average for dyslexia is around 20 words a minute.
“But we can harness technology to enable people to access data at a speed which reflects their ability to process and absorb it,” Evans said. “Technology can help get data into your mind, and out of your head and onto paper, at speed.”
Low-cost solutions that can help people with dyslexia use computers include colour overlays to alter the colour and contrast of text and background. “The difference they can make is stunning”, Evans said. “A digital one is free, if you want it profiled it is still very cheap.”
Text to speech software including screen-readers has also become cheaper, better quality and easier to use in the past few years, he said. And voice recognition software, which can be of enormous assistance to people with dyslexia as well as those with impaired vision, has taken a giant leap forwards with the latest version of ‘Dragon’ software.
“When Dragon version 9 came out it was as if we had jumped from version 8 to version 80 – it now has 90% accuracy. It actually works better the faster you talk,” Evans said. “Its processing power is awesome, though it needs a good computer to use it. At around £120 for the basic version, it’s affordable, and it can be used with digital note-takers such as the Olympus DS-40. I’m not dyslexic, but I use it every day.”
Other software tools that can be useful include ‘mind-mapping’ tools that help portray ideas and build documents in 3-D visual diagrams rather than as linear notes. “Some of the new mind-mapping tools are fantastic, and they can convert back to a nice linear structure at the press of a button,” he said. “And they are not as conspicuous for someone to use as a screen-reader, it is not as obvious that they have a disability.”
With all these low-cost technology options available and a growing body of research showing how many people could benefit, it is only a matter of time before more employers are forced to implement far more technology through legal action, Evans said.
Under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act public sector employers must make “reasonable” adjustments to facilities to allow access by all staff. “What is ‘reasonable adjustment’? The reactive definition in common law is retrospective – it is what a judge believes was reasonable given the circumstances and the information that was available,” Evans said. “So what information is available to employers at the moment? We know at least 10% of the workforce is dyslexic. We know there is a truckload of technology out there that can help, for probably less than 1% of the employment costs of the individual. So the information is there, it is public knowledge, the resources are there and they know people will benefit.
“So the judge will say – yes, that was reasonable, why wasn’t it done? There are going to be some landmark cases, this year or next year.”
Some public bodies may say that the money to make adjustments is not there in their budgets, but they could go and bid for it from the centre.
“There must be a cost-benefit analysis, could be technology for £100 that increases productivity by 20%. It will only take a strong test case to change people’s attitudes.”
Ultimately, the strongest reason for employers and educational institutions to start to make wider use of assistive technology is not simply to avoid legal action or to comply with regulations but to make the best use of their employees’ or learners’ talent, improving their productivity, Evans said.
“In my experience, more than 90% of assessments in the workplace are compliance driven. It wasn’t ‘how can we harness this person’s talent?’It was ‘How quickly can we tick a box?'”
But being ‘employee-centred’ does not just mean reacting to individual problems, he said. “An individual-centred approach is not about compliance, employers should be saying ‘We ought to do this, because we will get more from our staff. It is active talent management.”
In a lot of organisations, it will be a lot easier to take a decision based on this kind of high level approach, he said. Research from the University of Southampton has identified that nearly 90% of people using assistive technologies reported an improvement in their performance. “Go back to your unions, begin to ask questions.”
As part of his session, Evans told the story of one 15-year-old student whose experiences were both inspirational and sobering. “I was there at a school and we were doing some testing with screen filters and this boy just went mad. He went crazy, we had to pull him down off the ceiling. But he wasn’t angry because it didn’t work – he was angry because a free colour contrast tool did work, and it was so easy After 20 minutes of using it, he could read.
“And he said, why has it taken so long to find this? He was angry at the time that had been wasted.”