By Tristan Parker
After being diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, Neil Cottrell used various forms of assistive technology to help him study. He went on to develop his own autocorrective software, Global AutoCorrect, forming the company LexAble to develop and market it. Global AutoCorrect has now sold about 10,000 copies. E-Access Bulletin spoke to Cottrell about how his own innovations helped him achieve a first-class degree at university and start his own business.
E-Access Bulletin: How did it all begin?
Neil Cottrell: I was identified as being dyslexic when I was about 10 or 11-years-old. I was a very bright kid but my dyslexia was really quite severe, so it meant that I was really good at some things and really bad at others.
I ended up using lot of technology through school and university. My Local Education Authority bought me a laptop with a couple of assistive technology (AT) programs on, which I used in all of my lessons. My computer would read everything aloud to me, and I was using it to help organise my ideas. So I grew up benefiting from technology from a young age.
Then when I got to 15, I started doing my GCSEs. Once I’d written something I could read it back with text-to-speech and spell check and all those things, but where I still had a problem that the AT wasn’t solving was with the process of writing.
I’d start writing a sentence and get to a word I didn’t know how to spell, then the red underline would pop up from the spell check and when that happened, what I’d do – which was a really bad strategy – was stop mid-sentence and go back and work out how to spell that word. I’d lose track of the sentence, because I was constantly switching between the processes of writing and checking. What I often ended up with were sentences that were disjointed and didn’t make practical sense.
So I started developing a tool for myself which would automatically correct my spelling as I was writing. Whether I was writing in Microsoft Word or doing a PowerPoint presentation or using Facebook, I could have this tool that would sit in the background. It really helped because it meant I wasn’t worrying about how I was spelling a word when I typed, I could just get my ideas down and not have to go back and correct things later on.
EAB: How did you learn to build this tool?
NC: Basically using the internet and online tutorials. Initially, I hadn’t envisaged this being something that thousands of people would use, it was just a case of, “I’ve got this problem, so it’s worth investing a few hours to do something that’s going to make everything a lot easier.” I enjoy writing software and in order to get it working pretty crudely it was quite quick, but then I was making a lot of improvements and building it up to work better. I got really into it and saw the benefits.
EAB: Did the tool help you with your studies at university?
NC: Yes, I had a very basic version I could use and then it was just adding improvements as I went through school and university. My degree was an essay-writing subject, Psychology, so I had to write projects and other things. I did very well actually, I graduated with the top mark in my year in Psychology at Cardiff University and I also got the top mark for an essay in my year out of everyone who took Psychology, so it showed me that once I had overcome those barriers, I was quite good at the fundamentals of writing essays – coming up with ideas, forming arguments, putting it together logically. It was just the spelling and my thought process getting disturbed that was causing problems.
EAB: How did LexAble and Global AutoCorrect take shape?
NC: I set up LexAble as soon as I graduated and built a commercial version of the tool, which became Global AutoCorrect. Then I started to show people Global AutoCorrect, asking companies if their clients would benefit from the software.
That lasted a couple of years, then it got to the point where, as LexAble developed, I would call people up and ask if they wanted to know more about the software, and they would say ‘Oh yes, I’ve already heard about it, my colleague recommended it.’ So, we hit critical mass when we realised that people were becoming aware of it. And at that point, things just really exploded.
EAB: You went on to win the ‘Accessibility’ category at the Technology4Good Awards…
NC: That was really useful for us, partly as a validation that what we were doing was a really good thing, but it also introduced us to some corporate clients. Some of the people we met at the awards are now helping us to distribute Global AutoCorrect across large companies.
EAB: Do you think people with dyslexia and other print impairments might struggle with computer-based tasks but not know how they can go about overcoming those difficulties?
NC: Yes, I’m sure they do. If you have the correct, easy-to-use assistive technology on a computer, it can actually circumvent a lot of the problems that you have.
When you’ve invested time and perhaps when you’ve got some support with using a computer and technology, then actually, using a computer can make your life so much easier and more fulfilling.
Using a computer is quite a stressful, new thing, and you’ve got to learn skills in order to start using it. For some people that can cause a lot of anxiety and stress. The same goes for pieces of software. There are a lot of things out there that can help people, but you’ve got to find out what suits your working style and how to use the piece of kit. Once you’ve got over those initial barriers to using computers and AT, the benefits they can give in terms of productivity and reducing stress are absolutely massive.
NOTE: You can find out more about Global AutoCorrect at LexAble’s website: www.lexable.com