Top tips for dyslexia and technology

Date of webinar: 
5 Oct 2021 - 13:00

To help mark Dyslexia Week (4 - 10 October 2021) Dafydd Henke-Reed, Head of Accessibility at AbilityNet shared his expert advice about dyslexia and technology in a free webinar.  

Image of Dafydd Henke-Reed

In this webinar, Dafydd championed the ways technology has helped with his dyslexia. He examined the digital barriers to avoid and explained good practice for enabling dyslexic users online.

Dafydd addressed a range of topics including:

  • Challenges with communication including written text and verbal communication
  • Tech and tools available to help with dyslexia, including emojis, voice chat, and multimedia messaging
  • Speech to text software: Dragon Naturally Speaking, Siri / Alexa, Office Dictate, Mac OS / iOS Dictation
  • Text to speech software: Read&Write, ClaroRead, Office Speak, Mac OS / iOS Speech

If you're dyslexic and are looking for advice about how technology can help you, learn from Dafydd about how technology has revolutionised his experience of dyslexia. 

For digital professionals, the free session also examines digital barriers to avoid, and what you can do to make your websites more accessible for people with dyslexia and other cognitive issues.

Who will benefit from this webinar?

This webinar is for anyone with dyslexia, or for those who support someone with dyslexia.

This is particularly relevant for web editors and developers working to make digital accessibility improvements.

The webinar included an opportunity for attendees to pose questions about the topic - Dafydd will provide typed responses below in the following days. 

Webinar recording, slides and transcript

All our webinars are recorded and a captioned recording of the session is now available below, alongside a transcript and slides used in the session. 

For additional information read answers to frequently asked questions about AbilityNet webinars.

Find out more about our AbilityNet Live webinar series. We also offer paid role-based accessibility training. 

Q&A

1. Can you please share some material that would help us ensure greater accessibility especially for individuals with dyslexia?

You may find these resources helpful. British Dyslexia Association - Style Guide, Home Office - Designing for Dyslexia, WAI - Writing for Web Accessibility, Mail Chimp - Accessibility Style Guide, and Big Hack - Writing Better Website Content.

2. How is it when you access a website that has an accessibility widget such as the one "UserWay"

I have not had positive experience with such tools. There has been a significant amount of passion online in the disabled community about these plug-ins recently. The plug-in at the centre of the storm is AccessiBe – however, other similar tools exist and include UserWay, EqualWeb and Enable Accessibility.

For more information, many of the criticisms from leading members of the accessibility community can be found on the Wikipedia page for AccessiBe. Popular articles include #accessiBe Will Get You Sued and Be Wary of Add-on Accessibility, which includes links to several more articles.

3. Hi again is office speak in Office 365 is that Immersive Reader?

The readers demonstrated included Firefox Reader View and iOS Speech. I did not show the “Speak” option in Office 365. The office packages have a few overlapping options, explained in Listen to your Word documents.

The tools I have used are simply “Speak” and “Read Aloud”. I have not used Immersive Reader, which goes above and beyond core text-to-speech. For example, it allows you to adjust colours, change line height, and so on. But I have heard very positive things about it.

4. As data privacy is becoming an increasingly important with GDPR, just wondering if you can suggest any assistive software/programmes that are focused on encryption and data safety?

I am afraid that I do not feel qualified to answer this question. I am not aware of the policies associated with various tools and how they manage data.

5. Would you be able to recommend speech to text and text to speech software for an 8 year old?

It depends on what operating system they have access to. For example, if they have an iPhone or iPad, I would definitely use the in-built speech option, iOS Speech. I have had not had such positive experiences using Android tools, but that may be unique to me.

If they are using Office 365 (e.g. Word) for their school work, I would absolutely investigate the tools identified in Listen to your Word documents, with Immersive Reader being a potentially very appropriate tool for the child in question.

6. As someone who is dyslexic, I am constantly challenged but the use of assistive software has been life changing, however the recruitment process, applying for new jobs is a massive barrier because the majority is written. Any advice on adjustments to remove this?

I have had similar challenges. For example, when applications require that you submit a CV and Covering letter (which I can draft over time to make) and then manually input the data again, which where I worry I will make a lot of mistakes.

Where possible, I reach out to the business directly, such that instead of using a complex application tool, I can email my CV and covering letter straight to the relevant parties. I explain that this is a reasonable adjustment for me, as someone with dyslexia.

7. Some people may find the computerised voice off putting (text-to-speech) - what your advice would be to encourage them to use it?

Almost all text-to-speech tools (including those for folks with dyslexia, screen readers, and so on) have options to choose different voices. As a general rule, I have found that those new to the software prefer slower and more natural voices.

In turn, when folks get comfortable with the tool, they often want to increase the speed. Natural voices are limited, in terms of speed. The more robotic voices do not have this limitation. The trade-off is slower and more natural, and faster but more robotic.

I would encourage folks to use the more natural voices when performing demos. As well, when new to the software, I would encourage folks to get comfortable with a natural sounding voice at a moderate to slow speed.

However, I would be sure to cover how they can change the voice and increase the speed. This will vary tool-to-tool.

8. Don't some dyslexic people have difficulty with processing aural sounds rather than or as well as processing visual letters?

I have not experienced this personally. But I am aware that Auditory processing disorder (APD) is sometimes called “Auditory Dyslexia”.

Some accessibility considerations (that also benefit myself, who more-so struggles with letters) include avoiding auto-playing videos and sounds, making sure that AV media can be muted, making sure that videos have captions, and making sure that transcripts are provided.

9. Will communication shift be more effective for autistic spectrum related social communication?

The changing methods of communication have pan-disability benefits. Accessibility and inclusion are all about the concept that no-one-size-fits-all. For example, as communication is often an important dynamic of Autism (ASD) diversified communication methods are a huge boon.

10. Can I ask if colour schemes are a benefit, or not a real bonus? (Personal opinion of course)

On a personal level, I have no experienced benefits from tinted glasses or overlaps. As well, my limited exposure to some papers has suggested that there is not strong evidence for their effectiveness. At least, relative to how often they are advocated.

However, I have known folks that swear by these. And I do not wish to diminish something that obviously benefit them. As a result, I would put this into the camp of being something that is very personal. So I would seek additional opinions, More generally though, I do prefer to use dark mode (on a system level) and tools such as Flux, which automatically adjusts display settings, to reduce eye fatigue.

I do also set a preference (on my system or browser) to reduce motion. This is all about reducing the physical effort needed to read content. For more information, see CSS Tricks - A Complete Guide to Dark Mode in the Web and Apple - Supporting Dark Mode in Your Interface, and MDN - Prefers Reduced Motion. I can otherwise struggle with garish colours. A challenge here is that you may want colours that contrast very strongly. This can particularly benefit low vision users.

However, these users can also benefit from supporting system-level options, such as high contrast mode. For more information, see Microsoft - Styling for Windows high contrast with new standards for forced colors. The point I am driving is that – before colour schemes – I think that the first priority should be to support various display settings that users can set, such that the scheme is based on said setting. A big benefit is that users will need to switch it after opening your website on or rely on cookies As well, I would avoid trying to manually replicate these features with lots of schemes.

Unless you are working in a locked-down environment (such as a tablet locked into a kiosk) you will probably struggle to beat system and browser-level options. However, after you have looked to support these options, you can add a small sample of slimline schemes. None of this is to say that they do not have a benefit. For example, they benefit folks who are less tech-savvy. However, I would first prioritise system level options.

11. I am dyslexic and use emojis for internal communication but worry they may be perceived as unprofessional; do you think that view still exists or am I over thinking this?

I think that this is going to vary widely between different working environments. For lack of a better phrase, I think some will be more or less progressive and open to different communication methods. Others may be more old-school.

I have definitely found that having an inclusive working environment is a huge win for my mental health. If you feel a sense that you may be perceived this way, I would speak to your line manager and potentially someone from HR.

As well, if possible, I would try to be open about with co-workers about it being something that benefits yourself. As well, if you find yourself, such as an appraisal noting that your communications are too informal, I would encourage pushing to identify what informed these judgements. It is absolutely a reasonable adjustment that you can use emojis in day-to-day comms without being penalised.

12. How soon will it be before we allow ALL learners to 'just' speak it out as an alternative to writing?

Be mindful that no-one-size-fits all with accessibility and inclusion. For example, some folks are non-verbal and use AAC, use sign language as their primary communication method, or experience ambulatory challenges, such as fatigue when speaking.

So, I don’t think that all learners will prefer one specific way of writing. My hope is that folks will be enabled to use whatever work for them – handwriting, typing, eye-tracking, speech-to-text, and so on.

13. How do you cope with the underlined style of the text in that app? We were told that underlined and italic text styling shouldn't be used because they adversely impact visual accessibility for users with low vision and cognitive impairments, e.g. dyslexia.

I would avoid excessive amount of text decoration and variability in styling. That is not to say that you should never use it. Headings should be larger and bolder than plain text, for example. As well, buttons and links should be clearly visually communicated.

However, outside of this core styling, I would avoid having different fonts used for plain text, different amounts of line or letter spacing. As well, my personal preference is to avoid italics and underlining for emphasis, and instead preferring to use bold text. This is also suggested by the British Dyslexia Association - Style Guide.

14. Please help with this question: For an audience of cognitively disabled adults, how does one style or write the proper code for this “non-decorative image,” which has important text (378 characters with spaces; comprising 73 words) that are ON / IN the image?

I would avoid using longdesc, personally. This is due to support for it being historically limited. For more information, see WebAIM - LongDesc Test Cases and note titled “Longdesc, Web Browsers, and Assistive Technologies” on WAI Tutorials - Complex Images.

Where possible, avoid images of text. As noted during the webinar, certain assistive technologies and user groups will structure when informative text is embedded in an image. Where possible, provide vanilla, plain text, styled with CSS.

For more information, see Princeton University - Digital Accessibility - Images of Text and BOIA - Why Is It Important for Accessibility to Use Actual Text. Where this is not possible, make sure to provide the same information outside of the image. Alt attributes on images are meant for concise descriptions of images, rather than an entire poem or structured information (e.g. a heading and some child text).

Using a disclosure to show and hide the alternative is perfectly acceptable. In turn, make sure that the alt attribute of the image does two things. It should give a summary of what the image is about and signpost the alternative. For example, <img src="..." alt="Scan from {book name} showing the poem O Captain! My Captain!, by Walt Whitman, see accordion element directly after the image for the full text">

You could then use a summary and details component. However, in my experience, using a native <button> with aria-expanded has historically been more robust, particularly with older browsers. For more information, see WAI ARIA Practices - Example Disclosure (Show/Hide) for Image Description.

Useful resources