You couldn’t tell by looking at them, but Albert Einstein, Sir Winston Churchill, Marlon Brando, and Dame Agatha Christie all had something in common: They are, or were, dyslexic. The list of the famous, talented, and creative people who have had this condition could fill more space than TechRepublic would ever allow me, so I'll leave it with those.
In an IT support role, it pays to know a bit about this hidden condition that may affect some of your users. There are things you can do, and tools you can provide, that will help dyslexic users become more productive at work. Read a bit about the disorder, and learn some ways you can help dyslexic users.
What you need to know about dyslexia
One in five people suffer from dyslexia. If you look around your office, chances are you're not far away from a dyslexic person. And you never know what kind of work such people are involved in.
I recently submitted a piece of work for proofreading, and I happened to mention that I was researching dyslexia only to discover that the proofreader himself had the condition. Previously, I had thought that a dyslexic proofreader would be at quite a disadvantage. He explained some of the coping strategies he had developed and was able to help me better understand it.
There are several types of dyslexia, all of which affect people in different ways. Read more about types of dyslexia in this sidebar.
Some used to believe that dyslexics were stupid, lazy, or feebleminded. This belief, no doubt, was due to the fact that people with dyslexia have difficulty expressing themselves by conventional means. When you read the role call of famous dyslexics, you will realize that nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, there seems to be a tendency for sufferers to be highly intelligent and creative people, but they can get very frustrated when unable to express themselves.
Can I tell who is dyslexic?
Unless you ask, you won't be able to see dyslexia in the workplace. Most sufferers are English or speak Northern European languages. The condition is almost unheard of outside of these areas.
People around you may have the condition and will have evolved a huge range of coping mechanisms to deal with the problem. In fact, dyslexics may resolve problems in unconventional ways and think outside the box more readily than others. It may be that they are natural lateral thinkers or have developed more coping strategies than most.
User support for dyslexics
For people with dyslexia, the right kind of IT support can be vital. However, the variable nature of the disorder means it’s tough to provide hard and fast rules about how support pros can help dyslexic people.
You should let your user base know that they should feel free to ask for help. You should then provide tactful and discreet service, and treat all replies in complete confidence. You should react to requests for flexibility in a brisk and positive manner and remember that people with dyslexia have a specific difficulty that often prevents them from making the kind of progress that we take for granted.
Here are a few suggestions of tools and policies that may help dyslexic users:
- · Background colors: Don't have a rigid policy on screen color and wallpaper. The color that Jack finds helpful and easy to use as a background color may well serve to drive Jill to distraction.
- · Word prediction software: Word predictor tools can make for easier word-processing for people with this condition. One such tool, Penfriend, attempts to predict your next word by choosing suitable words after you have typed the first letter. It learns your personal writing style by selecting commonly used words and by using advanced knowledge of English grammar.
- · Text-reading software: Users may need special text-reading software such as textHELP! The software provides features such as a talking phonetic spell checker, homophone support, a speaking dictionary, a word wizard, and audible word prediction. Dyslexic.com provides a list of similar software alternatives.
- · Portable hardware: It may be helpful to try a device such as the AlphaSmart 3000, a portable “computer companion” that allows you to enter and edit text and send it to a computer for formatting or directly to a printer. It’s basically a portable word processor with word prediction features that will allow dyslexics to type notes during a meeting and download them to a computer later.
- · Pocket dictaphones: These mobile dictation recorders can record your observations, an alternative to your having to write them down. Dyslexic.com provides a good list of mobile dictation units. I use one of these myself to record ideas for stories and articles that occur at the most obscure moments. It’s easier to record a short memo than it is to stop the car, find a notebook, and write it down.
- · Dictation software: Dyslexia.com also provides a comparison of speech recognition software and recommends Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IBM ViaVoice among others. When I first tried dictation software about eight years ago, it wasn't really ready for the market. Nowadays, it’s user-friendlier, but still needs a lot of teaching to get it right. But the time spent setting it up right is always worthwhile.
- · OCR scanning: Instead of typing documents from hard copy notes, dyslexic users may find it easier to scan notes using an optical character recognition (OCR) package. Dyslexia.com offers a list of scanning and OCR software. No matter which software you choose, users will sometimes need to make minor text corrections, but that's easier than retyping a whole document.
- · Spelling checker: All good word processors come with a spell check function, but remember that it can be a double-edged sword for dyslexics because it can check for only spelling errors and not for words used in the wrong context. You may suggest the addition of word prediction software that I mentioned for your dyslexic users.
Make it easy for dyslexic users to ask for help
Remember that dyslexia is a communications barrier, not a major handicap. With a little help and support in the right places, people with dyslexia can be at their most productive. Be sure your dyslexic users know that they can confidentially request equipment or submit suggestions to the help desk that will make their work life easier.
What tools do you recommend?
Have you found support tools that help those with dyslexia or other disabilities? Send us an e-mail about what you’ve found and how you use it, or post in the discussion below.