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Dyslexia and the Challenge of Using Today's Technology

By: Dale S. Brown (2005)

Technology is a miracle for many people with dyslexia. Word processing enables dyslexic people to write. Computer software and reading machines turn the written word into spoken language, enabling many of us to "read." We use cell phones to get directions and tell people we will be late. Small tape recorders allow us to record our thoughts during the day, a great substitute for taking notes. Telephones can be programmed to remember and dial phone numbers at the click of a key, relieving us of a major memory chore.

Nina Ghiselli, Psy.D., a psychologist in Hayward, California, finds that Power Point keeps her presentations on track, allows her to express herself in pictures and words, and cues her as to what to say next. She uses her favorite computer software to organize her outlines for class. She says that online bill pay saved her life and her credit.

Patrick Costello, a trial attorney in New York explained, "With dyslexia, your organization has to be superior. The computer permits that. You can put everything in the computer, your personal memos, notes, and all the material. You don't have to write anything down. Litigation is lots and lots of paper. And it's all right there. You just print it out." Bill Butler, from Arizona, uses a data bank wristwatch, which keeps his phone numbers, reminds him of appointments, and much more.

Unfortunately, in order to access these devices, we have to actually learn and program them. The "keys" to our information are strings of numbers called "passwords" that we must remember. Technology can create challenges for some of us. This article will explain how people with dyslexia overcome these barriers.

Problems with modern life are listed followed by solutions. Each solution has worked for one or more (and usually many more) people with dyslexia or learning disabilities. They are not offered as techniques that work for everybody. Remember, each person with dyslexia has different abilities and disabilities. So be prepared to experiment with these ideas and to create your own.

Problem:

"I'm glad the pass code protects my account from criminals. Unfortunately, they also protect my accounts from me! I can never remember the pass codes!"

Solutions:

  • Use digits, symbols, and numbers in a sequence that you can remember. For example, I might use *IDA* as a pass code, IDA stands or International Dyslexia Association. The stars on each side are there because I think IDA is a "star" organization.
  • Use number positions on the keypad to develop your password. For example 1,4,7,8,9 makes the letter "L." You can also spell a word using the telephone keypad.
  • Use a sequence of numbers and letters that are already memorized, such as your childhood address or a former locker combination.
  • Although it is a security risk, some people use one pass code for everything.
  • Make a list of all of your pass codes and find a creative, unusual place to hide it. One person hides it in his computer where he says no search engine will find it. Another person put it in a safe.

Problem:

"I keep hearing how great all this technology is. Well, that assumes you can figure out how to use it. Not a correct assumption!"

Solutions:

  • Cultivate friends who are computer savvy and network with them. When Bill Bufton, a well-known professional in the field of corrections and a black-belt in karate, comes across a computer problem, he says. "I call my geeks. When they come across a human dynamics problem, they call me."
  • Find people who can simplify as they teach. Several people had to go through two or more tutors before finding one that was able to work with them. Bill explains that he needs to be spoon-fed information. "I call them and say, 'I can't work my digital camera.' And they say, 'OK, you know that button on top.' They wait til I find the button and say, 'OK, press it. That turns it on.'"
  • Practice what you have learned until it is in your automatic memory.
  • Obtain written or recorded instructions that are clear. For example, Angela Steffens from Alameda, California found that her teacher needed to say "Push the control button." to clarify that she wasn't supposed to type the word "Control."
  • Obtain or develop cheat sheets that list the commands.
  • "Play" with the computer. Experiment. Try things.

Problem:

"Look, I can use the computer. I can type. I can read. But no matter what anyone says, it still takes too long to get anything done."

Solutions:

  • Remove unneeded icons and toolbars on your desktop and your screens to minimize visual clutter.
  • Experiment with different keyboards and mouses and find one that works. Some people find track ball mouses help them control the cursor. Angela found a touch screen mouse helped her. She appreciated separating the buttons that click from the mouse that moves.
  • Empty your e-mail in box daily, so that you have less visual clutter.
  • Use the "Save" button constantly so that you don't accidently erase your work. Back up your data constantly.

Problem:

"My e-mails have typos and are ungrammatical. My boss keeps telling me they are unprofessional and unacceptable for our organization."

Solutions:

  • Use the phone if possible.
  • Use spell check for your e-mails.
  • Type your e-mails in your word processor using a large font. Print and review them. Then paste them in the e-mail using a regular size font. Send the e-mail.
  • Type your e-mails. Put them in your drafts folder. Then print them out the next day and review them. Make necessary changes before sending. Some people put the ones with a lot of changes back in their folder for another review the next day.
  • Ask someone else to review the important ones before you send them. Be particularly careful with e-mails that represent your organization and go to a large group.

Problem:

"I can't remember where I put my data in the computer. Once it is filed and off my screen, it seems gone forever."

Solutions:

  • Use the "find" or "search" functions. Each software package handles them differently. Usually, you type a phrase from your document into a box and the computer will search for it.
  • Use names for your folders that you can easily remember.

As you work on improving your technical skills, you will need to make decisions about software and equipment. Be sure equipment is tough and can survive the rigors of your use. Can you see the letters on the screen? Can you press one button without accidently pressing two buttons? Does the contrast between the letters and the screen work for you and if not, can you change it?

The options can get overwhelming. When you have questions about what to buy or how to handle an issue related to your dyslexia, contact Job Accommodation Network link (http://janweb.icdi.wvu.edu/) at 1-800-526-7234.

Acknowledgment

In addition to the people quoted within the article, the author communicated with over 50 people in the field, mostly people with dyslexia. Among those who made the most substantive contributions are; Dr. Stanley J. Antonoff, author, Students with Learning Disabilities at Graduate and Professional School; A Program and Strategies for Success; Vickie M. Barr, President, People-First Educational Services, Inc.; William M. Buffton PSA/MH, Scranton, Pennsylvania; William D. Butler, retired vocational rehabilitation counselor, Phoenix, Arizona; Patrick Costello, Trial Attorney, New York, New York; Nina Ghiselli, Psy.D., Psychologist, Hayward, California; Daryl Mellard, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas; Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., Director of Research and Special Projects at Schwab Learning; Angela Steffens, Alameda, California; Stephanie Setmire, Irvine, California.

Dale S. Brown is the author of five books on disabilities and employment including "Job Hunting for the So-Called Handicapped," which she coauthored with Richard Bolles. This column was part of a series of columns that she wrote for International Dyslexia Association for people with learning disabilities. She was a key player in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act and has won numerous awards for her work in the field of learning disabilities. She is now the Senior Manager of LD Online.