Visual interference

May 23, 2003

Dyslexia is not simply a spelling issue, it can also cause visual distortion when looking at pages of text. Olga Wojtas discovers a new website for dyslexic art and design students at the Robert Gordon University that is set to become a national resource

Richard Brown, aged 18, a first-year fine art and design student at the Robert Gordon University, still remembers being told to read his first book in primary school. “I had difficulty reading fluently and couldn’t concentrate. I kept stopping and starting and it never really improved,” he says. He had a comprehension problem, he was told. Although Brown managed in school, he always felt he was capable of doing better in exams. When he got to university his mother persuaded him to take a test for dyslexia. It was positive.

Nadia Northway, an orthoptics lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, is not surprised that Brown and other students like him are diagnosed so late in their education. “Dyslexic pupils often work out a strategy with which to muddle through, but in higher education they may feel they are sinking, really struggling and finding it difficult to write essays. But most universities have active policies of support,” she says.

An estimated 15 per cent of the population has dyslexia. But screening at RGU’s Gray’s School of Art has revealed that the school has double the proportion usually found in higher education. This may be because dyslexics tend to use the right side of their brains, which is linked to the artistic, intuitive and creative talents. About half of dyslexics have visual problems that a routine eye test will not reveal. This is more than double the proportion in the population. “Dyslexic readers experience visual distortion, or ‘pattern stress’, if they look at a page with too much text and small or densely packed fonts,” Northway says.

“They almost have a physical aversion to looking at the page. The lines of writing fall into patterns, or shapes appear. The text leaps on and off the page; for some it fades away.”

Brown and Northway are advising RGU on building a website for art and design students with dyslexia. Once completed, in September, it will be a national resource funded by the Learning and Teaching Support Network.

The website needs to be as uncluttered as possible, with at least 16-point text. Many websites are just a mass of words that is difficult for dyslexic students to navigate. This website will give students the option of changing the colours on the screen. Black on white often causes visual stress for dyslexic readers, blue and turquoise tones and pinkish-red often reduce distortion. The website will also advise staff on how best to prepare materials for students with dyslexia, including presenting written briefs or technical instructions.

Project team member Lesley Scott says dyslexia is often thought to be a difficulty with spelling. “Our students have more difficulty with sequencing their ideas to get a logical train of thought. They’re not linear thinkers. It’s almost as if they don’t take steps to the conclusion: they know the solution, but don’t know how they got there.”

Project leader Julian Malins says a problem with short-term memory is a common characteristic of dyslexia and the website will have a section on memory and organisational skills. “The site will advise on developing practical tactics. A range of study skills will also be addressed - frequently asked questions on essay writing, practical advice on mind mapping, provision of sample essays, and so on. The first aim is to encourage students to identify and develop tactics that suit them.”

He believes it is important to advise students on how to cope with written texts. “At certain stages, even in an art student’s career, they’re going to have to deal with text and when they leave they’re going to have to deal with text. It’s not preparing them for post-university life if we ignore it.” But the site will use maps and diagrams rather than focusing on sequential understanding, and there will be an audio option. Northway says that although people tire more quickly looking at a screen than a printed page, because of the tendency to stare, “on the whole, computers provide a lot of support and help for people with dyslexia”. Spellchecks can remove a psychological burden, while it seems easier to learn spelling through typing on a keyboard, learning the pattern in which the fingers move rather than through the word’s visual appearance.

Students who are diagnosed dyslexic can apply for a disabled students allowance to fund a laptop or a scribe for exams. But the RGU team warns a diagnosis of dyslexia “can involve complex emotions” and many students need further information and time to consider it. They will be able to access the website anonymously to find sources of help without talking to a staff member.

  Details (from September): www.rgu.ac.uk/openi/ 

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