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Assistive Technology for Dyslexia

There was a debate recently on a neuropsychologists listserve I’m on about the use of assistive technology (AT). At least half the psychologists who wrote in felt strongly that it’s just a crutch and that students who use AT will never learn the critical basic skills they need. Accommodations like extra time, calculators, and testing in a quiet room were also criticized. One wrote “you wouldn’t want a dyslexic surgeon who uses AT operating on you in the emergency room.”

I disagree. My advice to most parents is to try their best to remediate learning challenges while the child is young and doing so doesn’t negatively impact their high school and college trajectories. But after a certain point, there are diminishing returns to remediation. Furthermore, it’s critically important that the child focus on higher order skills like reading and oral comprehension, communication, and mathematical problem solving. The lower order skills like word decoding, spelling, and math fact memorization are certainly helpful, but one doesn’t want to stagnate at that level. And, one wants to keep that spark of intellectual curiosity and love of learning alive, and year after year of remediation can take a toll.

Assistive technology can have a huge impact when the decision is made to slow down or stop dyslexia remediation. Or at any point when a learner would benefit from better access to reading, writing, and higher-level math. I’ve seen students who didn’t read at all suddenly become avid readers when they could access text by listening to it. My dyslexic son taught himself to listen to books at triple speed and describes that as a “game-changer” professionally. He’s just launched a start-up in the space of virtual reality and education. Who says all learning has to happen the same way it has since the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s?

The options in the field of AT are simply amazing, and are growing every day. There’s a terrific, up-to-date guide just published by Dyslexic Advantage called Tech Guide 2017 that I can’t recommend more highly. It describes all the newest and tried and true AT out there with comments, reviews, and links to YouTubes and other instructions for use. One has to become a premium member in order to get the guide, but I believe the price ($60) for membership is worth it for this guide alone. For those of you not familiar with Dyslexic Advantage, it’s a non-profit founded by Dr.’s Brock and Fernette Eide with the mission of celebrating dyslexic strengths and bringing “more of the incredible talent and innovative thinking of this community to the world.” The good doctors wrote the books: The Mislabeled Child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success and The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain. I adore these two and am so grateful for all they have done and are doing to shift the dynamic for dyslexics. If you’re interested in joining Dyslexic Advantage and getting the guide, here’s a link to do so: Premium Membership.

In the introduction to the guide they suggest taking one’s time and not hurrying tech learning. There are a lot of different applications from which to choose, and the choice can be a bit overwhelming. Kind of like trying to decide what to watch on t.v these days, and how to access it: Netflix? Amazon? Hulu? Apple TV? Also, there may be challenges initially in learning how to use a new technology. One may need to put in some time training oneself and training the technology to work for the individual. I’ve seen students give up way too early when trying out a tool like Speech-to-Text interface or Inspiration. It often helps to hire an assistive technology consultant to guide one through the selection and training stages. Consultants can be found in most areas, but if there isn’t one near you they might be able to help remotely.

I’m so excited about the tools out there. From audiobooks, books combining audio and visual presentations (even graphic novels), pen scanners that read text aloud, speed reading apps, note-taking tools, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, apps with prompts for writers, typing programs, and tools for organization and executive function – there’s something for everybody. Even us non-dyslexics.

I am thrilled (as I did recently) when I learn my surgeon is dyslexic. That’s because I know they probably have exceptional visual-spatial and big-picture thinking skills. They had to work extra hard to get where they are so they’ve got a great work ethic and are smart and motivated. And if they’re familiar with AT on a personal level they’re likely to have investigated the ways in which technology can enhance their work as a surgeon. No one would want to have a surgeon using tools and techniques from the 1400’s. Why should education be stuck in a time warp?