What Reading Really Looks Like When You’re Dyslexic
Thirty years ago, when Christian Boer was first learning how to read while growing up in the Netherlands, he made a lot of mistakes. His teacher didn’t attribute his challenges to what would eventually be diagnosed as dyslexia—she just told Boer to try harder, and even occasionally called him lazy and stupid. (One wonders if she’d have said the same thing to more famous dyslexics like Richard Branson or Henry Ford.)
Fortunately, awareness of dyslexia is much higher these days, and most of us have some vague sense that dyslexics see the letter “b” as “d” or “p.” Yet it’s still common to assume that we can train dyslexic children out of their habits or that they’ll eventually outgrow the affliction.
But, says Boer, that’s not the case at all. “Dyslexia is a life-long neurological condition,” he says. “You can explain the difference between letters to me today, but it won’t change how I see them tomorrow. To understand, it helps to read research that says dyslexia is the opposite of autism. In autism, the brain makes fewer connections—which makes people hyper-focused and great at rote tasks—while dyslexics make more associations between everything.”
Dyslexic individuals experience the world three-dimensionally—not just with letters, but with everything. Paradoxically, they read more slowly, but think more quickly. Their unique thinking leads many of them to become artists (including Boer, who makes a living as a graphic designer) and “visionary” thinkers who end up inventing things, or starting their own businesses. Dyslexics have trouble distinguishing between left and right, or up and down, which isn’t exactly a huge problem in our 3D world. But when it comes to letters on a printed page, a persistently tipped over letter has a different meaning than its mirror image.
As Boer grew older, awareness of dyslexia started to spread, and he was eventually lucky enough to have been taught by compassionate educators who understood his disorder and nurtured his learning experience. He even went on to pursue graduate design school, where for his thesis project, he decided to create something that would make his own life easier: a font called Dyslexie, designed to counteract the singular neurological perceptions of dyslexic individuals. For Boer, the font works so well that before reading almost any text sent to him over email or in a document, he lays it out in Dyslexie first.
The font has received a lot of attention, mostly because research suggests that it’s effective (though some disagree), and because Boer has made the font available for free. Already, many educators and businesses make use of Dyslexie—in fact, Project Literacy recently integrated the typeface into its logo. Boer recalls an anecdote from one of his design clients. “They were creating an animated commercial and hired a dyslexic voiceover artist to narrate it. He wanted to be able to read the script fast enough to match the video’s pace, so he asked them to lay it out in Dyslexie first,” says Boer.
In addition to a downloadable font that can be used in documents or design programs, Boer has also created a browser extension that will display any online text in Dyslexie. For Boer, that’s not enough. He hopes that one day, Dyslexie will be available for use on Smart Boards and in e-readers, so that reading becomes almost as seamless an experience for dyslexics—who, depending on the definition, make up about 10 percent of the population—as for everyone else.
Boer developed this infographic to bring the dyslexic experience to life; to make it easy to see how and why Dyslexie works so well, especially when compared to more common typefaces; and to demonstrate why the design thinking used in the creation of Dyslexie can be helpful for anyone who struggles with literacy.
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