Can dyslexia be cured?


People talk about surfing the web: I feel like I’ve been riding the crest of a digital wave my entire life. About one in five people are dyslexic. So it is a significant problem. I am severely dyslexic, and am describing a few of my coping strategies so that anyone with young children who has discovered they are dyslexic might be able to find a few ideas here. First let’s be honest: Dyslexia doesn’t need to be a barrier to success. There are a number of prominent business men who are dyslexic, but let’s not kid ourselves. Being dyslexic doesn’t mean that you have won a lottery and are bound to be a millionaire. Even though I myself happen to be an entrepreneur, for the most part my dyslexia is a hindrance. Despair doesn’t help anyone either. If you are dyslexic, you have to accept that many things will just be harder. You will have to work harder than most people. That isn’t as big a problem as it may sound. There is nothing wrong with hard work but here are a few things you can do to keep up:


I didn’t know how to spell: ‘Leicester’ the name of a city in the UK. Amazingly I enter ‘leicter’ and Google, asked me if I meant ‘Leicester’. Since the advent of broad band internet this strategy has become quick enough, for most spelling problems to be resolved.

Spritz–SnP8 Spritz is a very new development, and seems to be popular with adult dyslexics. This is rapid serial display. Text is displayed one word at a time fast. One of the letters in each word is colored red. This is the optimal recognition point. The trick of this technology is to display each word with the optimal recognition point, the colored letter, in the center. This means the text can be streamed very fast in front of your eyes and comprehended at high speed. Interestingly, it seems that most “normal” readers do not enjoy using Spritz, but many dyslexics have found it to be a revelation. I have adopted Spritz in a number of forms, and every time a new opportunity for reading text via rapid serial display is launched by the community of developers surrounding Spritz I adopt it. Spritzlet The primary one is Spritzlet, which is a plug-in you can install in the Google Chrome web browser. This allows you to highlight text on a website and click the Spritzlet button which will then display the text on that page as a stream of single words.


Additionally, there is Readsy, this is a free website that enables you to upload PDF and text files, so that they too can be Spritzed via the web.


Recently they have launched readme! This is an app for android, which enables you to Spritz ePUB books. Entire books can be consumed using rapid serial display. Unfortunately Amazon don’t sell their books as EPUB files, and they have DRM on the E books they do sell. This digital rights management means it’s hard to copy these files or change the format.

Calibre The DRM problem above can be overcome, with relative ease. The first thing you need to do is download Calibre, which is an incredibly useful free management tool, not unlike iTunes but for e-book files. Once you’ve downloaded Calibre. You can install a plug-in which will automatically remove the DRM from any e-book files you place in it. Calibre then lets you change the format of any of your books. As a result, Amazon (MOBI) Kindle files can be converted to ePUB format and read via ReadMe!.   Additionally once you’ve written a document in Word, you can print that as a PDF, and then change the PDF file to a MOBI file. Ironically, now any document I write can be uploaded to my Amazon Kindle, rather than printing it on paper. I can now get my Kindle 3 to read me back the documents I have written while I’m on the move. I recently found this incredibly useful: I’d written a document for a presentation I was giving at very short notice. “printing” the research documents to my Kindle as MOBI files, meant while I was driving, I could revised the talk  I was about to give and keep my hands and eyes free to focus on the road.


I recommend you should pay for DragonDictate voice recognition software. Frankly, I’m baffled by the fact that everybody doesn’t use it. I’ve written this document in a matter of minutes using DragonDictate. One of the biggest problems that I have as a dyslexic is that I’m heavily reliant on context, which means if I make a spelling mistake and right-click for MSWord to give me a suggestion. I don’t know which is the correct suggestion to take, because there are a list of very similar words with no context: as a result I’m prone to making homophone errors. DragonDictate not only transcribe speech, but also reads back what you have written. This is a massive help because when I scan my text I am more prone than most to reading what I intended to write, rather than what is actually on the page.


Given that the vast majority of text that I handled these days, is via my laptop. All of the above strategies have pretty much rendered my profound dyslexia, null and void. I still have problems out in the physical world such as deciphering information from railway tickets, and reading printed bank statements. However, I’m very hopeful for the future, increasingly, the world is becoming digital and as it does so, my computer and smart phone are there as a tool for me to use to overcome these barriers. Control-F on your computer’s keyboard enables you to use your computer to scan a page of text much faster than even a fluent reader would be able to. No longer do people have to use their rise to find the information they need on a page. However, having said that I would rather have developed an ability to read normally and be less wedded to my machine. Text Messages To that end, I contacted Prof Sugata Mitra. He tells me that illiterate adults are able to become fluent relatively quickly once they acquire a mobile phone and start using text messages for communication. I have to agree with Prof Mitra assistive technology does not spoon-feed people and keep them week. They actually help you learn to acquire skills and knowledge faster. His example is that once word has put a squiggly line under a word, three or four times, most people will quickly learn what the correct spelling is. These assistive technologies provide very rapid feedback which is exactly what you need for learning. Probably: we should not discourage dyslexic children from communicating via text message.


Whilst learning to code, I accidentally taught myself to touch type. Literally decades had gone by with me staring at the keyboard, but it was only through the practice of copying out lines of computer code that I suddenly realized, I wasn’t looking at the keyboard anymore. Learning to code also exposed me to Anki a computer-generated flashcard system. Like old fashioned physical revision cards you can write on one side of a virtual flashcard a question and on the other side of the virtual flashcard, the corresponding answer. Anki will randomly select your revision cards for you. Depending on whether you tell the computer you got the answer right or wrong, it will increase the frequency with which it shows you the cards you are having most problems with.

The Future: Perhaps the most inspiration should come from people overcoming more severe problems. Neil Harbisson is totally color blind. He is now able to hear color by wearing a small contraption on his head. The sensor detects which colors are in front of him and plays a corresponding tone against the bones in the back of his head. After wearing the device for some time, he began to “hear” color in his dreams. Neil also went from only being able to perceive a small number of colors through to perceiving the full 360° color spectrum, The same as a “normal” person would be able to detect with their eyes. Now Harbison has extended his color detection abilities beyond that of a normal human being and can see in the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. He now knows when somebody is pointing a TV remote control at him, or if the UV radiation from the sun that day is dangerous and if he needs to apply sunscreen before he goes out. In my opinion, if people are able to overcome problems like total color blindness by adopting technology, then it can’t be long before dyslexia, which is also a simple mechanistic problem can be overcome. Perhaps in the near future eyeglasses will scan the environment for text and display blocks of text to you via rapid serial display or just read it to you. I also wonder if some of the technology described above is a nascent form of a device that could help children develop without noticeable dyslexia in the first place. Interestingly everybody struggles to learn to read. It takes many years of engaging with written language before any of us can read and write fluently, whether you are dyslexic or not. On the other hand, spoken language is learned innately. Children who grow up in deaf families that use sign language also acquire sign language through some innate mechanism. Children born to signing parents have been seen to babble in the same way as children acquiring spoken language. If their parents speak to each other, then babies will practice speaking by babbling using their voice, whereas babies born into signing families will babble by using their hands. I therefore wonder if it would be possible to use children’s natural language learning ability to acquire written language: I would love to know if it would be possible to use voice recognition technology like DragonDictate, and display technology such as Spritz to create an app for a smart phone. Parents could wear their smart phones like medallions around their neck, which display what they are saying in real time. That way, children hearing their parents speak would also receive the visual stimulus of written language. Additionally, these devices could be used to confirm to children when they have used their voice to pronounce a real word. If this is possible, children would be able to get the real-time feedback they need to learn written language rapidly. At the moment, that’s just a crazy idea I’ve had, but I’ve been trying to get in touch with several prominent language scientists in order to see if this idea has legs. I contacted Steve Pinker via Facebook, and was delighted to see a response. Unfortunately, that response was from Dennis, his PR man. Dennis told me that for some reason he was unable to forward my question on to Steve but suggested that I write a blog and tweet at him. This is that blog. The speed with which technology has advanced and help me with my profound difficulties has frankly been amazing. When I was a child by parents predicted that my dyslexia would not be such a problem because voice recognition technology would advance and close the gap for me. Amazingly, despite a number of hick ups that prediction has largely turned out to be true. I now think that we are in a connected enough world and that there are enough technologies in place that we could probably very quickly go one step further: If Neil Harbison can hack his body and retrofit himself with color vision, then I see absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to hack our body’s natural language learning mechanisms to effectively eradicate dyslexia.

Please, please help me start this discussion:

I’d love to get language scientists and hackers talking to see if it is possible for us to put something together that would enable children to learn written language more rapidly and with greater ease. It seems to me the process of writing an app for a smart phone that would display speech one word at a time could be quite incidental. What’s really important is getting enough scientists together to make sure that data is gathered properly and we can tell whether this is working. As someone who’s lived with dyslexia my whole life, the last thing I would want is to produce some “snake oil”. If you know anybody either on the language science side or the hacking side who might be able to help get a prototype of this app off the ground please share this blog with them and encourage them to get in touch and sign up bellow.   Who knows, perhaps this could be the thing that finally improves my spelling! :-)


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