Easy with IT

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Dyslexia was first diagnosed 100 years ago but acceptance has taken nearly a century. Sue Palmer left, describes how computers are helping her daughter and Reva Klein, below, visits an American university devoted to dyslexics.

A hundred years ago, a certain Dr W Pringle Morgan was introduced to a schoolboy called Percy. According to his teacher, this child "would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were entirely oral". As it was, Percy's reading of even simple text was stilted, his writing and spelling were appalling and he had a pronounced tendency to sign himself "Precy".

A fascinated Pringle Morgan wrote a paper about the boy for the British Medical Journal (see below) and the idea of "word blindness" - later to be christened "dyslexia" - was born.

It's been a long hard struggle towards recognition of dyslexia, especially by the educational hierarchy, but things are at last beginning to look up for those who share Percy's difficulties. The latest awareness-raising campaign by the British Dyslexia Association, marking the centenary of Pringle Morgan's paper, starts next Monday and is intended to draw more people's attention to the large number of dyslexics in our midst - normal, intelligent children and adults who, nevertheless, have considerable trouble with reading and writing (and, sometimes, basic arithmetic).

It pains me to admit that, as a class teacher in the 70s and 80s, I churned out the conventional wisdom that "there's no such thing as dyslexia". I now groan to think of the number of children I considered careless or lazy - some of whom, in retrospect, were clearly dyslexic - and the times I assumed my own or others' teaching must have been at fault.

In a slightly later incarnation as a teacher of children with reading difficulties, I rapidly learned there certainly was such a thing - my pupils soon taught me what initial and in-service education had not.

My latest involvement with dyslexics is the closest yet - my headteacher husband and I now have one of our own: a bright, creative 10-year-old daughter, whose long struggles to read, write and master basic calculation have filled us with a mixture of fury (why should she have to cope with this?), frustration (why can we do so little to help?) and pride - in her slow but determined progress towards literacy.

Despite the pains of dyslexia, however, we're grateful that our experience has come at a time when we can all hold our heads up and talk about it openly, with a good chance of meeting sympathy and understanding.

At least Beth has not had to spend her life accused of laziness, carelessness or - worst of all - stupidity. Her long-suffering teachers have always recognised her difficulties and applauded her achievements, and we have high hopes that her consequent self-confidence and lack of embarrassment about the condition will enable her to fulfil her potential. She also has a further source of help about to open up which Pringle Morgan and Percy could not even have dreamt of - the new family computer, now up and running in our basement.

The use of IT to facilitiate reading and writing has really come into its own in recent years. There are now many good programs for practising those basic reading and spelling skills which bedevil dyslexics (the British Dyslexia Association particularly recommends Wordshark, based on the dyslexia-teacher's "bible," Alpha to Omega by Hornsby and Shear), and simple word-processing packages - including a spellchecker - can hugely improve their presentation of school work. In fact "talking computers", where the word-processor reads back what you've written, can actually teach as you write: Percy would soon have recognised his spelling error if the Dalek voice repeatedly retailed it to him as "Precy". All this, we hope, will soon be at Beth's fingertips.

And there is even greater hope for the future, with experts predicting that the next generation of word processors will have "speech-text-speech" facility. This means dyslexics (indeed, any of us) should soon be able to dispense with typing altogether. We will dictate our message to the machine, which will write it down for us, check it for spelling and read it back.

At the recent BDA computer conference, estimates of the time it will take for such machines to become available, affordable and easy to use, ranged from two to 20 years. Indeed, prototypes are already on the market. The combination of a speech recognition system (such as Dragon Dictate or Voice Types) with talking computer software (such as Keystone or Text Help) can already provide speech-text-speech word-processing.

It's pricey, of course, and I fear what's currently on offer is for IT-aficionados only. I tried Dragon Dictate at the conference and it scrambled my words up something rotten. Apparently you have to teach the computer to recognise your voice, and this is not easy - one member of the BDA committee admitted he'd been trying to sort out his machine for 10 weeks and was still having trouble. But the potential is there and - when you think how quickly other recent developments in IT have moved from the drawing board to the High Street - there's a good chance that Beth will be able simply to dictate her GCSE answers to a machine and hand the examiner a tidy print-out.

It's been pretty bad news being dyslexic over the past century. Now however, thanks to pressure groups such as the BDA, the chances of sympathetic understanding in school and workplace are much greater; and thanks to researchers, IT experts and dedicated teachers, resources to support dyslexics' weaknesses and develop their many strengths are increasingly available. With any luck, the next 100 years won't be anywhere near as tough.

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