What the Internet Looks Like for Someone With Dyslexia
Try as you might, if you don’t have dyslexia, it’s probably hard to really understand what it’s like for someone who does to use the Internet, where text is king. A developer named Victor Windell wanted to change that. Windell created a simulation that lets anyone see what it’s like to have severe dyslexia and read online content.
“I remembered a conversation I had a long time ago with a dyslexic friend,” said Windell. “Out of curiosity, I asked about how she experiences reading. She explained it as the letters ‘jumping around.’”
In the sim, words and numbers dance before your eyes. They twist themselves backwards and upside down, morphing on the screen as you desperately try to make sense of them. For a moment, you understand how difficult it is for dyslexic people to navigate a largely text-based medium. Windell wrote the code on a whim in between sessions at a conference.
“I wrote some programming code to scan through the webpage and find all words. One word is selected randomly, and two letters in it, excluding the first and last, are swapped. It does this over and over, 20 times per second,” Windell said.
It manages to convey some of what a person with dyslexia sees when they log on to Twitter, or read emails of news websites. “It’s a cognitive disability that affects reading and writing, but it is independent to general intelligence,” said Luz Rello of Carnegie Mellon University who studies dyslexia and is dyslexic herself. “It doesn’t affect oral learning. And it’s also universal; you see it in every language.” Though dyslexia manifests itself visually, the condition actually relates more to problems with the association of sounds to letters, which can make trying to quickly identify words difficult.
These challenges are compounded by the fact that, according to Rello, “when you have dyslexia, you often don’t know that you have dyslexia.” And unless another person notices, you likely won’t be able to notice it yourself, Rello continued.
“I thought it would be cool to build something interactive to simulate that feeling. There are obviously other very different ways to ‘have’ dyslexia. This particular version of it just happened to be simple to code, so I hacked it together quickly,” Windell said.
Windell isn’t the first person to design a tool to help simulate the feeling of dyslexia for non-dyslexics. Last year WIRED wrote about a typeface by graphic designer Daniel Britton, a dyslexic himself, who removed parts of letters to try to simulate the feeling of what reading text was like for him. Other graphic designers have tried too, but these projects largely fall short of really helping people grok the experience of dyslexia, largely because dyslexia is as much about challenges in associating sounds in text as it is about seeing the text itself, and because it manifests itself in a variety of ways.
Rello says there are other ways to experience reading outside of Windell’s code. “Instead of jumbling the text, I would add real words that are phonetically similar and orthographically similar to other words that are real.” So instead of displaying the word “from” the program would display the word “forum” or “form,” Rello suggests.
Dyslexia is a common condition, which the advocacy group Dyslexia International estimates affects one in 10 people worldwide. Tools like these are useful not only for building empathy but for creating a more diverse Internet—and one where more people can actually consume precious content.