What do Jennifer Aniston, Thomas Edison, Cher, Andy Warhol, Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Pablo Picasso, and Ozzy Osbourne have in common?
They were all diagnosed with dyslexia.
(Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Galileo Galilei, and Leonardo da Vinci were also believed to be dyslexic but were never officially diagnosed.)
Dyslexia is a disorder that affects the ability to read, write, and interpret letters and symbols despite normal (or often above average) intelligence. Researchers estimate that 3-10% of the population is dyslexic while up to 20% may suffer from some degree of symptoms.
The National Institute of Health identified many neurological and cognitive differences that contribute to dyslexia and the vast majority appear to be caused by genetics rather than environmental trauma. Dyslexia was first identified in 1881 but didn’t become widely known until 1980. For years, dyslexics have been dismissed as “stupid” or “lazy.”
A dyslexic’s brain is perfectly healthy but the frustration associated with dyslexia can cause emotional and psychological problems that last a lifetime. A dyslexic preschooler is typically unaffected but then pressure begins to mount in subsequent years as the student fails to meet reading standards and teacher/parent expectations. Dyslexic children frequently have problems with social situations, leading to poor self-image and less peer acceptance. Dyslexia can hinder oral language development, too: Affected kids might stammer, stutter, or have trouble finding the right words.
Dutch designer Christian Boer suffered from dyslexia as a young man and decided to invent a typeface to help others like him. His Dyslexie fonts emphasize key differences in characters so that few of them are similar and/or easily confused with each other.
Here’s some of the design features that make Dyslexie easier for dyslexics to read:
Boer isn’t the only designer who believed that the presentation of text has a significant impact on its accessibility to dyslexics. In the past thirty years, many studies have been done about which fonts/typefaces increased/decreased readability.
A study by Luz Rello and Ricardo Baeza-Yates suggests that Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana test high for reading performance. Sans Serif, monospaced, and Roman fonts were also favorable. Italic fonts were most difficult for dyslexics.
Other fonts believed to have “strong legibility” include Garamond, Myriad, and Computer Modern Unicode.
Herman Bouma and C.P. Legein did a study in 1977 that suggested crowding between characters limits recognition in dyslexic readers. “Difficulty recognizing letters occurs in the parafovea of the retina of the eye when visual objects are too close together in relation to their distance from the center of vision.” Based on Bouma and Legien’s findings, many type designers have tried greater spacing between letters as a way to reduce crowding and make it more readable to dyslexics.
In addition to Dyslexie, there are currently several other options available that were created specifically to aid dyslexics.
Read Regular is “designed with an individual approach for each of the individual characters.” For example, the ‘b’ character doesn’t simply mirror the ‘d’ character—each character is unique. Unnecessary details (like serifs) have been removed to create striking outlines. Ascending and descending lines are long and clean. Space inside of letters like ‘o’ or ‘g’ is open and free of clutter.
Most typefaces are tested for legibility after they’re designed. Rob Hillier refined and modified his Sylexiad (get it?) typeface based on feedback from dyslexic readers during a series of tests. He compared early versions of his font to Arial and Times New Roman. This manner of progressive testing raised questions over whether or not dyslexics read words as shapes, a core principle of type design.
OpenDyslexic is an open source typeface that includes regular, bold, italic and bold-italic styles. It’s updated constantly based on feedback from the dyslexic community and is free for commercial and personal usage. According to their site, OpenDyslexic is “inspired by Andika, Apple Casual, Lexia Readable, Sassoon, and Comic Sans.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s no “cure” for dyslexia—it’s a condition that’s hard-wired into the brain caused by inherited traits—but most children with dyslexia are capable of succeeding in school with tutoring or focused educational assistance. Thanks to awareness, research, and technological advances, plenty of options are now available to help kids previously referred to as “stupid” or “lazy” achieve great things and be the next Albert Einstein. Or Steven Spielberg. Or Ozzy Osbourne.