I continue to be concerned by the lack of understanding by digital workplace vendors, including enterprise and intranet search vendors, of the challenges that employees with dyslexia face using their applications. Although there is now a wide acceptance of WCAG these guidelines are not adequate for people with dyslexia. The scale of the challenge is vast, as it is likely that 1 in 10 people has some element of dyslexia, significantly greater than employees with limited sight and hearing conditions, and poor physical dexterity. These conditions are usually very apparent to their manager and to their colleagues, but this is not the case with dyslexia, where it is very difficult to explain to others their perception of the appearance of text.
This year the British Dyslexia Association marks its 50th anniversary, and last week at the National Exhibition Centre there was an inaugural Dyslexia Event with over 50 exhibitors and a very good programme of seminars. Most of the exhibitors were organisations and companies supporting the learning development of children with a quite amazing array of publications and digital tools. There were only three focusing on workplace issues, and these were Dyslexia Box, Enabling Technology and the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity. Microsoft also had a stand and were a sponsor of the exhibition but the team on the stand seemed to be unaware of the research that Microsoft has been undertaking to understand how best to support employees with dyslexia in the workplace despite the excellent resources the company has developed for children and teachers.
Despite the increasing awareness and level of support for school children there seems to be a lack of resource at the student level, and this then has an impact on their scale of achievement in higher education and as a result their inability to pursue their career ambitions. There is an excellent House of Commons research publication which puts some numbers on the current situation.
The day prior to the Event I spent some time with Victoria Cartledge-Mann who has the responsibility for supporting students with Specific Learning Difficulties, at the University of Sheffield, which covers Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Disorder/ Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia. It is not just the students themselves that need support but of course the academic and support staff. I was concerned to learn from Victoria that there is only a limited exchange of good practice within the HE sector.
Talking to people at the Event, one of the challenges they were finding is that it is often not clear who in an organisation is specifically tasked and trained in SpLD support. WCAG tends to be in the province of either an IT department or the web team. The extent to which an intranet team is involved seems to be low even though it is this team that is managing (at least to a significant extent) the digital workspace UI.
Over the last few years I have noticed a welcome increase in the amount of research into SpLD support, for example from Microsoft, a paper on student’s use of e-learning applications (which has implications for the workplace environment) and an excellent paper with the title WCAG and Dyslexia — Improving the Search Function of Websites for Users With Dyslexia (Without Making It Worse for Everyone Else). This is my core interest at present, because scanning through search results is very difficult for anyone with dyslexia. This paper provides excellent advice on how to mitigate, at least to some extent, the impact of dyslexia. This is also a topic on which Dr Andy Macfarlane, Reader in Information Retrieval at City University of London has made some significant research contributions.
But there is so much more to be done!