The Challenge of Creating Mobile Software for Struggling Readers

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Dyslexia, low vision and blindness altogether put around 1 billion people worldwide at risk of reading difficulties, which often lead to illiteracy and social exclusion. Fortunately, mobile technology can help many struggling readers access and learn new information, thus staying productive and keyed into their academic, professional and social environments. To be truly helpful, though, mobile software for people with reading disabilities requires an especially delicate approach to design and functionality. Let’s see what makes up the challenge and how we deal with it in one of our projects.1

Why struggling readers struggle

Before we get to mobile solutions for struggling readers, let’s try to understand these people’s problems better and see what makes them more sensitive and demanding when it comes to application usability.

Dyslexia

It may come as a surprise, but at least 700 million people worldwide suffer from dyslexia. If not only this fact but also the word ‘dyslexia’ has been foreign to your knowledge, we’ll give you a quick hint. In simple words, dyslexia is a learning disability that makes it hard for a person to read, write and spell. Some people may have more extreme dyslexia and some may have less, but usually, it comes down to problems with:

  • Connecting letters to sounds
  • Decoding text (sounding out letters and words)
  • Recognizing familiar words without having to sound them out
  • Reading fluently (smoothly and at a good rate)
  • Understanding the text (readers with dyslexia can have trouble with remembering what they’ve just read or be entangled in sounding out every word)

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Dyslexia’s impact on individuals and society

As the most common form of learning difficulty, dyslexia has far-reaching consequences across multiple life domains. The inability to read fluently affects not only students’ academic success but also their confidence and self-esteem. In the long term, this results in school failure, depression, law-breaking behaviour and an increased tendency to suicide. As shows the research conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch together with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 48% of prison inmates are dyslexic.

Dyslexia affects society, too. According to Dyslexia International referring to the 2006 KPMG Foundation report, the costs of ignoring illiteracy secondary to dyslexia include

social costs, unemployment, consequent mental health problems and remedial programs as well as costs incurred due to antisocial behaviour, such as drug abuse, early pregnancy and most significantly of all, criminal justice involvement.

Visual impairment and blindness

The UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People claims that visual impairment and blindness can significantly delay early childhood development and learning, which are primarily tied to reading. Though visual impairments differ, the main dysfunctions include central or peripheral vision loss, impaired eye movement or colour loss, poor image sharpness, and low contrast sensitivity or adaptability to light.

Working mostly with the visual medium, the partially sighted constitute the majority of visually impaired learners. Many of them can work with normal print, but their capabilities should not be overestimated. For example, a learner’s level of sight can vary depending on lighting, or their field of vision can be restricted.

As the blind can’t learn visually, they rely on the other senses. As SEN Magazine put it, ‘distinguishing between those who have had some past sight and those who have never seen may influence the visual concepts they can understand’, which adds to the complexity that lies behind assistive technology.

Inclusion through technology: accessibility still challenged

In one of his articles, the BBC’s disability affairs correspondent and the blind himself Peter White claimed that under 1% of the humanity’s literature is available in braille, a tactile writing system for visually impaired and blind people. Online services like Audible provide a touch broader yet still narrow selection of audiobooks. For instance, Audible offers over 180,000 titles, which is only 4% of 4.6 million books on Amazon. Anyway, most of these titles are popular books and almost none cover technical or academic subjects.3

E-books and e-readers: a blessing or a burden?

Here is where e-readers and e-book reader apps can make a difference. Many of them come packed with a Text-to-Speech (TTS) feature, which reads text aloud, making digital libraries more accessible and inclusive.

However, when Amazon, then holding 90% of the e-book market, released Kindle 2 with TTS functions in 2009, multiple publishers argued that reading an e-book aloud would violate copyright and removed the feature from loads of their books. The liberation so long-awaited by struggling readers brought in new restrictions. And though TTS has become more widespread across Kindle books in the recent years, accessibility is still limited.

Blind Americans vs. Amazon

In addition to that, since 2008, the US National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has repeatedly accused Amazon of pushing inaccessible technology into public schools. They claim that4

Amazon e-books inhibit the ability of blind students to access the complex material like tables and equations and the ability to easily navigate through a book, among other significant accessibility barriers’.

Hopefully, this will change soon, as in March 2016, the NFB and Amazon announced a cooperation to ‘increase selection, enhance accessibility, and improve reading experiences for blind students’.

Features that help

Despite various imperfections, mobile readers have plenty features to help the visually impaired who have trouble seeing small or fine details, colours and contrasts. For example, some people can’t see small font or yellow font on a white background. That’s when the ability to adjust the text you see on a display comes in handy, and most software offers adjustable font sizes and colours, contrast and brightness.

Nevertheless, as visual impairments differ, it would be unrealistic to expect the creation of a one-size-fits-all solution for every struggling reader, even from the major brands like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple. This makes a niche market open for smaller players to develop software tailored to particular disabilities.

One of our customers – we can’t reveal their name due to the NDA – has been providing accessible software for people with dyslexia and visual impairment for 30 years. The company chose us as a technological partner to create an iOS app for one of their products, and we are proud to be part of this project. To give you a better understanding of how this software helps disabled people read, let’s have a look at the key functionality we’ve been working on throughout the recent months.

Case study: a mobile e-book reader for students with print disabilities

The app provides access to over 20 multilingual online libraries, mostly specialized for people with dyslexia, visual impairments and blindness. Among others, the libraries include Bookshare that boasts 400,000 titles as well as services delivering hundreds of daily newspapers and magazines to those who can’t read conventional print. Users can also add their own reading materials in formats such as DAISY, Epub, MS Word, MathML and more.5

Upon entering a library through a simplified login procedure, the user browses books by title, author or genre and downloads the wanted item to their mobile phone or reads online. When reading, the user can tailor the way they see the text by tweaking the font (style, size and colour), margins, line spacing, letter spacing, highlight colour and more. We are now also developing functionality to enable notes and translation.

If an increased focus is needed, the reader can use highlighted text and synchronized audio, just like they would listen to an audiobook. If the book comes without audio, the TTS feature with several human-sounding voices will do the job. While listening, the user takes full control over the playback, including the ability to change the voice speed, pausing and rewinding when they need.

And probably one of the most important features. The app supports Apple’s VoiceOver technology, which tells the user what’s on their screen and guides through menus and buttons.

Afterword

6Assistive technology has enormous potential for helping people with reading disabilities and making education more accessible and inclusive. With digital libraries at their fingertips, learners can finally work at their own pace and independently, thus keeping their confidence and self-esteem up high. As software developers, we are happy to be part of this evolution. Yet, technology is far from being a magic wand, as disabilities vary significantly and every struggling reader’s needs a personalized solution to their problems. This requires from tech people an ever-thoughtful approach to application design and usability, and we are ready to take on this challenge.

 
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