The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Powerful images show what it’s like to read when you have dyslexia

Dan Britton

When he was 18, Dan Britton was failing every subject except science and graphic design. His graphic design teacher suspected something was wrong and took him to be tested. The test results showed that Britton had the reading ability of a 10-year-old and the writing ability of an 11-year-old.

“Can you imagine trying to push what is essentially an infant through high school? Well, of course that infant is going to fail,” he says now.

Dyslexia appears surprisingly common and under-diagnosed. One published study says 6 to 17 percent of the school-age population has dyslexia. Several other sources say the number of people who are affected by some degree of dyslexia could be as high as 20 percent of the population, with perhaps 4 percent affected severely. But only about 5 percent of people with dyslexia have been diagnosed and received assistance, according to the Dyslexia Research Institute, which operates a program for adults with the disorder.

Britton’s new design project aims to show the world what it’s like to live with dyslexia. Britton created a typeface that mimics the experience of reading with dyslexia. To create the font, he removed about 40 percent of each letter, including its key characteristic – for example, the cross-bar in the letter "A."

The font is not designed to show you precisely what letters look like to a dyslexic person, but rather to slow normal readers down to the pace of someone with dyslexia and teach them about the experience, figuring out what words the letters form slowly and painstakingly. “It simulates the frustration and the work and the outright embarrassment of reading with disability,” Britton says.

Britton says he wanted to tackle dyslexia because it is greatly misunderstand and, even more, miscommunicated. Because dyslexia is an invisible disease – those around you can’t tell you have it, or see you experiencing it – “there’s no feeling of empathy in the subject of dyslexia. Non-dyslexics can’t understand what it’s like to be a dyslexic,” he says.

For example, take just a minute and try your hardest to read this. It might teach you something about the challenge of school for kids with dyslexia.

Dyslexia doesn’t really have anything to do with the way that people see letters. The condition is actually related to sound, according to a review of the disorder's background that PBS created for parents.

People with dyslexia have what’s called “weak phonemic awareness,” meaning it’s more difficult for them to hear and distinguish the individual sounds, or phonemes, of a language. Because of this limitation, they have trouble rhyming, spelling and making connections between sounds and words, and that leads to long-term difficulties with reading and writing.

Of course, people with dyslexia can still be very smart and have strong vocabularies. With the right assistance, they can also learn strategies to help them read and spell effectively. Many new technologies are being introduced to assist those with dyslexia, such as dictation tools, word prediction software and text-to-speech apps.

Dan Britton said he did do poorly in school and his future was uncertain until he discovered his love of graphic design.

“The only reason I’m a designer is because I couldn’t do anything else,” he says with a laugh. “If I didn’t do graphic design, I’d be laying bricks.”

He says that if we could do better at addressing the challenges facing dyslexic people, society would certainly benefit. "You could only imagine where the world could be in a few years' time. Maybe we’ll have a few more Richard Bransons and a few more Elon Musks," he said.

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