One in five people have a language based learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. However, most of the population, even some dyslexics themselves, misunderstand the disability completely. Dyslexia effects the part of the brain that processes language and thus, most dyslexics have difficulty decoding sounds and relating them to letters. This slows their reading rate and makes spelling a challenge. A Dyslexic’s Experience is a project designed for anyone to understand this language processing barrier first hand. Throughout the interaction the user will learn and spell words using a visual representation of the alphabet designed by measuring the volume inputs of spoken letters and drawing circles with radii based on that input. The barrier between the user and this new alphabet is meant to recreate the challenges individuals with learning disabilities face. When the user scans a symbol from the visual alphabet in the ‘learn’ section of the board, the corresponding letter will play over the headphones. Requiring the users to learn the alphabet by matching the oral sounds of letters to the symbols is meant to highlight the difficulty dyslexics have decoding sounds. Once the user learns enough letters to make a word, they will scan the letters one at a time in the ‘write’ section of the board. As they scan, their word will be displayed on the screen and they can submit it into the library of words written by previous users. The symbols that make up the alphabet are purposely similar yet unique in order to make the interaction somewhat challenging. In conclusion, the user will gain a first hand experience of a dyslexic’s learning differences.
The following video demonstrates the user experience…
This project began with my observations of the general populations understanding of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Through conversations with people over the years I have picked up on common misconceptions about dyslexia. Thus, I began to research these misconceptions and the true definition of dyslexia. Through this research I was inspired to develop a project that could teach everyone about dyslexia. However, I strongly believe that you cannot understand dyslexia unless you step into a dyslexic’s shoes. For most it is meaningless to describe symptoms of dyslexia and it is much more powerful to face them. What it means to be dyslexic, for me, is not the fact that I process information differently, it is how my everyday life is effected by my disability. The feelings, frustrations, setbacks, and gifts I am given as a result of my dyslexia are what define my disability and more broadly, myself. Thus, I decided to take a stab at recreating a dyslexic’s experience for anyone. This is not a project about the dyslexic’s experience, rather a dyslexic’s experience. Dyslexia manifests in different ways for different people. Therefore, this project highlights my own experience with dyslexia and how it makes me feel daily.
The research highlighted dyslexia as a language based learning disability. I focused on the language part of the definition and decided to create a visual language that the user will need to decode. The way you learn the language is through audible sounds and matching those sounds to visual symbols. This way of learning forces the user to process the language slowly. My reasoning for using the sounds of letters to teach the language as opposed to the read letters was to highlight actually processing barrier common to most dyslexics. Dyslexics often have difficulty matching sounds to letter forms and thus this learning interaction should match that process. Once they learn some of the letters, users can write a word using the alphabet. The initial concept of the physical form is shown in Figure 3.
With this concept I began to experiment with different visuals for my alphabet. I wanted the visuals to represent sounds of letters to reflect the concept of sound being a barrier for dyslexics. Thus I played around with different mappings of sounds using p5.js to develop a visual alphabet. Figure 4 shows two examples of sound mappings used to create the visuals. In the left example I am graphing the sound levels from the computer microphone when I say “A.” In the right example I am graphing the same input type but representing the levels using the radius of circles instead of the height of a bar on a graph. The circles alternate between black and white in order to see the layered circles.
Ultimately, I decided to use the circle design for my visual alphabet. Using the program I created, I recorded myself saying each letter of the alphabet and saved its generated symbol. For a video demonstration of this recording process view this video. Figure 5 shows the resulting visual alphabet library where each symbol represents a different letter. I then created a sound library of each letter by trimming each letter from this sound file.
At this stage, I had a completed the ideation phase of the project and conducted an initial paper playtest as a proof of concept. Figure 6 shows the set up of this initial user testing. The feedback I received from the playtest proved that this experience would raise the frustrations and barriers I had hoped to convey. I used this opportunity to identify aspects of the user experience that needed modification and to decide on the board design.
After the playtest, I began the main technical phase of the process. I purchased two RFID modules for the Arduino and modified example code from the Mifare MFRC522 library. Figure 7 shows the pin connections for one and then two RFID modules connecting to an Arduino.
I developed a p5.js sketch to serially communicate with the RFID modules and detect RFID key fobs. The video in Figure 8 shows an example of the RFID/p5.js setup. When the key fobs are scanned on one RFID module, the program plays the corresponding letter sound over headphones. When the key fobs are scanned on the other RFID module, the program writes the letters on the screen.
Once the RFID process was functioning properly with the p5.js program, I turned my attention to the fabrication of the physical board and coins. Figure 9 shows the coin fabrication. Each coins has an enclosure for an RFID key fob to sit inside it.
The coins were fabricated out of plywood using a laser cutter. The first iteration of the board was also made out of plywood (Figure 10). Clear/restart and submit buttons were also included on the display panel.
With the fabrication and technical side near completion, I conducted a second user test. Figure 11 shows an example from the user testing.
I used the feedback from this testing to make minor modifications to the design and the interface. Figure 12 shows the final design of the display panel.
Upon reflection, I am satisfied with how this project turned out. The final result aligns with the initial motivation and concept. Most importantly, the project highlights for anyone who uses it the feelings and frustrations I face as a dyslexic. When people can sympathize with the human aspects of dyslexia, they will find similarities between themselves and people who are challenged with learning disabilities. These similarities will make everyone understand what it truly means to be dyslexic and will make us dyslexics feel less distanced from others. I hope that everyone who interacts with this project will be forced to think more about dyslexia and the people they know who are challenged with a language based learning disability.
Also thank you to David Rios for his guidance throughout this process and to my classmates for their input.