Luz Rello is adapting the information environment that stymies effective learning for people with dyslexia. She is challenging the traditional approach to educating dyslexics by creating and disseminating innovative methods and technologies both to improve their performance on reading and writing, and to change the way information is presented to them in the external environment to make it more accessible.
The New Idea
Luz has a multi-pronged strategy for addressing the challenges faced by people with dyslexia (which some estimates suggest could represent one out of ten people). Seizing the opportunity presented by the dramatic transformation of how information of all types is compiled and transmitted in the digital age, Luz is transforming the information environment with which dyslexics engage, while pioneering new methods to improve how people with dyslexia learn and improve their comprehension.
Though long recognized, treatment of dyslexia - the difficulty to read fluently and with accurate comprehension despite levels of intelligence - has been slow to evolve. Luz has brought research and researchers from across disciplines to identify key stumbling blocks to comprehension by dyslexics, particularly in terms of layout and content, and developed new tools and methodologies for improved learning. In addition, she is establishing new protocols for “accessible information” for providers of information of all kinds.
The advent of digital devices for reading has created the opportunity to automatically modify parameters based on Luz and her team’s research to improve text comprehension. In turn, the use of technology, making it simple and accessible, allows people with dyslexia to download many of these new tools. These tools are software based, guaranteeing their rapid dissemination.
Luz works with coalitions of educators, school systems and local governments to test and disseminate these new methods, and ensure that they are adapted in school systems. In parallel with her emphasis on changing how people with dyslexia learn and are taught, she is also focusing on the social environment of how information is presented, targeting schools, publishing houses, governments and local and international standard-setting bodies to promote simple methods of enhancing the presentation of information for greater accessibility.
Dyslexia is a disability diagnosed late in childhood, if diagnosed at all. Often it is not diagnosed at all. It causes embarrassment and fear of those suffering it, as no matter how hard they try, they see no results. There’s also a lack of empathy of people around them, as it is not obvious to others that this disability is present. The way society usually comes across dyslexia nowadays is when a child has difficulties at school both in terms of academic results and of social integration difficulties.
It is estimated that between 5 and 25% of the population in countries with letter alphabets is dyslexic (A 1987 report to the US Congress estimated that from 10 to 17.5% of Americans were dyslexic.). In Spain there are no official records but the Spanish Federation of Dyslexics, based on European Union statistics, estimates that between 10 and 15% of the Spanish population suffer from different levels of dyslexia. The lack of rigorous numbers is a proof of the invisibility of dyslexia in society.
Due to late diagnosis and therefore late treatment, dyslexia is considered one of the root causes of school failure. The way the education system is established nowadays based on memorization of texts and written exams, makes it almost impossible for a child with dyslexia to succeed. It is also difficult for a teacher to know if a poor academic performance of a student is due to lack of interest, low capacities or dyslexia.
The OECD reports a rate of 30% of school failure in Spain. Statistics suggest that at least 4 out of 6 cases of school failure are linked to literacy problems. According to the Catalan Association of Dyslexics and the Pedagogues Association of Catalonia 15% of school failure is due to dyslexia. School failure lies at the base of much social exclusion and anti-social behaviors. The UK project Dyslexia Behind Bars stated that more than 50% of prisoners where dyslexic, in Sweden the figure given in the report “Dyslexia among Swedish prison inmates” (published in 1999) was 41%. The main difficulty of people with dyslexia is that they don’t decode written language properly, finding special difficulties with similar words, frequency or length. Furthermore, they are not able to accurately assess how they are reading (they don’t know what they are not comprehending). Additionally dyslexia usually brings along spelling mistakes in writing as well.
Dyslexics are therefore unable to fully engage with our information society – accessing media and information put out by private or government entities.
Current treatment methods are blunt instruments - neither personalized to the individual’s own needs, nor sophisticated. Historical efforts to treat dyslexia, drawing especially from psychology and speech therapy, have focused on methodologies for "reeducation." These methods (relying heavily on repetition) are at best props that help some kids "overcome" dyslexia, which allows them to reach a reasonable degree of understanding. These methods are only partially successful, and far from motivating.
Recent tools, based on technology, seem more attractive but are not based on the latest scientific research and more effective treatments are expensive and therefore inaccessible for most of people.
Research in the field of dyslexia, generally undertaken within the pedagogical and psychological fields, hasn’t kept up until now the exciting new developments from cognitive neuroscience, natural language processing and computer science.
Concurrently with the challenges facing learners, accessibility issues, i.e. helping make public information sources more readable have not been effectively addressed. Despite the possibilities that technology offers today, which allows adapting texts to improve their understanding, the already existing initiatives work only from the "design" or layout perspective and does nothing with the content. And yet, no more than 10 % of websites have been made accessible for people with dyslexia. Institutions governing global information environment are being slow in understanding the issue and adapting to it.
Luz is linking a diverse coalition of actors together to create an accessible information environment for dyslexics. Her pioneering work has attracted diverse organizations and groups, from educational institutions across Spain and internationally, to software companies, government agencies, researchers, psychologists, pedagogues, and a community of dyslexics and their families who are thrilled to be able to use the tools and methods she’s pioneering, and can provide consistent feedback to allow for enhanced research in the future.
The diverse partnerships are core to how she resources the initiatives, e.g. using universities and their researchers and software companies as a practical R&D laboratories – creating and testing new products- under the precondition that any result and or tool has to be free of charge for users. Her position, as one of the rising stars in the field, has helped her gain access to the major bodies working on web accessibility standards and developing new concrete proposals that will assist dyslexics in their use of the Internet.
A core element of Luz’s work has been to come up with multiple concrete tools – essentially products and prototypes - to assist both in how dyslexics are taught and learn, and how the information environment they face can be adapted to allow them greater accessibility. To date, three have been developed and rapidly accepted.
In collaboration with an Indian software company, already producing accessible tablets for people with disabilities, she has developed an eReader, a platform that adjusts text displays and content to accommodate individual dyslexics’ needs. This tool had over 40,000 downloads in its pilot phase.
To help improve typing errors for kids she has also launched a game for mobile phones and tablets called Dyseggxia that is now available in English and Spanish, featuring 5,000 exercises that deal with the most common writing errors detected in her research: insertion, omission or substitution of letters, referral and separation of sentences. It's a fun activity for kids that differs greatly from old fashion techniques based on paper and mainly consisting of writing many times the same word in the right format. The app had more than 15,000 downloads in 70 countries and won the first prize of the Vodafone Mobile for Good competition in 2013.
To help readers adapt the external information environment, in collaboration with the University of Timisoara (Romania) Luz has developed Text 4 all-Dyswebxia, a software that transforms any website to make them accessible for people with dyslexia.
These tools are user focused, allowing individual users to improve their own comprehension and learning. At a time when technological tools "learn" from errors, this gives an amazing opportunity to adapting the results to each person’s reading characteristics and specific troubles.
Luz is also working with the producers of content in establishing protocols for display of information. Working with various national dyslexic associations, she foresees a certification process for content producers who use dyslexic-friendly guidelines in terms of layout (i.e.- type and font size, use of bolds, colors or spaces between letters, words and lines) as well as content. By scientifically analyzing the type of words that pose higher difficulties for dyslexics in general and for each person in particular to understand synonym words can be offered as an alternative.
In addition to her work targeting producers of content, Luz is also focused on integrating new methods and technologies within the education system and other public services. Working with both the Catalonian Department of Education and Barcelona’s City Hall, Luz has started piloting an initiative in Barcelona to incorporate appropriate technology at schools for early detection of dyslexia as well as for an enhanced “reeducation” process. In most schools there is already a speech therapist and/or psychologist to work with. In the city of Barcelona, Luz is also working with the Institute for Disabilities to implement her protocols into to the city life (documents, signal systems…) Luz is demonstrating that some protocols are beneficial to other sectors of the population, not just people with dyslexia. She is now targeting expansion of these tools and methodologies outside of Spain, targeting Ghana, Chile, Iran and the United States, working with international partners including Carnegie Mellon University.
Two of the most important aspects of her work with the potential for greatest impact are focused on transforming the web. To influence the international website standards Luz participates at the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) under the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This body is reviewing and proposing new standards for adoption by the web’s governing bodies. Luz is also a member of the national partner of "Cloud for all", an international initiative that aims to develop a new paradigm in accessibility conformed by a coalition of academic institutions, industry, non-governmental organizations and individuals. “Cloud for all” is building the knowledge base and algorithms needed to adapt and personalize any individual product or service a user encounters, using cloud technologies to activate and augment any natural (built-in) accessibility or installed access features the product or service has or recommending the appropriate third-party solutions, based on the user's needs and preferences.
Luz is dyslexic. She recalls her childhood as a hard period when she studied hard but results did not reflect her effort. A constant thought of that time is that she would not be able to finish school.
Thanks to a teacher who both saw her promise and helped diagnose her condition, Luz worked even harder at various "reeducation" exercises and started getting better grades. She says her self-esteem improved as her efforts finally looked rewarded.
She then chose what could be seen as the most difficult path: studying linguistics. From University she led a pioneer research linking linguistics and Natural Language Processing. Her work at university attracted national and international attention. (She was the first Spaniard to receive the European Young Researchers Award ' in 2013).
Initially she did not openly disclose her dyslexia to her colleagues and peers, but in an important moment in her career she informed her Thesis advisor and began exploring how her research interests could be directly channeled to contributing in this field and to improve the lives of people, especially children, who, like her, confronted huge challenges at school. Her passion has come to ensure that no child has to live through what she lived as a young child.
Luz’s commitment to changing the lives of dyslexics meant that she had to challenge standard university practice. Luz negotiated with the university that the conclusions of her research, which were being incorporated into a thesis, would be made public before her thesis submission, something which the university agreed to despite initial reluctance. This freedom facilitated her collaborations with other institutions and companies that work with her to develop and introduce products and programs based on the specific findings and knowledge generated from her work, as soon she had them. Early on, when she realized that there were common misspellings in the texts she was studying written by people with dyslexia, (and knowing that this exceeded the scope of her investigation), she launched a startup with two friends and created an application that helped improving writing errors.
Beyond her findings and contributions, Luz is an example herself for many people. She is the proof that you can achieve academic success being dyslexic. She is the "hope" that most families had lost about their sons and daughters.