How technology helped me cheat dyslexia
I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s something almost no one in my professional life knows. I’m dyslexic. Given that knowledge, my chosen career—writer—might seem odd. But while I was cursed with poor spelling skills, I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. The career-planning report that accompanied the aptitude test I took at 13 even tried to dissuade me from a “literary” career, but even back then I had enough bravado to overrule that piece of computer-generated advice.
Dyslexia, my constant companion, occupies a taboo place in my personal narrative. Like my breath, I often forget it’s there. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking I’ve outgrown it. When I told friends that I was writing this article, several advised me to back out of the contract. One didn’t even believe me when I told her I was dyslexic. How could I be a writer? They were concerned this assignment might be my last.
But I’ve never thought of myself as having a disability. Instead, I see it as a glitch, and one I’ve gotten good at masking. I’ve been able to hide my dyslexia for decades simply because I live in an age of technological wonders. Microsoft Word spell-checks most every syllable I write. When my dyslexic mind mangles a word so much that it’s rendered un-spell-checkable, I’ll deploy an arsenal of workarounds. I might reverse-engineer a word by typing an easy synonym into the thesaurus, or I might paste my best attempt into my browser bar and let the search engine offer the correct spelling as a suggested query.
When I was really little, I tried to see words—the actual orthography—as pictures. For the word “dog,” I would think: There’s a circle then a line, then a circle, then a circle with a hook. Knowing the specific letters and decoding them wasn’t part of my process. Thinking in pictures was how reading worked, I thought.
My dyslexia was discovered in grade school, where I had the benefit and luck of attending a well-funded institution equipped to respond to my obvious signs of trouble. By the end of second grade, I was enrolled in an intensive summer school program for dyslexics. My class used a slide projector-like device known as a Controlled Reader. Even back then, it was a relic; when the teacher flipped it on, the stuffy room filled with the aroma of an electrical fire.
The Controlled Reader projected text onto a screen at the front of the class just like a regular slide projector, but with one difference. Light would shine only through a narrow horizontal slit, allowing only a single line of text to be illuminated at any one time. Each line of text would flip into view for a second or two, then get replaced with the next one. The teacher could crank up the speed of the machine using a dial, forcing the class to read at speeds up to 130 words per minute.
After each reel, we were given a test, and over the weeks, the speed would be increased. While I was missing out on normal kid stuff—my morning swim time, horseback riding at summer camp—something happened to me in that overheated classroom. Reading began to click. I eventually found myself in honours classes, though I did have to advocate for my placement when teachers assumed my difficulty reading meant I should be kept apart from the smart kids.
I later attended NYU’s film school and set out to make a documentary about my dyslexia. My seventh-grade English teacher even gave me his old Controlled Reader machine so I could use it in the film, but I lost my nerve and never finished the movie. I feared I wasn’t established or successful enough, and I believed in the trope that a personal story about overcoming a reading disability needed to accompany an outsized achievement. Like my dyslexia, I keep that speed-reading machine, an artefact from childhood, hidden away in the back of a closet.
At this point in my professional life, I’m only outed when writing by hand in a public setting, which was the case when I went on a book tour to promote my memoir about new motherhood and wrote my inscriptions with an unforgiving black Sharpie. I’d keep post-it notes and a pen by my side. “Could you put down what you want me to write? And if you have a fancy name like Margaux, well, jot that down too.”
While it is agreed that dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, there is no universally accepted definition of the phenomenon, nor is there a complete understanding of its cause. But with the arrival of functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, scientists in the last few decades have been able to study the brain activity of dyslexics. What’s striking is how the dyslexic brain does not utilize areas usually engaged in reading. In addition, the brain can be seen jury-rigging other areas to form words in the same way a stroke victim might during recovery, harnessing plasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire itself.
A hallmark of dyslexia is the inability to discern phonemes, distinct sounds represented by specific letters. I struggle with this. I can hear the sounds, but I sometimes can’t translate them to letters on the page. The other day, I wanted to write the word “agitated.” This is a word I know. I’ve said it aloud countless times without mispronouncing it, and I’ve read it often as well. And yet, when typing it, even sounding it out as I go, I hear a “d” and a “j” in it. So fishing around in my brain’s Bermuda Triangle, I typed out the word adjusted. I can remember short words—most of the shopworn workhorses come easy—and a bunch of longer ones too. But there remains a large subgroup of words I cannot phonetically master or remember.
Perhaps it’s my own diagnosis at a young age, and my son’s early intervention, that made me reach out to Lexplore. The Swedish company, which launched in the US last year, uses eye-tracking software that promises to identify a dyslexic reader in minutes.
The foundation for Lexplore’s algorithms comes largely from data collected by the Kroneberg project, a study that ran from 1989 to 2010 and followed 2,165 Swedish students into adulthood, tracking their reading development and the progression or regression of their disabilities. The Kroneberg project gathered data by recording subjects’ eye movements using tech-enhanced goggles, sort of like very early-stage smart glasses.
I meet up with Janine Caffrey, Lexplore US’s new CEO, next to the Empire State Building in an office booked through Breather, the hourly office space rental app. I am there to demo the eye tracker. I want it to look like the Voight-Kampff Machine used to identify Blade Runner‘s replicants. Instead, it looks like a large iPad with an inch-wide piece of black plastic hardware clipped along the bottom. The strip, made by the Swedish company Tobii, contains three eye-tracking cameras.
Caffrey has more than three decades of experience in education. She started out as a special education teacher and most recently worked as superintendent of the school system in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. As she shows me the proper way to sit for the eye tracker—one arm folded on top of the other on the table to keep the head stable—I easily fall into the role of student to Caffrey’s teacher. My eyes need to sync to the machine. With the three red camera lights pointed at my pupils, Caffrey tells me to move my eyes, not my head, and stare at the bullseyes in the four corners of the reading window. I sync. This is easy.
First, to test fluency and ability, I read a paragraph about a dog. I read it aloud, as instructed, perfectly, though I do not pay attention to the text. The text disappears from the screen and the question comes up, “Did the dog bite?’
“Yes.” I answer. I am wrong. I was not told there would be questions. Caffrey laughs and assures me most adults get this part wrong, but I feel stupid anyway. I mean, I think I trained myself over the years to be a fabulous reader.
Next, Caffrey plays back the recording of my eye scans. As I listen to my voice recite the text, small purple dots dance across each word as I read it. The dots connect to each other with a thin purple line. It isn’t so much that my eyes are burning holes into the screen with lasers, but more like my pupils are uncapped purple markers drawing on a white tablecloth. Each time my eyes pause, perfectly round purple inkblots appear. The longer the fixation on a word or letter, the larger and darker the circle grows.
Next, I’m asked to read a paragraph silently. It is a short passage about Emily wanting a horse—easy. This time I pay attention in case there is another “anchor question,” as Lexplore calls it. There is, and I get it right. When Caffrey runs the video with the eye-tracking data overlaid, it looks different than the previous one. This time, I see that as the dots grow and purple lines connect the words, my eyes jump backward to certain words.
These slight regressions, these back-and-forth lines, are caused by me going back to certain words to make sure I am reading them correctly. I have no idea I do this, but shown the dots and lines of the eye-tracker, there it is. And it is something that could be flagged as a sign of dyslexia. How did I not know I had this tic? Did I do it all the time?
Unhappy with this result, I ask Janine if I can take the test again. “You can’t beat the machine,” she says.
Caffrey shows me the recordings of children who screened as “low readers” or as dyslexic. I watch purple circle after purple circle grow larger with the child’s fixations. As the fixations grow along with the zig-zags of regressions, the screen fills with purple. If a parent or teacher could see into the child’s mind’s eye, they would appreciate how hard the child is working to decode the words. That kid wouldn’t be called lazy or slow.
The effect of seeing dyslexia in action is profound and unexpected. Throughout my life, I’ve encountered disbelief—revulsion, even—when a typical reader witnessed my struggle. As a child, I asked an adult to help me spell a word only to have them say the letters back at me while doing an impression of Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men. But with Lexplore, the child would ideally get the intervention and resources for the deep work that lay ahead. Perhaps more importantly, the child would be understood. “This is why I call it the empathy machine,” Caffrey says.
I leave the demo stunned.
Lexplore already has a foothold in Sweden and is looking to grow in the already crowded American market for early reading assessment. The company claims a 95 percent accuracy rate in identifying “at risk” readers. Its portable screeners can be either leased or purchased, and Lexplore can train a facilitator in three hours. The test itself takes only a few minutes. Caffrey estimates kids could be screened for around $15 to $20 a student. The company’s tech could identify kids early enough in life to make a real impact.
Not long after my Lexplore test, I hear back from Eden. Being a good scientist, she doesn’t offer any analysis of my brain from only a single scan. But she shares three images from my fMRI. It appears that all of my reading activity is squatting on the right side of my brain. The left side, where humans typically process language, looks completely abandoned. How am I even talking?
Like the Lexplore test, my immediate reaction is to hide the images. They’re not hacked nudes from my iPhone, but I feel exposed. She also shares the colorful DTI scan of my brain—the image captured while I watched The Magic School Bus. Eden explains that the image illustrates the white matter pathways in the brain. Green is from front to back, red is left to right, and blue is top to bottom. I don’t understand exactly what the DTI scan is showing, but I am less alarmed by the colorful scan.
I thought back to her question during our first conversation: Wasn’t I afraid of people finding out I was dyslexic? I’ve never doubted my intelligence. And yet I find myself feeling self-conscious about my wayward neurons. I am unsteady in my conviction of living my post-dyslexic life. I want to shed this stigma. Wasn’t Grammarly the last bit of digital scaffolding I need? But I wish I hadn’t done those tiny regressions when I read. I wish my test results showed something different. I wish I didn’t take such a hard look under the hood. I am brain vain.
Perhaps it isn’t technology that’s going to bring us to the post-dyslexic world, but our broader perception of dyslexia. Maybe this thing I’ve covered up—my kryptonite, the thing I last admitted out loud on a seventh date in 2017—actually gives me an advantage. I thought about Eden’s observation that possibly, in a few thousand years, humans may not be getting our information from reading, but from some different method. Instead of letting my dyslexia leaving me feeling vulnerable or exposed, I wondered if my true post-dyslexic life was really one where I embraced it.