Exploring the need for accessible images for people with dyslexia

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Nov 6, 2013 (4 years and 8 months ago)


RNIB Centre for Accessible Information (

Literature review


Exploring the need for accessible
images for people with dyslexia

Published by:

RNIB Centre for
Accessible Information (CAI)
72 John Bright
Street, Birmingham

B1 1BN
, UK

Commissioned by:

As publisher


Heather Cryer

esearch Officer, CAI)

Tel: 0121 665 4211



May 2013

Document r




Internal and full public access




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Citation guidance

Cryer, H. (20
Exploring the need for accessible images for
people with

RNIB Centre for Accessible Information
iterature review



Sarah Home

Sarah Morley Wilkins

John Rack (
Head of Research, Development and Policy

Sue Partridge (
Associate of Dyslexia Positive)


RNIB 2013


Exploring the need for accessible
images for people with dyslexia

RNIB Centre for Accessible Information (CAI)

Prepared by:

Heather Cryer (Research Officer, CAI)

FINAL version




Table of contents




About dyslexia



Dyslexia, creativity and visual
spatial skills



The dyslexic advantage



Dyslexia and visual learning









Executive summary

Anecdotal evidence suggests t
hat some dyslexic people may find
accessible images (such as simplified tactile or large print
diagrams) helpful to their learning. This study aimed to investigate
evidence around how dyslexic people use images, to understand

images can
be a problem in dyslexia, and to
determine whether RNIB’s accessible images

evidence was found relating to the use of images by dyslexics
a body of evidence linking dyslexia to creativity and
spatial skills was found
which may suggest that some
could perform very well at some image processing tasks,
such as identifying
‘impossible figures’. These findings are linked
to the idea that dyslexia is characterised by
advantages and

and can be seen as

a different pattern of brain
Some work suggests that
one characteristic of
dyslexic processing may be attending more to information
presented in their peripheral vision rather than central vision. This
could explain difficulties with read
ing print

which requires clear

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focus on a small, central area, and could also explain difficulty
processing complex, detailed images.
Overall, the evidence is
mixed, suggesting that whilst some dyslexics may excel in creative
fields and certain image pr
ocessing tasks, there may be others
who struggle
to process complex


research is
required to investigate whether accessible images could be useful
to dyslexic learners.


The definition of print disabled is given as: "
A person

who cannot
effectively read print because of a visual, physical, perceptual,
developmental, co
gnitive, or learning disability" (
Reading Rights
Coalition, 2012

been working in partnership with Dyslexia Action to
provide easy access to educati
onal material for print disabled
learners, through the Load2Learn project
). Load2Learn
is an online collection of
downloadable accessible textbooks and images to support print
disabled le

The images available on the site are specially
designed 'accessible images', aimed originally at blind and partially
sighted people. The images can be produced in either large print
or in tactile form to be felt with the fingers. Despite being

aimed at
blind and partially sighted people, anecdotal evidence from project
evaluations suggests that the
images may be being
used and appreciated by learners with other print disabilities, such
as dyslexia.
Atkins and Walker (2012

report a
case study of a
dyslexic learner who felt he could benefit from tactile and large
print images. The student reported struggling to take in
information from diagrams with too much detail and liked how the
accessible images built up detail across a number o
f images. He
also enjoyed using the tactile images and thought the textures
could help him to remember different parts of the diagram.

The purpose of this literature review was to explore whether there
is any research evidence to suggest that people wi
th dyslexia may
struggle with images, and whether the accessible images
produced for Load2Learn could benefit this group.

About dyslexia

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills
involved in accurate and fluent word reading a
nd spelling (Rose,

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2009, pp30). Dyslexia affects people of all intellectual abilities, and
can be seen as a continuum rather than a clear cut category
(Rose, 2009).
Dyslexia is characterised by below
average reading
speed, poor attention, difficulty with

sequencing tasks,
disorganisation and low working memory (
Coppin, 2009

Whilst dyslexia is often associated with difficulty reading,
sometimes this is not the main issue. Dyslexia has also been
described as a difference in the way the brain is organi
sed (
), which leads to both difficulties and abilities (
Eide and Eide,

Whilst there was little evidence relating to

the use of images in
general by dyslexic people, a body of literature was uncovered
studying the link between dyslexia
, creativity and visual

Dyslexia, creativity and visual
spatial skills

Anecdotal evidence suggests that dyslexics are over
in training programmes and professions involving creative or
spatial skills, such as art, design, arch
itecture and engineering (for
example, see
Eide and Eide, 2011
). It is unclear whether this is a
result of avoiding subjects/professions which may require more
reading (
von Karolyi and Winner, 2004
), or whether it reflects a
tendency for dyslexics to be s
killed in these areas.

Other possible evidence pointing to a connection between dyslexia
and visual
spatial skills is that various famous people with clear
talents in such fields have been reported as having dyslexic traits
or reading difficulties (see
West, 2009
). These include Thomas
Edison, Albert Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci. However, this
does not provide firm evidence of a connection between dyslexia
and creativity, as such observations fail to account for the many
creative people who don’t sho
w signs of dyslexia (
Winner, von
Karolyi, Malinsky, French, Seliger, Ross and Weber, 2001

Research into a possible connection between dyslexia and visual
spatial skills has produced mixed results.

Riley, Rankin, Brunswick, McManus, Chamberlain and

found no relationship between dyslexia and drawing ability.
Brunswick, Martin, and Marzano (2010)

tested a variety of ‘real
world’ visual
spatial abilities. These included testing commonplace

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spatial knowledge (recall of which way the Q
ueen’s head
faces on postage stamps), memory of a virtual environment (in
which participants explored a virtual environment and were then
asked to reconstruct it using models), and an incomplete figures
test (in which simple line drawings are presented gra
dually on a
computer and participants press a key when they can identify the
image). Dyslexic and control participants were compared on
performance on these tests. Overall there were no significant
differences found between the groups, although overall d
men performed best. The researchers suggest this could be a
result of men having greater visual
spatial skills in general, though
felt further research was required to better understand the findings.

Winner et al (2001)

carried out a series of
studies with dyslexic
students measuring a wide range of spatial abilities compared to
controls. Measures included tests of mental rotation, visual
memory, visual search, spatial orientation, spatial visualisation,
drawing ability, spatial word problems a
nd real
world spatial
. On all of these tests, dyslexics did not perform
significantly better than controls, and in various cases they
performed worse. The only task on which dyslexics performed
better than controls was a test of real
visualisation (an
engineering problem), though this result did not reach statistical
significance. Winner et al conclude that further research is
required with more participants and a wider range of tasks.

research by
von Karolyi (2001)

found d
yslexics to be
significantly faster in identifying ‘impossible figures’ than controls,
and that their speed did not affect their accuracy. Impossible
figures are figures which appear three dimensional but could not
exist is reality. The ability to identi
fy such figures relies on global
processing of the image to

that it is impossible. These
findings were replicated by
Karolyi, Winner, Gray and
Sherman (2003)
, who concluded that the findings suggest
dyslexics to be superior at global visual
spatial processing, or
perceiving the ‘big picture’.

These findings are consistent with anecdotal evidence that
dyslexics have a special ability to ‘see things different
ly’ (
Murphy (2011)

discusses this trait in relation to a career in
Radiography, suggesting some dyslexic students felt they had
advantages over other students in terms of spatial awareness and

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Overall, these findings may sugg
est that some
dyslexics could have superior skills at image processing.

The dyslexic advantage

Some researchers believe that dyslexia is

not only
by deficits in the area of reading, but also by benefits in other
areas. Very early research into dyslexia (
Orton, 1925 cited in
von Karolyi and Winner, 2004)
suggested some link between
dyslexia and visual
spatial talents.
Geschwind (1982, cit
ed in
West, 2009)

described ‘special abilities’ commonly seen in
dyslexics in areas such as non
verbal skill, art and architecture,
and described a “pathology of superiority”, suggesting dyslexia to
be part of natural variation among humans which leaves so
me with
talents in one area and others with talents in another.

West (

describes this trade off as a basic quality of design,
that when something is optimised for a particular purpose, it often
won’t suit another purpose. West suggests that exampl
es of
dyslexics who have excelled in visual
spatial fields show not only
that they have succeeded despite their disability, but perhaps that
they have excelled

of dyslexia.

Overall there is much

that there could be some
advantage to
being dyslexic, but what evidence underpins this?

Eide and Eide (2011)

describe dyslexia not as a learning disorder
but as a different processing style, or different pattern of brain
. They suggest that this different organisation
s dyslexics to being weak in some areas and strong in
others. Eide and Eide report research showing key differences
between dyslexic and non
dyslexic brains which could explain
these differences. Different areas of the brain process different
types of in
formation, and brain regions are organised to perform
different functions. For more complex processing, different
functional areas must communicate with each other, through
connections. Research shows that dyslexic brains are organised
differently to tho
se of non
dyslexics, with dyslexic brains showing
longer connections between functional areas. This means that in
dyslexic brains, more widely spaced brain areas work together
(long range connections), whereas in non
dyslexics, more closely
related brain
areas work together (local connections). This
difference affects brain processing, as local connections are
especially good at processing fine details, whereas long range

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connections are better at ‘big picture’ processing. This difference
matches up with

the strengths and weaknesses associated with

Eide and Eide suggest that these strengths and weaknesses are
often the flip
side of each other. For example, whilst dyslexics may
be poorer at tasks involving precision and accuracy, they are bet
at tasks involving seeing the ‘big picture’ or identifying new
connections. They may be poor at applying rules or procedures
but better at finding best fits and innovative problem solving.

Dyslexia and visual learning

Research by
Schneps, Rose and

Fischer (2007)

investigated the implications of brain differences between dyslexics
and non
dyslexics. People differ in their ability to attend to
information in the centre versus the periphery of their visual field,
and these differences affect
their abilities at various visual learning
tasks. For example, the central visual field is optimised for fine
detail in a concentrated area, therefore is effective for use in visual
search tasks. The peripheral visual field on the other hand covers
a muc
h wider area with lower resolution, making it effective for
rapid processing and comparisons. Research suggests that many
dyslexics tend to be biased towards information in the periphery of
their visual field.
Schneps et al (2007)

describe how attention
one visual field reduces attention to the other, which suggests that
individuals with a bias for one visual field would be very good at
tasks associated with that field, but poor at tasks associated with
the other. Indeed, Schneps et al found evidence
of this in
dyslexics, with dyslexics being poor at visual search tasks
(associated with the central field) but good at impossible figures
and implicit spatial learning (associated with the peripheral field).

Further work in this area by
Coppin (2009)

scribed central
vision as a microscopic lens, and peripheral vision as a wide angle
panoramic lens. Coppin refers to dyslexics as ‘wide
perceivers’ and suggests that this explains some of their difficulties
with reading. Reading text is a task for
which central vision is

in terms of clear focus on a small area. Coppin suggests
that for this reason dyslexics

as wide angle perceivers

may be
better suited to dealing with images to present and understand
ideas. Coppin goes further to sugg
est that wide angle perception
is what causes the link between dyslexia and creativity, making
dyslexics more able to think outside the box and see relationships.


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These findings could have implications for the use of images by
dyslexic pupils.
Coppin suggests that
images should be
used by dyslexics to help them to play to their strengths in terms of
perception. In practice, this means it is important that information
displayed visually to dyslexic learners is presented in a way that
they can ac

Anecdotal evidence (
Atkins and Walker, 2012
suggests that some dyslexic pupils struggle with complex images,
and could benefit from enlarged, simplified images, or those in
which an idea or concept is explained over a series of images.

with complex images could be explained by difficulties
processing information from central vision, and it is possible that
simplified accessible images could help in this situation.


This project aimed to investigate use of images by dyslexic

The available literature suggests there may be a relationship
between dyslexia, creativity and visual spatial talents. Some
researchers believe there may be advantages to being dyslexic,
with dyslexia being characterised by skills as well as def
icits. This
may be due to differences in brain structure between dyslexics and
dyslexics, making dyslexia just another way of processing
information. Evidence suggests that dyslexic people may be better
at tasks involving their peripheral vision, and

perceiving the ‘big
picture’ rather than focusing on fine detail such as text.
Furthermore, some dyslexics are skilled at certain types of image
Some researchers believe this means dyslexics may
be better using images to present and understa
nd ideas rather
than text based information.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that
some dyslexics struggle with complex images, which could be
explained by the finding that dyslexics struggle to process fine
detail. This could suggest a need for simplified or

enlarged images
for use with this group.
This is a complex area of research, and it
is difficult to extrapolate scientific evidence of differences between
dyslexics and non
dyslexics from anecdote and theory.
published research evidence has been foun
d relating to the use of
images in the education of dyslexic learners, therefore this may be
an area to investigate
further research. This could follow
the case study approach reported by
Atkins and Walker (2012)

accessible images with dyslexic students and
gathering teacher/expert views on whether large print or tactile
images could be of any benefit to this group.


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Atkins, S., and Walker, C. (2012). Load2Learn phase one
evaluation report. RNIB Centre
for Accessible Information,
Birmingham: Technical report #15.

Brunswick, N., Martin, G.N., and Marzano, L. (2010). Visuospatial
superiority in developmental dyslexia: Myth or reality? Learning
and Individual Differences, 20, 421


Coppin, P. (20
09). Using dyslexia to explore the cognitive
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, N. (1982) Why Orton was right, Annals of Dyslexia,
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Orton, S.T. (1925) Word blindness in school children. Archives
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