Art to express dyslexia

A year 12 student approached me today for help on sound editing as part of her HSC major work for Visual Arts.  As usual, I started off with my question, “What do you want to do?

As it turned out, Claire (not her real name) was creating a multi-media piece. She described how she wanted to layer audio tracks, edit those, add effects, etc. The point was to make multiple speaking tracks sound like noise (This is a digression but if you want to learn how amazing our brain actually works to split out concurrent sounds so we can focus on say someone talking while traffic goes past and music blares, watch this video).

I suggested Audacity.  I explained that this tool allowed her to import tracks, edit those separately and merge to make one joint sound.  And she goes, “like Photoshop for images”.  This is connectivist learning in action. By the time I got to saying you have to save the project file while working on it and then do a final export, she had already made that connection.

But that’s just the technical and pedagogical part of this story.  Here’s the human side.

I asked to see the video part of her work.  She showed me a series of Flash videos of basically moving text on different coloured backgrounds.  We went through pink, yellow and finally blue and green.   When the blue and green panes merged, the text stood still and she said that these videos showed how she sees text.

I then asked, “do you have Irlen dyslexia?”  She was rather surprised that I even knew of it before admitting yes.

I went on to say that I had a student once in my maths strugglers class who had it and how I had to create special paper copies for her, especially of quizzes and tests.  After a few months, it became clear that this kid was not a struggler in maths at all and I was able to recommend for her to move up and that’s where she stayed.

Claire appreciated that story and she said, “people think we’re dumb or stupid but we’re not really. It’s just really hard when reading is such a struggle.” She went on to say that she wants to raise awareness of her condition which is why her major work is on it.  Already, her peers are appreciating what she’s doing and the struggle she’s been through and still going through.

I had tons of questions and Claire happily answered them.

I found out that when she first got the right pair of coloured lenses in year 6, she literally jerked back.  When asked whether the colours were making the letters jump she replied, “No, they’re standing still”.  She said that was the first time ever that words did not literally jump at her.  She talked about struggling with letter recognition because a still “t” just did not look like the squiggly “t” she’s grown to know, for example.

She also explained that it’s not so much a problem with text as with contrast.  The higher the contrast, the bigger the struggle.  This was why black text on white paper was the worst possible combination for those with Irlen dyslexia.  Coloured paper and lenses help reduce the contrast and therefore keep the text still enough to be read.  For computers, she uses a screen guard.  She also talked about some of her own strategies to compensate such as developing something on coloured background and transposing on white ready for submission or sharing.

By then, I felt bold enough to ask “And you chose Visual Arts?” (Being a frustrated artist, I know the challenge a blank canvas brings) What bigger contrast is there than the first stroke on a blank canvas? You know what she said?

“I love colours so I just persevere until I get beyond those first strokes and get to apply the colours I like”.

I can tell you, I learned more in this encounter than this kid did….and she came to me for help!  She left extremely grateful for my help, nonetheless, and I think it was more than just Audacity.

Thank you Claire. Good luck with your major work.

The world needs more people like you.

Keep sharing your story.

Be proud of your journey.


Claire was really happy to see this post and even more when I mentioned she has touched many more (this is one of my most popular posts).

With her permission, I’m embedding here the video mentioned above (sorry for the big logo overlay as it’s all I could do to convert her Flash swf to a movie – had to convert for technical reasons).

This video is only part of her Visual Arts work. If you look closely, there are some of her other pieces included in the movie – the colourful artworks and the text that looks like barcodes.  Currently, her colour is blue-green, i.e. the colour she sees clearly with.

DyslexiaArt from Malyn Mawby on Vimeo.

DyslexiaArt – click to view if embed doesn’t work on your browser

Here is another story of how art is used for self-expression and ultimately social connection.  Read about Steve by Tomaz Lasic.




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8 thoughts on “Art to express dyslexia

  1. Mary Worrell says:

    This is a beautiful story. And I learned a lot about dyslexia! Teachers sharing experiences like these can help all of us to recognize struggles students may be having and help them work beyond. Thank you 🙂

    • malyn says:

      Thank you, too for stopping by, commenting and RTing.
      For the record, this case is about Irlen dyslexia and there’s lit contesting it’s categorisation as dyslexia. I guess what this means is dyslexic people have different challenges altogether. This also means that if we ever get students with such problems, we could help by learning more about the condition as well as learning more about the student.
      You are right, of course, that we learn from stories and that if more teachers shared, glimpses become broader and deeper.

  2. Bill Genereux says:

    I had no idea that color could have such an impact. I always thought that black type on white paper made for the highest possible legibility. The video makes the point so well, congratulations to Claire for a fine explanation. I’m smarter now.

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