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Typefaces (Fonts) for People With Reading Disabilities

Another of my pages relevant to the issue of readability of short and simple blocks of text is Capitals Rule ok. You may find that page a corollary to this one.
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability.
The issue of a ‘font’ specially designed for people who have a learning or developmental difficulty is a kind of perennial weed, it keeps coming up.
Personally, I think it is a disgrace to ask the question. In a time of attempts to integrate people who have a developmental shortcoming into society as much as possible, when even in countries such as Germany where that integration happens less than in some others there is pressure to move in that direction, the moment someone starts waffling on about fonts, they seem to want to bung the less-intellectual among us back in a kind of literate institution again. Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to read the posters trying to sell us insurance? What’s all this discrimination?

A demonstration march by young people in Köln on 20 September 2013. They are demonstrating for the inclusion of young people with learning disabilities into mainstream education. In Germany people with learning disabilities attend specialist centres that are extremely well-equipped for the most part but are separate.
I am fairly sure that the people taking photographs are from China. There’s a good chance they’ll have absolutely no idea what the march is about as the leaflet that is being handed out is in extremely complex German.
So the first thing to do, if you want a font specially for those with learning disabilities, is to examine your own motives and prejudices.
Then once you’ve done that, read on, and you can use some of the ideas given here to counter those who claim with assured knowledge and authority that such-and-such has been ‘proven’.
You might think that a passage of text that can be read easily by someone who has difficulty reading passages of text, would point to a clear-to-read and perfect typeface. But no one has found it yet, and they won’t, it’s a crazy thing to want to do. Take a look at any newspaper designed for quick-bite reading, especially those aimed at the less erudite reader. They break up the text with a variety of fonts. Can you imagine them set in a single one? Really turgid! Who would be able to read that? It would be like The Times circa 1872!
And there is some distinctly dodgy guidance out there, for example Typefaces for Dyslexia, at www.dyslexic.com:80/fonts which makes the rather surprising assertion that the serifs found on traditional letter forms ‘tend to obscure the shapes of letters’. Pretty revolutionary, considering how centuries of practice have tended to indicate the opposite (see About Legibility by Adrian Frutiger).
May I recommend that you read The Science of Word Recognition from Microsoft Typography, by Kevin Larson. Though it begins with a rather amusing-sounding sentence: ‘Evidence from the last 20 years of work in cognitive psychology indicate[s] that we use the letters within a word to recognise a word.’ (My copy-edit in [ ] brackets). Gosh! That’s profound research isn’t it? But actually as you read on you begin to see that the sentence has a serious meaning, it’s just (inadvertently I’d guess) put in a way that sounds funny.
Kevin Larson’s paper talks about experiments in word recognition in terms of overall word shape and letter identification. It is very English-language oriented, and I would have welcomed some indication of experiments undertaken using subjects who did not know the meaning of the words they were being presented with, to see how much difference there would be in the findings, but all-in-all it does seem, from the experiments that have been done, that fluency of reading is much greater, when the subject is familiar with the content. Note that this doesn’t mean that they understand the words necessarily, more that they are familiar with the contextual content – you really need to read Kevin Larson’s paper for an explanation of what I mean here.
The implications for readability by people with a reading disadvantage are not touched on in Kevin Larson’s paper, but much may be inferred from it.
But then you read on and see that they say that serifs are ‘found in traditional print fonts such as Georgia or Times New Roman’, and you think, oh dear, those aren’t traditional print fonts, but Microsoft fonts. It’s the old story, someone has got a new computer and they think it’s really shiny.

There has been some research recently (in 2010) on techniques on how to make a page of text easier to read by dyslexic people, see a discussion on this at Monitor on Psychology interview with Kevin Larson on typofile.com. This is the same Kevin Larson referred to in the boxed text.
As a synopsis of the discussions and the research that has taken place, in a phrase, nothing has been shown yet, but it’s good these things are being looked at and it throws up some issues that are worthwhile taking a look at.
Next, go down the local bookshop, or if you like take a look at Amazon, and look at a few books. See if you can find one set in a sans-serif font. You may do, but if you do it will be in a very niche market somewhere. Why is that? Are book publishers so ignorant that they don’t know that NO ONE can read serif fonts comfortably? What bollocks! The opposite is true in fact, as you will see when you do manage to find some dense blocks of text such as in a book that are set in a sans-serif font. Try it for yourself and see! The reason you will find serif fonts in a book easier to cope with may be simply because the format in a book is one that you are used to, but who cares? If it works, it works.
Whether that observation, that a serif typeface suits the text of a book best, applies when a dyslexic person reads a book, I couldn’t say. Maybe a person with dyslexia requires a special print run, with novels set in a sans-serif typeface that the majority of people would find it more difficult to read than the usual format, with double sections in every bookshop, one with books for people with dyslexia and another for those who are not so afflicted. That would be equal-opportunity compliant would it not? Of course it would also be stark raving bonkers, but then we have to listen to these experts who know, you know.
Longish passages of text in regular patterns certainly can look jiggety in a sans-serif font as opposed to a serif one, see my Arial Creates Optical Illusions page. Notice that these experiments (that anyone can do at home) would tend to point in the exact opposite direction to many of the supposedly expert guidelines, indicating that it is the SERIFED fonts that are EASIER TO RESOLVE, though I have not, I must confess, tried out this page on people with dyslexia.
The b’s d’s
Read Regular is a typeface designed by Natascha Frensch at the Royal College of Art in London, specifically for dyslexic readers and has gained some level of notoriety.  (www.readregular.com). The claims for the Read Regular font as being better-read by people with dyslexia do not appear to be backed up by any independent evidence. Natascha Frensch has tried to make each letter a different shape from any other, so for example, d is different from mirror-image b.  But it’s not the only typeface to do that by any means. It appears that you cannot buy Read Regular but have to have the typesetting done in the studio of Natascha Frensch. Clever, eh?
In fact that feature much shouted about in Read Regular (and about some other fonts touted by www.dyslexic.com:80/fonts), that the shape of a letter b is not a mirror image d, applies to lots and lots of fonts. If you look at Myfonts.com and type ‘sans’ into the search box – I just did this and I can see from the results that the sans-serif fonts with non-mirror lower case b and d include: Alinea sans, Vista sans, Priori sans, Fedra sans, Benton sans, Ela sans, Relato sans, Freight sans, LTC Goudy sans, Placebo sans, California sans; etc etc etc, hundreds and hundreds of them, most of which you’ll never have heard of and the reason you haven’t is because they have not had a weight of marketing behind them. (And this is one of the reasons that I can confidently say that www.dyslexic.com:80/fonts is full of nonsense).
And in all of this, there’s something else. Do people who speak a language that doesn’t use Western scripts have more or less problem with dyslexia? Does someone who speaks both Arabic and English, of which there must be thousands, and who is dyslexic, of which there must be some among those thousands presumably, do they have more or less problem with Arabic script than they do with Western script? And the same applies to Urdu, Hindi, Thai, you name it. After all, you can’t get Comic Sans in Arabic.
Take a look at this article. It would appear that certain young people can find they are effectively dyslexic in one language but not in another, even when both languages use the same script. Oh. Where does that leave your expert font theories then?
And if you look at serif fonts, they nearly all have a ‘d’ that isn’t a mirror of ‘b’, including Times New Roman: b d.
Do yer Edin
There are a number of fonts said to be designed to help dyslexic readers to read better, another of which is to be found at Project Dyslexie and its effectiveness is said to be backed up by research from the University of Twente. But I have to ask the question, that presumably the university researchers didn’t: Can you imagine a tabloid newspaper set in only that font. Do yer head in, wouldn’t it?
Reading hand Writing
I’ve often heard it said that people with reading difficulties or disabilities find the letter forms that more closely relate to handwriting easier to deal with. This is especially significant in the lower case letters a and g. In a serif font like Times New Roman, say, a and g typically look like this:    a g. Or at least they do in their regular or Roman form; in the italic form they look like this:   a g, and there are some serif fonts, for example Bookman and Microsoft’s Georgia, where the Roman forms of a and g look like this: a g, and the italic forms look like this: a g. Notice that in the regular or Roman form of Bookman and Georgia the lower case a has three tiers. In the italic form, by contrast, the a is like an o with a line to the right, and the g has a tail rather than a loop.
(Note than in the above I’ve used text rather than graphics, so if you don’t have Times New Roman or Times, or Bookman or Georgia on your machine, you may just have to imagine it and believe me).
Sans-serif fonts vary. Some have the three-tier a (as do Microsoft’s Arial and Verdana) and some have a calligraphic-style (sometimes called infant-style)   a. Sans-serif fonts typically have a non-loop, tailed g, but not all of them do. Again a random selection from Myfonts.com, the following fonts have a looped g like you typically find in Roman serifed fonts: Priori sans, Leitura sans, Relato sans, Freight sans, LTC Goudy sans, California sans, Alinea sans, etc etc etc. Lots and lots of them. If you keep your version of Windows XP up to date or you use Vista, then you’ll have a font called Calibri and another called Candara, which are sans-serif fonts with a three-tier g.
And are Calibri and Candara good or bad for reading by people with dyslexia? Who asked that? Get to the back of the class!
Haze and Hose
Read Regular is one of those sans-serif with a calligraphic-style lower case a that is, as with Comic Sans, very similar to lower case o, (a and o in Comic Sans) and is one of the fonts that makes pretty much zero distiction between an upper case I (I) and a lower case l (L). That may be an advantage for dyslexic readers, if the authorities say so then it must be. Seems a bit unlikely, but there you go.
Does it strike you as you read this, that websites such as dyslexic.com, together with those people who maintain that this or that font style is better for people with reading difficulties, still have a bit of mugging up to do?
Strange typeface to use, with the lower case a looking very similar to o, when your strapline includes the word ‘banking’. Perhaps the van will get more customers than it bargained for.
Looped g’s and tiered a’s for the teacher
All that said, though, if you were to lay out some text to be read by a person who has a reading difficulty, and you used a font with a looped    g, you can be sure that some expert educator or another will tell you that this is not correct, that the target audience will not be able to read it easily. The research from the University of Reading, Typography for Children, is interesting in this respect, it found that there is no evidence that says that either serif or sans serif typefaces are intrinsically more legible, but teacher opinion, generally, favours sans-serif typefaces because of the ‘simplicity of the letter shapes’, by which they presumably mean the similarity of the letter shapes to those that the teacher uses when presenting handwritten words to their pupils. (For as you can quickly establish from a look at, say, Myfonts.com, there is no specific letter shape that is exclusive to a sans-serif font, except perhaps for the absence of serifs, which might be considered to make the letter shapes a bit more simple, possibly, sometimes.)
There may be something in the argument that letterforms that look rather similar to those that have been taught, will be better received by people who have a learning disability. I would imagine that this does not apply to someone with dyslexia, but for a person with learning disabilities, it may be a point to bear in mind. So far as I am aware, no real research has been done on this. And it begs the question, what typeface looks like the teacher’s handwriting, when you do not know what the teacher’s handwriting looked like?
Comic Sans is a fancy font in fact
But we’ll take a guess. Here are two passages, the first in a font called Architect Small Block, and the second in Comic Sans. These are graphic images so the fonts will be accurate and not dependent on what is on your computer (for more details on the rendering of fonts on a web page, see my page on Fonts on the Web).
Now while Comic Sans is much beloved by many teachers and self-promoted readability experts, in fact you’ll see from the above passages that relative to the font to its left it has quite a number of fancy letter features, the other passage is more like what you imagine the diligent teacher would have written on the board. Probably, the belief you hear sometimes about Comic Sans being highly readable is really that the teachers, well, they just like it.
And now, in colour.
Coloured Spectacles
Evidence seems to indicate that many people, not just those with dyslexia but also others who find reading to be a harsh experience, find a passage of text easier to read through a coloured filter or coloured spectacles. This is especially associated with a condition known as Irlen Syndrome. I have a separate page that discusses this.
Colour Blindness
I should say here something about colourblindness, which is a form of disability I suppose. http://colorfilter.wickline.org is a mighty clever and useful tool that lets you look at your website – or someone else’s – through a colourblindness filter. Very useful for testing one’s website indeed. You may be surprised, or not I hope, to find that the majority of web pages that are hard to read with a filter turned on, are also hard to read with it turned off. This is not to deny that those with, say red-green blindness cannot distinguish between red and green, rather it is that red on green at too close a brightness level to each other, while perhaps impossible to distinguish by someone with a colour perception deficiency, are also pretty hard to read by anyone at all. The following two pairs of blocks are in red on green, and I would make bold enough to say that someone with red-green colourblindness can read one of each pair easily enough, but will have a lot of difficulty with the other. It’s to do with relative brightness. In the first pair of blocks, the red is in fact identical in both the darker and lighter samples, even though it probably doesn’t look the same.
Read me well, sister!
Read me well, brother!
And here’s another example, where the green stays the same in the two samples but the red changes. The relative brightness has the greatest effect on readability, for as you can see, where the relative brightness of the colours is close, it’s not easy to read, even if your colour vision is 100%. Obviously more difficult if it isn’t, though with the second of each of the examples, everyone can read it OK, yes?
Read me well, brother!
Read me well, sister!
You can see more about type in colour on my text colour readability page.
Next page in this set: Capital Letters Rule ok .

5 comments:

Maria said...

Nice article! I am totally for Adobe sans serif fonts. Very readable and comfortable!

Anonymous said...

What is the font you have used on this webpage? It is very readable

Veronica Ferguson said...

I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on FS Me. A typeface commissioned by Mencap designed specifically for readers with learning disabilities.

Dave Collier said...

I don't know Veronica. Presumably you need to test it against other fonts with some people with learning disabilities. I daresay that has been done, but then does it improve their speed of reading? their comprehension? their general feeling of warmth and wellbeing? And what sorts of things do people with learning disabilities read? I guess that it depends on their level of learning disability.
I think that short of some more information, I would be inclined to think it's a bit of a con.

Anonymous said...

How do we find these font?! not on MS word that i have any companies want to charge £230 to download it....disgraceful

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