Creating Dyslexic Friendly Books

What I’ve learned from being involved in a dyslexic friendly publishing project.

If you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed me tweeting a lot about a Kickstarter project that is currently funding. The project is titled “Open Dyslexia” and it’s being run by my local bookshop, Books on the Hill. The objective is to produce a collection of eight quick reads in a dyslexic friendly format. Books aimed at adult readers, rather than children.

I’ve been heavily involved with this project and I decided to share a bit about my involvement and what I’ve learned from the experience.

So… why?

Why did I get involved with this, but also why is it happening at all?

I’m not dyslexic and so before getting involved, I had no idea about the challenges that dyslexic readers face. I knew vaguely that dyslexic kids and students received academic support, and I suppose I assumed that coping strategies just extended into adulthood.

Here’s a little of what I’ve learnt since, and what I think it means.

The attitude towards dyslexia in the UK and worldwide is hyper-focused on children and academic environments. There’s a myth out there that dyslexia is a childhood condition, something that people grow out of. I think this is because of how we (society) view learning in general – as a finite task. We separate school and academic learning from general information processing throughout life, and so we assume learning disabilities only hamper people in school. We then focus on getting people “through” school and consider doing so a successful and sufficient achievement.

All of this is fundamentally misunderstands what dyslexia is and how it impacts people’s lives. Most of us (neurotypicals) differentiate between academic learning and general life-long information processing because we do the latter with no conscious thought. We don’t think about it, we just do it. Neurodivergent people process information differently and, because information tends to be conveyed, articulated, transmitted etc, in ways that are optimised for neurotypical people, this introduces difficulties.

This, I believe, comes from the widespread (and ableist) attitude towards disability in general where we see difference as disability. Differences are not disabilities in themselves. Differences become disabilities because the world is optimised for non-disabled people. If we all used wheelchairs, no one would consider the inability to walk a disability, and we wouldn’t have stairs.

This is why accessibility is such an important concept. If differences only become disabilities because of the way the world is optimised, then changing the world to be optimised for a broader range of people is how we can turn disabilities back into just differences. Or start to, at least.

Dyslexic people are not “unable to read”, they have difficulty processing written information that is presented in a way that is optimised for non-dyslexic people.

All of the above begins to explain (I hope) why this project exists. When we think about dyslexia as an information processing difference, which becomes a disability in the context of a neurotypical-optimised world, the idea of it being something that kids grow out of, or that only matters in the context of academic learning, seems a bit silly. However, that is where we are.

There are many books for dyslexic children and “reluctant readers” (I hate that term) of primary school age. There are virtually no books for adults that are optimised for dyslexic readers.

Adult here does not mean sexually explicit, it means aimed at adults. The point is there are picture books, and stories about bullies, moralistic tales with talking animals, and fart joke humour, but there are no gritty crime thrillers, fantasy epics, complicated romances, historical fiction or thoughtful literature. Or, for that matter, biographies, philosophy, cookbooks and so on. There are abridged classics, but that’s about as close as we get.

Little aside: I will address the contribution that indie authors and ebooks make in a bit.

Dyslexic adults have the choice of struggling through books optimised for non-dyslexic readers or just avoiding reading altogether. Because of this, the publishing industry can cling to the idea that if dyslexic people wanted to read then they would (remember I said I hated the term “reluctant reader”?).

It’s a bad take and one that Alistair of Books on the Hill, along with many dyslexic advocate groups and individuals, have been calling for the publishing industry to address for a long time. To no avail.

Alistair desperately wanted to pioneer a project in this sphere, not to fill the niche (because it’s a pretty big niche for one publisher to fill alone!), but to make a start, and to inspire and prompt others to do the same. That, ultimately, is why the project exists.

Why am I doing it? Basically, because I can. I had the skills and tools to do the practical part of creating the books. (Full disclosure, I am getting paid, but not upfront). I saw it as an opportunity on multiple levels.

What makes the books dyslexic friendly?

This question has come up a few times since we launched the Kickstarter project.

That ingrained assumption that dyslexic people will have “overcome” their dyslexia in school, and could read “normal” books if they weren’t “reluctant”, coupled with the existence of dyslexic friendly books for children, I think tends to lead to the assumption that “dyslexic friendliness” is an attribute of the content, not the format/media. Dyslexic people and their friends and relatives are therefore understandably wary or sceptical of anything touting itself with this label.

In this project, “dyslexic friendly” means visually optimised for dyslexic readers. Although I must caveat that by saying that “optimised” isn’t the ideal term, because it suggests there’s one premiant solution, and our research clearly showed that wasn’t the case – hence the term “friendly”, which we hope conveys the broad scope “improved accessibility” we’re trying to offer.

Our particular recipe for dyslexic friendly formatting is:

  • A large sans serif font (12pt Verdana)
  • Double line spacing (24pt leading)
  • Left-aligned (i.e. ragged right edge) text with fixed size gaps between words (as opposed to “justified” with variable gaps).
  • Extra word spacing (+40%)
  • Expanded tracking (spacing between the individual letters) (+10 units, where units are relative to font size)
  • Extra space between paragraphs (+2 to 3mm)
  • Thick, cream-coloured paper

We arrived at this recipe following some research where the principal points were:

  • Spacing is more important than font style or size. Readers can often cope with a smaller, more challenging font so long as they have plenty of spacing, but a larger, more suitable font cannot compensate for a lack of spacing.
  • Consistency of spacing is important because it avoids visual ambiguity. Ragged right edge/left alignment is therefore better than justified text.
  • Simple sans serif fonts are universally more accessible than serif fonts.
  • Verdana is a popular favourite among readers.
  • Fonts specifically designed for dyslexic readers (e.g. open dyslexic) have mixed results. While some find them the most helpful, others find them more difficult to read.
  • Bleed through (text from the reverse of the page showing through to the page you’re reading) will undermine otherwise accessible formatting so cannot be overlooked.

With all of this in mind, our recipe should offer improved accessibility for most readers.

The great thing about these points is that they’re not all that difficult to implement (with the exception of paper bleed through which is harder to account for when you don’t have control of printing, and when printing is optimised to produce books where this isn’t a major concern). Because of this, self-published authors are, remarkably, leading the way in dyslexic friendly publishing. Authors like AA Abbot and her Vodka Trail crime series.

There are limits, however, to the affordability of dyslexic friendly print books. My novel, Mime, doesn’t have a dyslexic friendly print version because the standard version is already 500 pages. To make it dyslexic friendly would make it physically unwieldy. It’s not a viable candidate.

But there are plenty of books that are viable candidates, and I think more self-publishing authors will start using print on demand to provide accessible versions of their work as the industry develops.

Why quick reads?

All eight titles in the “Open Dyslexia” project are quick reads (about 8-12k words). But why? As I mentioned, Alistair and I wanted to pioneer something, not provide a comprehensive solution. I’ve explained how I view dyslexia as something that only becomes a disability because of the way written information is optimised, but this only addresses the practical aspect of it – the accessibility model. It doesn’t address the psychological issues at play.

The emphasis on dyslexia as a disability where a disability is seen as a failing or a deficiency; the expectation that children can overcome it; the ableist term “reluctant reader”; the stigma around illiteracy and learning disabilities in general; and all the other toxic (even if well-meaning) attitudes that surround dyslexia, all impact the individuals living with dyslexia. This leads to understandable anxiety about reading.

Sometimes that anxiety leads to avoidance, even phobic behaviour.

Alistair and I chose to address this side of the situation by focusing (at least at first) on short reads that could provide an entry point for dyslexic readers who have felt excluded from reading and experience anxiety about starting.

Don’t eBooks make this all redundant?

Image by Michael Haderer from Pixabay 

This is a question I wrestled with myself, especially when we committed to making eBook versions of the books we were publishing, and when we were thinking about pricing.

If font, text size, spacing and bleed through are all you need to address to make something dyslexic friendly then eBooks solve the problem, don’t they? eBook technology can make anything dyslexic friendly, even longer novels that aren’t viable candidates for dyslexic friendly print versions. Plus, there’s no extra cost, no risk. It’s a perfect solution.

Well… yeah, I guess it kind of is.

Yes, there’s some lingering issues of eye strain with screen use and the disparity of access to the technology. Also, from my perspective as a book designer, I think there’s a lack of attention to detail in eBook production that still marks them as an afterthought. eBooks can be very poorly formatted. But, the potential is definitely there.

I don’t have an argument that eBooks don’t offer this almost perfect solution to the accessibility of reading. I think we should be reaching for that solution more often than we already are. But I don’t think they make dyslexic friendly print books redundant.

Print books and eBooks do offer a different experience. Many non-dyslexic readers still prefer the tactile nature of paper and print. Books are nice things to hold and own, and we’re not seeing the same single direction trend from physical to digital medium as we have in audio and video content.

To go back to our wheelchair user comparison, if printed books are stairs and eBooks are lifts, that doesn’t make ramps redundant. Accessibility is about making changes to optimise the world for more people; inclusivity is about making multiple accessibility changes in order to optimise for most or all people.

Back to the point I made earlier about the psychological impact of attitudes towards dyslexia. The current neurotypical-optimised publishing we have excludes neurodivergent readers. That’s just a fact. Tackling that exclusion isn’t just about providing practical accessibility solutions, it’s about inviting neurodivergent readers into that zone, welcoming them into the conversation and the experience. Achieving that requires that sometimes we make them the focus, not the afterthought.

The ultimate vision of the future would be to normalise the transmission of written information inclusively – that’s to say, in multiple ways that together make it inclusively accessible. This has to begin with us discarding any notions we have that any format is superior to any other. We could start by not shaming people who listen to audiobooks by discounting it as “reading”, for instance.

So, we shouldn’t just rely on eBooks to fix the problem of accessibility because it ignores the wider issue of inclusivity. Dyslexic friendly print books can play an important role in tackling issues of stigma, difference, and exclusion, bringing us closer to inclusivity.

How can you help?

Thank you for reading. I hope you’ve gained something useful from my insights on this topic. I certainly feel like it has given me a new perspective on accessibility as a concept and on the relationship between dyslexia, reading and publishing.

If you’d like to read more about the “Open Dyslexia” project and the books we’re publishing, pop over the Kickstarter – here. You can support the project directly, but we also need champions spreading the word and starting the conversations about accessibility and inclusivity that publishing needs to engage with.

If you’re a self-publishing author, have you thought about producing your own books in a dyslexic friendly format?

If you’re a bookseller or librarian, perhaps you’d consider stocking the books we’re publishing through the Open Dyslexia project.

Maybe you have questions. You can ask them here, on the Kickstarter comments page, or you can find me (@chrisseywrites) and Alistair (@booksonthehill) on Twitter.

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