(CNN) — Stacey Harvey was driving with her young son Cole in the back seat on an afternoon just like any other. The two were having a casual conversation when Cole suddenly asked, “What if I never learn how to read?”
“He was really fearful, thinking he might not ever read,” Stacey recalled. That’s when she realized that, even at a young age, Cole and his brother, Stephen, were more aware of their dyslexia than she thought.
“He was only 6 and hadn’t been exposed to a public school setting where lots of people were easily reading and writing,” she said about Cole. “I explained to him that people learn many different ways, and if this way is not the right way, then we’ll find another one, and if that’s not the right way, then we’ll find another one.”
That moment, which left Stacey stunned, happened eight years ago.
Now, Cole, 14, and Stephen, 12, have found a way.
The brothers point to cutting-edge assistive technology as one of many factors driving their desire to learn, boosting their confidence and helping them read and write. Such technology includes devices, equipment or systems that enhance learning, working and daily living for people with disabilities.
“I struggled a lot, and I didn’t get why I struggled a lot. I felt like everybody was smarter than me,” Cole said.
“When technology came in, I was able to compensate for what I didn’t understand, why I couldn’t do things like other kids did, and it helped me work it out,” he said. “I think I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things without me advocating for myself. Or asking somebody for help, like a student or a teacher or even a dean or counselor.”
Cole and Stephen now attend Saint Francis Middle School in Roswell, Georgia, where they have made the headmaster and honor roll lists for the first three quarters and will be in honors programs for several subjects in the next year.
“I attribute it to the technology they use and their self-advocacy. They don’t mind going up to a teacher and asking for help, which I think is just incredible,” father Rob Harvey said.
“They’re able to speak for themselves. They’re able to own what they’ve got, and they’re making the best out of it,” he said. “That’s what brings tears to my eyes.”
Dyslexic-friendly fonts and a pen that records
Dyslexia, a neurological condition that impairs a person’s ability to read, is estimated to impact between 5% and 10% of people around the world.
The traditional course of treatment for students with dyslexia is to modify teaching methods and their educational environment. Yet many experts are now pointing to new software and devices as a novel approach to help students with dyslexia not only learn but learn to love reading.
Students like Cole and Stephen use audiobook and word-reading apps, such as Audible and Learning Ally text-to-speech software, on their smartphones, tablets and laptops. The boys follow the words as the tales of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and other fantastical characters are read aloud with the software.
Stephen said that when he had trouble with books, he started to read a few pages and then would listen to those pages using audiobook software to make sure he understood the words. That’s what works for him.
“It’s helped me succeed. It’s helped me read things and understand it more than I would have just reading it or listening to it,” he said. “So, if it’s working, you don’t have to go to the newest and best thing out there. Keep what is working.”
Bookshare, described as “the world’s largest accessible online library for people with print disabilities,” is another commonly used program among students with dyslexia.
There are also dyslexic-designed fonts, such as OpenDyslexic, Dyslexie Font and the Google Chrome app Dyslexia Unscrambled, which use unique letter shapes to transform any digital text into a typeface that is more easily readable for those with dyslexia.
Extra-large spacing between letters might help make reading material more easily accessible for people with dyslexia, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.
For writing, there’s software such as Grammarly that not only automatically highlights spelling and grammar mistakes, it explains the reasoning behind each correction, which both Cole and Stephen have used.
There’s also the Livescribe Echo pen, which records audio while you write. You simply tap on your notes to play back what was recorded. Some experts say the device helps reduce the anxiety students might feel while taking notes in class and making sure that the information they are learning is written down.
How new technologies are changing classrooms
“We never want it to replace direct, systematic instruction for that particular child, but rather, it should serve as a supplement,” said Jennifer Lindstrom, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Education, of the new technologies for students with dyslexia.
“I like to think of technology not as an instructional tool but more as a support to help access information,” she said. “When there are difficulties with retrieval — which often causes anxiety during learning situations — assistive technology would relieve some of that anxiety.”
Of course, assistive technologies come with some limitations, said Martha Rust, a specialist at Tools for Life, an assistive-technology program at Georgia Tech College of Design.
“The limitation is what happens when the technology fails, not being able to have that backup. You know, what happens if the power goes out and you can’t charge that device? So being able to have strategies for that backup is key,” Rust said.
“Another thing sometimes: the cost of technology. But I have seen in my years of working with assistive technology and technology that it has advanced and it becomes more and more universal, and more and more people will start using it, and that will also bring that cost down,” she said.
However, Rust stressed that assistive technologies have played an important role in the lives of many students she knows with disabilities, including Cole and Stephen.
“For a person without a disability, technology makes things easier, but for a person with a disability, technology makes things possible,” she said. “We have yet to meet a successful student with a disability who does not use assistive technology.”
Raising two boys with dyslexia
Rob Harvey said he and his wife noticed early on that Cole, their eldest, had difficulty with language, such as learning the letters in the alphabet, recognizing rhyming patterns and pronouncing familiar words.
Then similar difficulties with reading appeared in Stephen.
The Harveys advocated for their sons to get individualized education plans, or IEPs, which indicate to their school and the government that Cole and Stephen are eligible for special education services.
“When we started recognizing the signs of reading struggles and recall and enunciation and stuff that should be coming along early on, we just immediately jumped towards it,” Rob Harvey said of the IEPs. He added that there is a history of dyslexia in their family. “That’s kind of how we got started on this journey. It’s a journey of life all the way through.”
Stacey decided to home-school the boys, through the Georgia Cyber Academy, for first and second grades. Cole and Stephen — who, with their matching blond hair and freckles, look like twins at first glance — both were diagnosed with dyslexia by third grade.
“Because I’ve taught in public school for so long, I knew that as a dyslexic kid, you have to fail in order to get the help you need,” Stacey said, referencing how many parents and teachers often don’t recognize signs of dyslexia until a student has started to fail classes. Therefore, students are often not given additional help in schools until they have already fallen behind in the curriculum.
“By then, you’ve lost valuable time, as well as their confidence,” Stacey said.
“I just didn’t want to do that for my kiddos,” she said. “And it makes me so sad for all the other kids out there. There has to be a better way to give every child the specific help they need.”
After receiving educational psychological testing, Cole and Stephen attended the Schenck School in Atlanta, which specializes in educating students with dyslexia.
Cole attended from third to sixth grade and Stephen from third to fifth grade. The boys credit the school with helping them learn how to use assistive technology and advocate for their education — something students without learning disabilities might take for granted.
“My boys love school, and they’ve always loved school, which is not the case for many who are dyslexic,” Stacey said. “They’ve got the love, the passion and the knowledge and confidence, and they don’t want to let the writing hold them back.”
‘I would say never give up’
The boys have been using text-to-speech services to help them read books and keep track of their schoolwork. They utilize their iPhones and laptops while attending Saint Francis.
Their parents said the structure provided by Saint Francis, and the organizational skills taught at the school, have allowed Cole and Stephen to smoothly transition from a specialized school to a more traditional setting.
Cole and Stephen also are not hesitant to make a case for being placed in honors classes, even if their writing or reading remains a struggle, Stacey said.
For instance, Stephen was considered for an honors history class, but his writing was not at the level it should be for that particular course, she said.
“So we met with his teachers to figure out what he needs to do and what skills does he need in place and how can he get there to get to that goal,” Stacey said. “I wasn’t pushing him for that. It was what he wants, and he knows he’s dyslexic. He knows it’s not going to be easy.”
Stacey added that Cole made the same decision and commitment about an honors math class.
“Everybody’s got a right to learn, and it can be a daunting journey,” Rob Harvey said. “We’ve been very fortunate and very blessed in being able to have the right resources and assistive technology.”
Stephen said he hopes other students with dyslexia will be inspired by his and Cole’s stories to advocate for themselves when they might need additional help in the classroom. He suggested that a student quietly pull his or her teacher aside to request when assistive technology is needed to help with schoolwork.
“I would say never give up,” Stephen said. “Always look for different options.”