Kira Duncan
Ontario Tech Univeristy


As the most common learning disability in Canada, dyslexia impacts the lives of many students (Dyslexia Canada, n.d.). While learners with dyslexia progress through their educational careers, some will continue to need access to accommodations, including the use of assistive technologies. There are several considerations to take when identifying beneficial assistive technology features for learners with dyslexia regarding individualization and cognitive load. Presently, many easily accessible and low-cost technologies integrate assistive technology features, so learners with or without formalized accommodations can benefit. This paper defines dyslexia and makes recommendations for assistive technologies to support students with dyslexia in higher education.


assistive technology, dyslexia, higher education, learning disability


It is estimated that dyslexia affects approximately ten percent of the world population in some way, with between two and four percent experiencing serious effects (European Dyslexia Association, n.d.).  In fact, it is the most common learning disability in Canada (Dyslexia Canada, n.d.). While such students may have received early intervention, it is becoming increasingly apparent that accommodation and support may be necessary throughout their educational careers (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020). In support of this viewpoint, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2012 that students with learning disabilities have a right to a meaningful education that will allow them to reach their full potential throughout their education (Philpott & Fiedorowicz, 2012). As such, it is worth investigating the assistive technologies available to educators at the post-secondary level to support students with dyslexia.

Background Information

Students with Dyslexia

Dyslexia is defined as challenges in literacy skills which result from difficulty with phonological processing(Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020; Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). It occurs in people with otherwise typical cognitive development and intellect. A student with dyslexia (SD) may struggle with accuracy or fluency in reading, writing, and spelling because of lower activity in some parts of the brain associated with reading (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020; Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). Tunmer and Greaney (2010) note that although the central component is always a difficulty with decoding, or translating writing into speech, it may also be accompanied by additional deficits, for example, with short-term memory, planning, and organization.

Having a learning disability, such as dyslexia, can have long-lasting effects on a person’s life. People with dyslexia face greater challenges in life than those without it. They are less likely to complete high school or go to college, and they have a higher likelihood of living in poverty (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020). Even with early intervention to support decoding skills, challenges with literacy may persist into adulthood. Shaywitz and Shaywitz (2020) noted that a person with dyslexia is not necessarily a bad reader, but rather one who must expend significantly more mental energy to decode information than a non-dyslexic peer. Thus, adult SDs who pursue higher education often continue to read more slowly and at a lower level than their peers, have issues with orthography, and find text-based communication challenging (Olofsson et al., 2012; Woodfine et al., 2008). However, with ongoing support and accommodation throughout their program, they are successfully able to complete their studies (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, 2018).

Assistive Technology

The Assistive Technology Industry Association defines assistive technology (AT) as “products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities” and can be used to assist those who “have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, and many other things” (2019, para. 1). It is not limited to high-tech or specialized software but can be any supportive device. In fact, general technologies are often preferred by SDs in higher education as opposed to specialized ATs aimed at their specific learning disability due to ease of access to the technology and a desire to avoid any stigma related to a learning disability (Draffan et al., 2007).

Barriers to Use

There are myriad barriers to the effective implementation of AT for SD. These include negative teacher perceptions, lack of funding, and lack of availability (Copley & Ziviani, 2004). When considering barriers for post-secondary learners specifically, one major challenge results from the increased autonomy expected of students in higher education. Ostrowski (2016) explained that throughout their elementary and high school studies, students would typically have teachers, parents, and administrators to advocate for their needs. However, in post-secondary education, students are expected to seek out academic accommodations that will allow them to use AT during class and for assessments on their own. This can be particularly challenging if the information about these accommodations is not available in an accessible format (Ostrowski, 2016). Availability and perceptions of training presents another barrier for students in higher education. Draffan et al. (2007) reported that nearly a quarter of students with learning disabilities forgo training for assistive software.  They suggested that this is due to a misconception that training would focus on basic technology skills rather than effective implementation to support learning.

Considerations for Integration of Assistive Technology

Recent research has highlighted two major considerations for selecting appropriate AT for students with dyslexia, in addition to more general technology considerations including ease of use, cost, and device compatibility.


Implementation and selection of AT must be individualized to the learner. There is no single AT feature that will address the needs of every SD (Draffan et al., 2007; Silvestri et al., 2021), and a learners’ age, severity of learning disability, and secondary conditions may affect the technologies that prove most useful (Dobson Waters & Torgerson, 2021). Further, the learner’s other skills and deficits need to be considered. For example, a learner may not yet possess the listening comprehension skills needed to benefit significantly from a text-to-speech software (TTS) or the clear pronunciation to use speech-to-text programs (STT). Selecting technologies with multiple customization options can allow for individualization.

Cognitive Load

Sweller (1988) stated that there is a finite amount of information that one’s working memory can process at one time. He referred to this as cognitive load. This is salient with regards to SDs because they use additional mental energy for decoding, thereby experiencing a high cognitive load when completing a reading task (Silverstri et al., 2021). Likewise, an SD will need to spend more energy on accurate orthography and grammar, making it challenging to focus on written content (Hiscox et al., 2014). This means that SDs may face a higher cognitive load than many of their peers when completing tasks. Introducing ATs that reduce the cognitive load allows learners to improve reading comprehension and writing quality because they can focus more energy on the content.


It is not necessary to seek out specialized or expensive software to make a classroom more accessible for SDs. Rather, thoughtful use of technologies that are widely used by and available to the public can set students up with tools they are likely to use throughout their education (Draffan et al., 2007) and may continue to use in their future non-academic lives. Additionally, promoting the use of non-specialized AT in the classroom as a general learning tool can benefit others in the class, for example, second language learners (Wasniewski & Boechler, 2012).

Key Features


TTS features, such as read-aloud or spoken dictionaries, allow SDs to focus on comprehending the content of a reading by removing the need to decode. Goldfus and Gotesman (2010) found that the use of TTS can enhance immediate and long-term reading performance in SDs, even as text difficulty increases. TTS also allows learners to hear and see the words simultaneously, which helps develop more fluent reading (Schneps et al., 2016). A long-term benefit is improved comprehension and word recognition, which in turn lead to higher motivation and participation. Speech-to-Text. For writing tasks, using the speech-to-text (STT) feature can provide benefits to SDs. It can reduce the mental energy used for orthography and allow the learner to focus on spelling, organization, and accuracy (Hiscox et. al, 2014).

Editing Tools

Using spell checkers, grammar checkers, and predictive text can aid SDs. This is because they can focus on expressing their ideas and developing content rather than focusing on spelling and grammar (Goldfus & Gotesman, 2010).

Spacing and Font

Being mindful or allowing customization of the appearance of written documents can support SD in literacy activities. In fact, technologies that allow users to customize the font size and style, as well as background colour have been shown to improve reading comprehension and speed for readers with dyslexia (Schneps et al., 2016). Additionally, increasing the spacing between letters and lines of text helps SDs avoid crowding letters and words on the page, which leads to increased accuracy and speed with reading tasks (Zorzi et al., 2012). Immersive readers, which simplify text layout and alter spacing, are one example of a feature that makes text more readable through an accessible layout.

Assistive Technologies for Students with Dyslexia

These key features are integrated into many technologies that students and teachers may already be familiar with. While many excellent AT are available for SD, Table 1 focuses only on those that are generally low-cost or free for all higher-ed students, readily available, and suitable for use for both in-class and out-of-class learning.

Table 1

Assistive Technology Examples

Tool Examples Features
Accessibly designed handouts Check Accessibility in Microsoft Word (Microsoft, 2022) Double-spaced text

Additional spacing between letters and words

Cell phone applications Speech Selection



Google keyboard


(The Understood Team, n.d.)



Predictive text

Voice recording

Word processing software Microsoft Word  (Microsoft, 2022) Page customization (font size, font style, line spacing)

Immersive readers

Spell and grammar check


Built-in dictionaries

Browser extensions Read and Write (Texthelp, 2022)

Helperbird: Accessibility & productivity app (HelperBird2022)

TTS for online documents and PDFs

Spell check

Predictive text

Built-in dictionary

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Dyslexia is a learning disability that makes reading and writing difficult. While early intervention is important, ongoing access to accommodation and assistive technology can make the reading and writing process easier and allow learners to focus on meaning and content. This facilitates their access to the education they are entitled to. Knowing how to select appropriate assistive technology may seem daunting for educators with little or no prior instruction in how to do so. Therefore, raising awareness of assistive features can help educators select technology to integrate in their class that will support students with learning disabilities, regardless of whether they have received formal diagnoses.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2022 Copyright © 2022 by Kira Duncan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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