“Why don’t dyslexics just use spell checkers?”

Some people can get really angry and frustrated about people making spelling mistakes. I understand that this can be a real bugbear for others – they get frustrated and even angry that you’ve jumbled some letters up. The attitude that incorrect spelling is a moral sin or travesty really clashes with dyslexia. This lack of understanding can result in individuals being downright hostile to others; often cries of ‘why don’t you just use a spell checker?’ or the suggestion of having someone follow you around and correct everything you spell (I’m not sure where they’re expecting the resources for me to have my own PA are coming from!) are thrown out there all so that you don’t mess with the socially constructed rule that things should be spelled one way, and one way only. It doesn’t matter if you are physically unable to spell a word ‘right'; you have broken a cardinal sin and must pay through total humiliation and continuous knocks to your self-esteem. This attitude rarely applies to other disabilities: individuals who use wheelchairs don’t have their every move criticised by people telling them to stop being lazy or just get up and use a walking stick, so why is it so socially acceptable to attack those who can’t spell?

As with most things I think a lot of misguided thoughts come from the fact that most people believe that everyone experiences the world in exactly the same way as they do; it often hasn’t crossed their mind that this isn’t the case (this assumption is something that this website aims to tackle by allowing others to develop their understanding of different people, and open their eyes to the experiences of others). On the other hand, anger at your misspelling can often come from others who have struggled with spelling (or relatives or friends of those who struggle with spellings), who have spent their whole life being told that they are wrong and that they have to adhere to the spelling rules. They become angry because, if they have struggled to conform to the spelling norm, why haven’t you? How dare another person get away with not spelling correctly?

I used to think like this; I’d worked my ass off to get where I was, I’d spent literally hours working on spellings and called in more favours than I’d like to admit in order to get work right. I became frustrated that there were these people who could ‘get away’ with it, who didn’t try as hard. It was only when I became an officer at a students’ union and started to apply all that critical thinking they teach you at Uni to real life scenarios that I started to think ‘hang on a minute!’. It’s not practical in everyday life to have someone proof-read my every sentence; this isn’t Uni or school any more, it’s not only twice a semester I need a piece of work read – it’s all day every day. I now realise it’s not ‘getting away with it’ to not spell things right: believe me, it takes a lot of guts to turn round to someone for the first time and say ‘why do I have to spell it like that?’ and it takes even more patience to have that argument once, twice, three times a day. It is physically and emotionally draining and in reality spending the extra time to find out the correct spelling may actually be taking the easier road.

I’ve waffled on so I’m going to go back to the title of the post to try and explain to you why it’s so hard for dyslexics to use spell checkers. Dyslexia is actually a more complex disability than you may think, and impacts on individuals in many different ways. For example, it’s not necessarily the misspelling of words but the inability to pick the right word. This relates to the confusion I have over letters and words. In my head I tend to read words based on the shape the word makes, for example I know a word will have a p in it because I remember that the word has a section that goes down at the end. Now most people read words in this way – you may have seen the experiments were they keep the last and first letter the same but jumble up the middle letters (for eaxplme you can pobrbaly raed waht tihs is tyrnig to say) – and I read words created like this much better and often when recalling the spellings of words this is what I do. I tend to know that a word has the letters, I just struggle with the order they go in; so I can tell you that deliberately has a ‘d’, a ‘y’, a couple of ‘l’s’ and a ‘b’ but the bit in the middle is a bit of a struggle. At this point I try and spell it phonetically: I break the words up into small chunks and spell out the bits. Even this can be a struggle: for starters, the English language is notoriously tricky with different combinations of letters creating different sounds, and secondly (and this one is a little more silly) the way you say words can impact on how you spell them phonetically. For example, I grew up just outside Birmingham and until I came to Uni I didn’t realise that Saturday wasn’t spelt Saterday, because the pronunciation in a Brummie accent is different.

So, I hear you ask, why not just use the damn spell checker – it tells you when you have it wrong! Yes, spell checkers do tell you when it’s wrong – but they also tend to automatically change some spelling mistakes which are obvious, hence the Saturday confusion. I never knew I spelt Saturday wrong because it never got a red line under it, it just automatically got changed. With words with two or more spellings, e.g. here and hear, their, they’re and there, whether and weather (you get the picture) there are multiple ways to spell it, and when you spell phonetically rather than from memory you often confuse the words which spell check then doesn’t pick up. Even though spell checker doesn’t see any spelling mistakes in this blog I still know there were loads of these errors before it was proof-read; I just don’t have the capacity to see or know the difference between the words. This brings me back round nicely to the point that when spell check finds your spelling mistakes, they have to be spelled close enough to the right word for the spell checker to give you alternative spellings. I cannot express how frustrating it is for the spell checker to say it doesn’t know what you’re trying to say; it’s one of those ‘throw your computer out of the window’ moments, or ‘bite your lip so you don’t cry’ moments. You can try three, four, even more times to get close enough to the actual spelling for the spell checker to be able to know what you’re saying, but at the end of the day if you can’t get close you haven’t got a hope in hell. It’s at this point you either have to ask someone for the spelling (though this isn’t always feasible) or change the word you want to use. So now let’s say we’ve got there and we’ve managed to spell the word close enough for the spell checker to give us some alternatives: what happens now is that you are presented with six to seven words that all look identical; they have the same letters in just a slightly different order. Often the only way to tell them apart is to go through each letter individually and see if it’s the same, a bit like spot the difference. So on all the words the first letter is T, and in all but one of the words the second letter is H etc. As you can imagine this is a nightmare and doesn’t necessarily provide you with the right word; you just know they’re different. The next stage in order to work out which word you need is to either copy and paste each of the suggested words into a dictionary or a thesaurus to work out which one you meant. By that point you’re throughly exhausted and it’s taken you five minutes to spell one word, and even then it’s not guaranteed that you’ve got it right or your document is error-free. The process then starts all over again.

And that, ladies and gentlemen (and all those who don’t prescribe to the binary notion of gender), is why it’s difficult and sometimes near impossible for dyslexics to use spell checkers!

Thanks for bearing with me, I do tend to waffle! Please note that these are my experiences of dyslexia and that others will experience it differently.


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