Jamee Miller struggles to read, even at 30 years old. Most readers see words. She sees strings of letters.
“My sight words, I go to five letters. After that, I’m sounding out,” she said.
This is one way dyslexia disrupts the meaning of text and, to Miller’s mind, works to hide the abilities she and others like her have.
Help may be coming in the form of a small, unobtrusive scanner that reads text aloud while its users silently read along.
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It’s called Read ’n Style and is being developed by Hidden Abilities LLC, a business started by Miller and her husband, Payden, whom she calls an honorary dyslexic. They and their crew work on the pen-sized, text-reading scanner at the Catalyst, a student business incubator at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The “early stage” nature of Read ’n Style means the software-proving prototype is the size of a grade-school pencil box. That’s because it is a grade-school pencil box with a few strategic holes cut out.
And there’s a cap from a can of styling mousse. The cap serves as the housing over a tiny camera and lights, which are covered with tape to soften their glow. These scan the text.
Software that the company is licensing turns the scanned text into voice, and the user hears the words through a wireless ear bud that uses Bluetooth technology.
The Millers showed off the prototype in a visit to The Star, though making it work requires more stuff back in Lawrence.
The work at Hidden Abilities has focused on squeezing all that function into the small device. The company has launched a Read ’n Style Indiegogo campaign to fund a production run.
Addition by subtraction
Reading pens are nothing new, as a quick search on Amazon.com shows. The current products’ chief problem, Jamee said, is that they do too much. Read ’n Style’s big strength is that it sticks to reading the scanned text.
There is no built-in digital dictionary. No tiny screen to read back text that has been scanned. No capacity to store the scanned text (or for that matter store test answers and cheat at school). No way to transmit the scanned text to a computer so it can be edited or printed. No earphone jack to plug in wired headphones.
Skipping all of that does two important things, Jamee said.
First, it keeps Read ’n Style’s final product design small and unremarkable-looking. Like a pen.
“As a dyslexic myself, I wanted something that was discreet, that could be used in the classroom without drawing attention,” she said.
One task also means the tiny computer inside the reading pen won’t slow down from doing all the other stuff. It means Read ’n Style will be able to read text roughly in real time. As the pen scans the text, it will move past each word in time for the user to see the word and hear the word at the same time.
This, Jamee said, can help a struggling young reader build vocabulary and gain sight recognition of more words, rather than seeing just strings of letters.
The company name comes from a less well-known aspect of dyslexia.
“Most see it as just a disability, but actually it’s a trade-off. Maybe you’re weak in reading, but there’s other positive aspects, like spacial reasoning. A lot of engineers are dyslexic,” Payden said.
The concept of a dyslexic advantage is reported by experts who study dyslexia. The International Dyslexia Association also notes that the condition may have hidden the talents of Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson, actress Keira Knightley and many others. But it didn’t stop their success.
“We wanted that to be our company’s message,” Jamee said.