Dyslexia is a relatively common disability that affects about 20% of the United States population. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a vision-related disorder: Dyslexia affects affects word recognition, spelling, and the ability to match letters to sounds.
Over the past several decades, educators have helped people with dyslexia develop strategies to improve their reading comprehension. Dyslexia-specific fonts are a fairly new innovation, and some readers may find them helpful — but research shows that the size and spacing of fonts is far more important than the typeface. Below, we’ll explain why.
What are dyslexia fonts?
Dyslexia fonts attempt to improve reading comprehension and reading speed by making characters more distinct. In many fonts, letters like “p" and “d" are mirrored or flipped — they’re essentially the same character in a different position. Some designers believe that these similarities cause confusion for people with dyslexia.
Dyslexia typefaces use unique designs for every letter. Some fonts like Dyslexie also provide clearer baselines for characters, creating a “visual center of gravity" to decrease switching and swapping. Fonts may also emphasize capitalized letters, which may provide an “anchor point" to help dyslexic readers stay focused.
Related: Dyslexia Awareness Month and How Web Accessibility Can Help
Can dyslexia fonts improve reading accuracy?
Given the growing number of dyslexia fonts available, there’s an important question to consider: Do dyslexia fonts actually work?
Unfortunately, there’s not much scientific evidence to support the use of these specialized typefaces.
- A study from the Yahoo Labs & Research Group (PDF) found that one dyslexia font, OpenDys, did not improve readability or comprehension.
- In 2018, a separate peer-reviewed study found that the Dyslexie font did not result in faster reading or accuracy for children, regardless of whether the readers have dyslexia.
- In 2020, a study published in Annals of Dyslexia failed to find “any effect from the letterform" of dyslexia and non-dyslexia fonts in improving reading speed.
Research suggests that spacing between letters can affect reading speed, but typefaces aren’t an important factor. That’s because dyslexia affects a person’s ability to distinguish between phonemes — the sounds that make up words — not the actual letters of the word.
Even so, some people with dyslexia say that specialized fonts improve the reading experience — and because reading disorders can affect people differently, we should believe those experiences. The fonts may not be the “magic bullet" for addressing dyslexia, but if they’re useful for some readers, that’s certainly great news.
Related: How to Create Accessible Content and Designs for People with Dyslexia
Choosing Fonts for Accessibility: Quick Tips
Whether or not dyslexia fonts work for every reader, they highlight an important concept: Font choices affect online experiences. Web designers should consider options carefully when styling their content. Most importantly, designers shouldn’t force users to read content in its original styling.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international consensus standards for accessibility. Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG doesn’t recommend a specific typeface.
However, Success Criterion (SC) 1.4.12, “Text Spacing," requires that “no loss of content or functionality occurs" when changing line height (line spacing) to at least 1.5 times the font size, with additional requirements for paragraph spacing, letter spacing, and word spacing. This guideline ensures that users have control over the appearance of text content — if they choose to change the spacing of the text, the website will still be operable, and the text will still be readable.
The W3C also recommends using a simple, unadorned font that is widely supported by different devices and web browsers. Times New Roman, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, and Calibri are excellent options. While these fonts aren’t required by WCAG, they can improve the user experience, particularly for people with low vision and reading disabilities.
Related: Best Fonts To Use for Website Accessibility
Other quick tips for making text accessible:
- Don’t use markup that prevents users from changing fonts or font sizes on their own devices. As discussed above, some users prefer accessibility fonts — if that’s the case, you shouldn’t stop them from setting their preferences.
- Make sure the color of your text has a high contrast with the background color.
- Avoid using font styling to convey meaning. If the font’s appearance conveys meaning, use structural HTML tags. For example, setting text in boldface or italics using the <b> and <i> tags will change the text’s appearance, but if your goal is to emphasize certain words, non-visual users may not get the message. Use the <strong> and <em> to indicate structure.
- Avoid using images of text. Screen readers and other devices cannot read text rendered in images. If you use images of text, make sure you include accurate image alternative text tags (also called alt text).
For more tips, download the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s free eBook, Developing the Accessibility Mindset.