Martin McKay, a native Irishman, was 12 years old when his father had a serious stroke while living on their farm in Northern Ireland. The stroke was so severe it left his father without the use of the right side of his body. In addition, he lost much of the use of his speech and couldn’t communicate very well afterwards. Watching what his father went through motivated McKay to do something to help. Seeing his father “had a profound impact on me,” McKay said to me in a recent interview over Zoom.
McKay has served on the board of the Assistive Technology Industry Association and the NIMAS group, itself part of the United States Office of Special Education Programs, or OSEP. He currently serves as an advisor to the Universal Design for Learning council. In 2017, the International Dyslexia Association honored McKay with the Presidential Award for his lifetime contributions to literacy amongst dyslexics.
McKay’s journey began when he met a woman in Scotland who worked at the Glasgow College of Art. He had been developing software to help people with cerebral palsy at the time; the woman told him she had only one student with cerebral palsy but 200 with dyslexia. He then pivoted the focus of his work to helping dyslexic people because “if I could do something for dyslexic students, I could reach a lot more people,” he told me. It was a learning experience for McKay, as he admitted he didn’t know at the time what dyslexia was or who it affected. That experience would eventually birth Texthelp.
Texthelp describes its mission as helping people “to understand and be understood.” The company is headquartered in Northern Ireland (McKay is there), but has outposts in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Australia. McKay said Texthelp currently has 40 million users, adding that they want to be looked at as the “go-to” for dyslexic people and be champions of that community. The company develops a suite of products, geared towards educational settings and the workplace, to help users “read, write, and communicate with accuracy and fluency.” The software users artificial intelligence and machine learning to essentially “just read whatever [is] on the screen” aloud to the user, according to McKay. If the user comes across a word they don’t know, clicking on it will display a dictionary definition. McKay shared an example of the word “cat.” Clicking on the word will then show a picture of a cat and say the word; this multi-sensory approach to reading comprehension makes language more easily understood because the reader isn’t solely relying on one sense to read.
McKay noted Central Washington University did a study of children and their reading comprehension skills. It showed students using Texthelp learned twice as many words as those who didn’t. “[There] are lots and lots of different things that we do, but that’s basically the key ways that we help we help with reading and comprehension: by reading our load and providing other learning [and] scaffolding for support, comprehension,” he said. “And then for reading, we [do] word prediction, and then special dyslexic and second language, grammar and spelling support to help with the reading.” But Texthelp goes beyond the classroom—there are versions of its software for work environments as well. A website owner, for example, can use Texthelp to ensure their site is readable by all. “It scans the website for readability. So they will find sentences that may be hard for someone to understand who’s got a lower literacy level because of dyslexia, or because they’re reading the website in their second language,” he said. “And so, in that way, the website owner can make sure that the website is not just accessible and compatible from a legal perspective [via WCAG guidelines], but also because that makes sure that it’s really easy to read for employees and customers and potential customers.” In a nutshell, McKay told me, the motivation behind using this software (in the case of someone running a website) is to ensure visitors “wouldn’t be excluded from, from the information on the site.”
Texthelp is most popular in schools, and McKay noted feedback on their software is generally overwhelmingly positive. He shared an anecdote of a Minneapolis mother whose son was struggling with his schoolwork because he couldn’t read or write very well. Instead of doing handwritten homework, he said, the boy’s mother petitioned his teacher to allow him to use Texthelp. The change was “transformational,” according to McKay. The student “went from a failing student to top 20% [in his] school and really felt engaged about his education and started to really engage with learning and with teachers,” he said. The boy would even stop fighting with his mom at home. McKay said he hears success stories like this all the time from Texthelp’s customers.
As for the future, McKay said he hopes assistive technology like Texthelp will be more socially accepted as a work aid, whether at work or in the classroom. In the same way people understand wearing glasses helps a person see better, he hopes accessible technology will be more widely appreciated as helping people do better in life. He likened accessible technology to real-world accommodations such as wheelchair ramps and Braille overlays in elevators. Accessibility, he said, “comes from the built environment.” It applies to the digital realm just as it does the physical one.
He added: “If you can make this world easier for people with disabilities, you make it easy for everyone,” he said. “And so you kind of you end up with this piece of universal design, it’s just easier for everyone to use.”
In the end, McKay feels incredibly fortunate to be making a difference in the world with Texthelp. “I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I can do,” he said. “I would like to try to reach more people and make an impact that lasts forever.”