The media coverage of the UK 2015 General Election has arguably been the friendliest yet for voters with specific learning differences. The election has come at you in multi-sensory formats, has catered for quick or slow information gatherers, and by luck or design has facilitated the specific processing needs of more voters than ever before who have dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, ADHD and other learning differences.
We have been able to receive party and candidate messages in formats which suit our learning styles and so help us engage more: if you didn’t want to cope with being in a room with other people in order to hear debate on the issues, you just switched on any TV channel and watched others do it from the comfort of your own relaxed space. If you liked following it live as it happened you tuned into several live leader debates; but if processing every word in the here and now wasn’t for you, why not record it on DVD, press the red button the next day, or press pause on the iPlayer and examine the issues at your leisure?
And if the talking heads were not doing it for you, there were the smooth digital graphics to engage with instead: beaming presenters delivering bar charts, pie charts and line graphs in an explosion of colour and artistic flair. No need to process words, just compare the relative sizes of the party colours, and that tells you which way the wind blows.
For voters with specific learning differences which incline them not to decode the graphs, or add up the numbers or process the talking heads, the option of listening to the election campaign on the radio has been a source of superb insight. Local radio stations have featured the election from angles that TV could only dream of, and BBC Radio 4 has hauled in all the usual suspects first thing in the morning to serve up the awkward questions you and I would not be inclined to face before lunchtime.
But it is social media which has transformed the election coverage for the voter with a specific learning difference. Its language widens how politics is spoken about, by removing the academic and coded professional language politicians tend to use. The floor is then open for voter self-expression, without qualification. People with specific learning differences can gain significantly more confidence in their own expression when they can hear, see and use language that is comfortable and meaningful to them. Social media’s friendly convention in this area has therefore had the effect of widening this group’s access to the political debate, on all sides.
This new power of access will last too, because social media allows voters to process and communicate information much more on their terms, not terms laid down by politicians or the mass media. The ability to hold more information than ever before, on a hand-held device with a brilliant memory which can deliver information to you on your personal processing terms, means voters with dyslexia and other processing conditions can augment their learning, and articulate their views, more effectively than ever before. This is democracy in action.
However, there is one important learning element, which is often effective for voters with specific learning differences, which has been deployed unevenly by all parties in this election’s communication efforts: kinaesthetic learning – understanding something through seeing and experiencing the real thing in front of you. I live in a very rural hilltop community, and not one parliamentary candidate has appeared at my front door to help me understand their essential message through seeing and experiencing them in the flesh. Given that people with specific learning differences tend to learn best through 3D interactive experiences, and at least 10% of the population has some sort of specific learning difference, perhaps there are still plenty of votes to be gathered in by the candidate who simply gets out of the door and meets the voters face-to-face. Maybe some old ways are worth hanging on to.
So are you any clearer? Let us know.
Jan Halfpenny is a specialist in business and dyslexia. She trains businesses to understand and support dyslexia, both online and in person.