Optician using experience to help those with dyslexia

Brenda Rainford
Brenda Rainford
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WHEN optician Brenda Rainford is with a client she has all the usual tools of her trade close at hand, including letter charts and a variety of lenses. She also has some more unusual ones, such as a smart pen complete with a camera in the nib and a recording device.

She is not a secret service agent placed undercover to unearth the country’s short-sighted enemies however, but a qualified optometrist tasked with solving people’s visual problems. She is also dyslexic and uses a variety of devices to support her in her day-to-day work.

While the smart pen enables her to record her consultations while concentrating on her patients, Brenda, 49, hasn’t always been able to turn to technology for help. It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she was assessed as being moderately dyslexic.

“I left school in 1985 and in education there was nobody looking out for dyslexia then,” she says. “You develop strategies to cope. My dad was a maths teacher. He really helped me with maths. I wasn’t as strong at English or history but was good at sciences.”

Her strategies helped her through university and into the start of a 
career in optics, which she says is a perfect job for a dyslexic.

“In optics I have to spend time getting to know what the person is like. If you’re good at the job, the extra edge is being able to try and do what works for that person. It’s a job where good communication counts.”

An added advantage for the mum-of-two, who set up BirrellRainford Opticians with colleague Jim Birrell in 2011, is that she is able to empathise with clients with reading difficulties, and has even spotted the signs that someone is dyslexic before they knew themselves.

A routine eye test for Edinburgh University postgraduate student Daisy McElhinney at the William Street practice turned into a two-hour consultation. She left with the news she had scotopic sensitivity syndrome – also known as visual stress.

“I went in saying it was difficult for me to read,” she says. “I have a very slow pace and my workload had gone up a lot from my undergraduate to postgraduate course. I found it hard to keep up with the reading.”

Having visual stress makes it 
difficult for the person to process certain information because the words on a page look distorted in some way.

“It’s been discovered that by finding the appropriate coloured overlay you can find a colour that’s easier for them to look through,” says Brenda. “You can prove it’s helping by doing a rate of reading test where we assess their rate of reading with and without the overlay.

“If it works, they can change the colour on their computer background to make it easier or can get spectacles with a special tint on them.

“It’s not suitable for everybody, but it can be gratifying. You get parents in tears of relief saying ‘you don’t know how difficult it was to do 

For Daisy, who is studying carbon finance, using the coloured overlay made a massive difference and she now owns a pair of glasses with leaf green lenses.

“My glasses are amazing,” she says. “They half my reading time and mean I retain more of everything I read. Before I would have lights at weird angles and my computer screen turned right down. Now I can work in a well-lit room. That’s been great.”

Given that visual stress sometimes goes hand-in-hand with dyslexia, she followed Brenda’s advice and went for an assessment at the university.

Although her mother often joked about her spelling, Daisy, 22, did well at school and graduated from university with a degree in political science.

“A lot of the time people think if you’re dyslexic you’re not very bright. My verbal reasoning skills are extremely high but my visual reading was just above average,” she says.

The assessment confirmed she had dyslexia and Daisy is now entitled to extra time when completing online assessments for postgraduate jobs or doing exams. She can also get funding to buy a dictaphone for taking notes and special computer software to change the colour of her screen.

For Brenda, her own assessment was the “icing on the cake”. She had already proved herself to be a valued colleague and says: “It was good to know. I had a hunch there was something holding me back, but now I knew I could go forward.”

While she feels big steps have been made in education since her childhood, there is still a lack of awareness of what dyslexia is in business.

“In the corporate world, a lot of people don’t understand dyslexia. It’s thought of as not being able to read well or not being good at spelling. Like anything, there’s a huge spectrum. Some read well and are good spellers but have processing difficulties. Then there are dyslexics who have no trouble with that but are poor spellers.

“Some employers are not aware that lots of dyslexic people have huge strengths. Very often they are excellent communicators. Nowadays you can get a lot of support from technology. You can teach people how to use technology but you can’t teach people how to be excellent communicators.”

In many cases, she also feels people with dyslexia are more resilient because they have learnt how to 

“Quite a lot of dyslexics are unflappable,” she says. “They tend to be excellent at thinking outside the box. In certain jobs, that’s a huge asset.”

Outdoor entrepreneur Chris Tiso has been appointed as an ambassador to the charity Dyslexia Scotland, with a view to promoting awareness of dyslexia within business.

“Many employers feel threatened perhaps and unsettled by that which they don’t know and understand,” he says. “The problem of dyslexia is it’s difficult for employers and people in general to grapple with something they can’t see, feel, touch or reach out to.”

Chris, who took over the running of his family’s outdoor clothing and equipment retail business in 1992, is working on developing an education guide with the charity to send out to Scottish businesses.

“I think a great number of people, if a CV lands on their desk and there is a reference to the fact that person is dyslexic, more often than not that counts as a pretty major negative against them. That’s without that person knowing or understanding what that means, without knowing what’s out there to support that person. It might not necessarily be a problem and indeed there is perhaps more support out there for the employee than perhaps they realise.”

After seeing a patient, Brenda can touch her smart pen to the bullet points she made during the session and it will play back the relevant part of the consultation, allowing her to complete her notes properly.

While early on in her career she found ways to compensate for her dyslexia, she says access to new technology has made all the difference.

“I’m probably a better optician because I’m short-sighted,” she says. “In the same way, because I’m dyslexic, if people come in and are dyslexic I can empathise with them. When you have been through it, hopefully that reassures people there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”


ENTREPRENEURS Sir Richard Branson and Lord Alan Sugar, right, as well as racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart, are living proof of the ability of dyslexic people to make it to the top of their chosen career.

Many dyslexics are very creative and often move into jobs such as cooking, music, drama or the media. Jamie Oliver, Keira Knightley, right, Cher and Jay Leno have all proved successful in their fields.

Dyslexics are also often good conceptual thinkers, succeeding in careers such as architecture, design, engineering or computers. Architect Sir Norman Foster and Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad are both dyslexic.

Another ability is they have good spatial awareness and so may be good at games. Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer is thought to have been dyslexic.

Making a difference to children’s reading skills

BEN Thomson is dyslexic and couldn’t read until the age of 12. He went on to graduate in physics from Edinburgh University and carved out a career in banking.

A partner of merchant bank Inverleith Capital LLP, he is also chairman of the think-tank Reform Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and publishing company Barrington Stoke, which commissions books for reluctant readers.

In addition, he is a non-executive director of two investment trusts and of the Edinburgh Science Festival.

Barrington Stoke, which was set up by his mother and his wife, publishes books aimed at children with a reading age lower than their actual age. The books, written by well-known writers such as Michael Morpurgo, Charlie Higson and Julia Donaldson, are short illustrated stories that use a font size and words that are accessible for dyslexic children.