The History of the Irlen Method in Canada, by Beverley Butt (January 10, 2008)
In 1988, the TV program, 60 Minutes, described an amazing discovery that has now changed the lives of thousands of persons throughout the world. Using a research grant, Helen Irlen, an American psychologist, had been studying below-average reading skills of bright adult students at the University of California. By chance she discovered that many of them were sensitive to wavelengths of light, especially those found in fluorescent lights, bright sunlight, headlights at night and the reflection of white paper—and that this sensitivity and its detrimental effects could be “cured” by the use of colour.
I was so intrigued with this discovery that I decided to travel to the USA to be trained to identify such persons. Perhaps I could help even one of my learning disabled clients who come to Sandpiper Learning Centre in Regina.
Identification of this sensitivity, first called Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, then later known as Irlen Syndrome, has become my passion for the past twenty years. Since it is inherited, just like the colour of eyes or shape of nose, I soon learned that many of my clients had Irlen Syndrome. Often it had been misdiagnosed as a learning disability, dyslexia or attention deficit disorder.
Symptoms of Irlen Syndrome range from just getting tired when reading, eyes becoming sore, red or watery to actual print distortions that include blurry print, words that move left or right, up or down the page, flip over and sometimes even go right off the page onto the desk or disappear completely into the air, leaving a blank page. Flashing lights, white river patterns can run down the page causing the reader to lose place. Fatigue, migraines and discomfort are common symptoms. Ease of reading, speed, accuracy and comprehension are seriously affected by the distortions or the pain. Thinking that the student just did not know phonics, the teachers did not ask, “What is happening on the page as you read?”
Helen Irlen experimented with various coloured plastic sheets, finding that different colours, numbers and combinations helped different students. She devised simulated reading tasks to determine the correct combination of colours to remove all the distortions. Simply and immediately, a student who had been stumbling in reading could read easily and fluently. Smiles and tears replaced the frowns and frustration on the faces of students and parents as they heard the success they had been searching for so long. Some could read at their level immediately, others needed to pick up reading skills they had not been able to learn earlier. Each one sat straighter as self-confidence improved. They now knew they had not been stupid as they thought and to their amazement, they learned that not everyone saw dancing letters on the page.
Coloured paper was selected to replace white paper for writing- again to suit the individual’s needs. Now they could read and write comfortably like everyone else.
However, there remained problems of glare on chalkboards, fatigue from working under fluorescent lights and driving against headlights at night. Using a spectrometer at the Irlen Institute in California, Helen Irlen developed a kit of about 150 combinations of coloured filters which removed various wavelengths. A two hour assessment could determine which wavelengths needed to be removed for the individual. These filters could then be applied to lenses for glasses or contact lenses. Interestingly, usually the coloured filters selected by students for the glasses differ greatly from their selected coloured plastic overlays for reading.
The resulting colour on glasses looks like cosmetic-tinted glasses or sunglasses. However, the Irlen tints are very different, having the ability to stop letters moving, stop migraines, allow comfortable driving at night and even correct inaccurate depth perception for those who have that symptom.
In 1988, I brought this discovery to Canada- to families, to businesses, to schools and community agencies. For the next 20 years, I travelled across Canada and the northern States, doing assessments for the coloured overlays, coloured paper and coloured filters. I did workshops for teachers and parent organizations. I trained hundreds of teachers to identify Irlen students and give them the coloured overlays they needed. I then was able to use my time to do the assessments for the coloured glasses.
For the past 3 years, I have mentored and supported the training of selected educators to take over my work and clients – in BC, AB, SK, MB, MT and ND- since it appears that Venture Out has captured our hearts for 5 months of the year and much as this will reduce the immense pleasure I receive during each of my assessments (and my income), it will increase the opportunities for students to be identified.
Colour can mean different things to different people. For me it will always mean changing the lives of non-efficient readers so they can reach their potential. As one grateful parent wrote in thank you letter with a little gift, “I want you to place this prism of colour on your window so the beams of light will remind you how you change caterpillars into butterflies.”
Bev became an Irlen screener in 1988 after watching the 60 minutes television show. Always wanting to make learning easier, she travelled to the US and brought the Irlen method back to Canada. She became the first Irlen diagnostician in Canada in 1992 and set up Irlen Centre Western Canada. She was an Irlen pioneer in Canada and loved to share her stories of trying to make people understand Irlen Syndrome. She travelled across western Canada and the northwest territories and Nunavut as well as Northern USA. Many of these trips did not even cover her expenses.
To ensure there would be no gap in services to identify and treat persons with Irlen Syndrome, she began to mentor selected screeners to become diagnosticians in AB SK MB BC and MT. Her support and critiques, both positive and negative are missed.
Bev’s other adventures with her beloved husband Dave:
1967-1969: Selected by Can. Teachers’ Federation to upgrade teachers in Africa.
Bev was a real family person. A visit to their home always felt welcoming. Their home was filled with souvenirs of travels and Dave’s art work. Bev and Dave had a very strong relationship and were continually bragging about each other, Dave about Bev’s Irlen work and Bev about Dave’s amazing artistic talent. And they both bragged about their son Shane. There was always time for a glass of wine, a meal, a long walk and good conversation.
Bev is missed not only by the Irlen community, but by many family and friends.