Invention helps students with dyslexia unlock hidden abilities

Payden (L) and Jamee Miller co-founded Hidden Abilities. (WIBW-TV)
Payden (L) and Jamee Miller co-founded Hidden Abilities. (WIBW-TV)(WIBW)
Published: May. 9, 2016 at 8:46 PM CDT
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Think of all the things you need to read to get through work or school or everyday tasks.

What if the words just jumbled up on the page?

That is what it was like for Jamee Miller, among the estimated one in 10 Americans with dyslexia.

"When it came down to reading, I was so focused on the paragraph and figuring out what I would be reading, so I could read it over and over and over," she said.

By high school, she figured something must be wrong, but didn't want to speak up.

"I did kind of hide from it," Jame admits. "In school, you don't want to be that different person, especially at adolescence."

Instead, she developed tricks to keep up. She'd find audio books or have her mom read the text aloud to her.

But when she married and transferred colleges to follow her husband, Payden, to the University of Kansas, Jamee began taking online courses through Johnson Co. Community College and found her tricks betrayed her.

"I bombed dramatically because it was nothing but reading," Jamee said. "Mom's not up here to read the text to me."

Jamee still earned admission to KU and, once there, visited the accommodations office where she finally received a formal diagnosis -- reading disorders under the umbrella of dyslexia.

"It was just kind of this weird relief," she said. "Without that diagnosis, without saying, 'Yes, that is what it is,' in the back of my mind I was always doubting myself. I could work harder. There's got to be something I can do - more that I can do - to be like everybody else."

Now, Jamee and Payden may have found the answer for what others can do. It came to them while they were taking an entrepreneurship class together and had to develop a product.

Jamee recalls the conversation that took place one night while sitting in recliners in their living room.

"I was like, 'What if there was a pen that read to text?' And he was like, 'What do you mean?' And I was like, 'A device that'll scan over text and read it for people like me, with disabilities.'"

It didn't take long for Payden to abandon his own idea and join Jamee's project.

"Seeing how many people it would help really kind of caused a light bulb to go off in our heads. We need to do this," Payden said.

The search was on to find someone who could help create programming and electronics to make the idea reality. A big step forward came when their company, Hidden Abilities, was accepted into KU's business accelerator, The Catalyst.

"They help us with access to mentors, investors, office space and all that goes into helping us create this business as fast as possible to get it into the hands of the people that need it the most." Payden said.

Their invention is called the Read 'n Style pen. It is an assistive technology inspired by the concept of someone reading text aloud, but in an unobtrusive, portable manner.

"You push the button and it starts an LED and turns on a camera, taking pictures every 50 milliseconds or so," Payden explained. "Then you scan the text with the device and it will extract the text from the page, turn it into audio and send that to a wireless blue tooth earpiece."

The Read 'n Style pen is in its final stages of development. Their goal is to make if available for less than $300. The Millers plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign this summer to take pre-orders and raise money for their initial manufacturing expenses, getting the pen into users' hands later this year.

The device has already caught the attention of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who awarded Payden a $5,000 entrepreneurship scholarship during a visit to campus last fall.

The Millers hope to market it not just to students and parents, but also schools. A typical procedure for students with learning disabilities, they say, is for the student to go to accommodations office, where a person reads aloud test or assignment questions that a teacher must provide the office in advance. They say they've already visited campuses where an accommodations office may have a staff of one person, trying to organize test and assignment times for thousands of students.

"(Students will) be able to use it on all their schoolwork, on tests because it won't store information - be able to use it on tests without any risk of cheating," Payden said. "The students won't have to be taken out of class to do the tests and will be able to stay in the classroom with all their peers."

Which is really what it comes back to for Jamee - giving students with learning disabilities the confidence to find their strengths.

"They have all these great things inside them that because they have these learning disabilities, those things don't get to come up - they don't get to come to the surface," Jamee said. "If we can help them in any way, that is exactly what I want."