A year ago a vision specialist said: “You won’t be able to read again”.
I had suddenly (i.e. over half an hour) acquired homonymous hemianopia (HH). This means you’ve lost sidewards vision, either left or right. So I was now half blind. Just like that.
The commonest cause is stroke. There are at least 200,000 HH sufferers in the UK. With HH you will always have some degree of reading loss. Always. You might recover 95% but you’ll never be quite the same.
If you are left HH (loss on the left side) you can’t see where to start each line of text from. Worse, if you are right HH you are always reading into a blind spot, and can’t work out where the next few words are, or where the current line ends.
It was a troubled time for me and I read that some sufferers become literally alexic – completely lose the ability to read.
There are aids for anyone whose reading is impaired by HH. For example, rulers: horizontally to help follow the line of text, or vertically on the right-hand side to show where each line ends. These certainly helped me at first.
But a more surprising idea I read about is that in severe cases, the only possibility is to switch to vertical reading, from top to bottom. This is often mentioned in the literature, and at first it’s very believable: if one side of your vision is gone then scanning text horizontally might be very difficult. So simply rotate the page 90 degrees and read from top to bottom. Voila!
Over time I began to doubt. In internet searches I hadn’t found many recorded cases where vertical reading had been the solution. In conversation with my low vision counsellor, she was skeptical about the idea. And I didn’t feel at any point that vertical reading would work for me. So was that a complete myth, that it could help?
I was very surprised then by recent research suggesting that in some circumstances people may actually be faster at reading vertically than horizontally. The study only looked at a small sample but suggested vertical reading might help at leas some people with vision loss. It becomes more plausible that some HH sufferers could benefit from reading vertically.
This made me think more about the direction we read in and how much difference it really makes.
Left to right is how you are reading this blog post, but of course many languages are written in opposite direction, right-to-left rather than left-to-right.
But sometimes words are written vertically. It’s often seen in advertising signs.
And if you do word search puzzles you’ll know they also expect you to read diagonally, so there are
six eight possible directions!
Reflecting on this it begins to seem that we can read quite well along any point of the compass, if we have practiced quite a small amount, and that anyone whose vision is split in some way might adapt, and read better, if they read in an unconventional direction. A big surprise.
The image at the top of this post is an example of boustrophedon – ancient Greek for the turning of a plow. The bous = ox (think bovine) draws the plow first one way, then the opposite way in the next furrow.
The writing seems more stubborn than the plodding Greek ox it is named for. There are no spaces between words (modern readers expect those spaces) or punctuation (less important perhaps, but all the same…). The most surprising thing to me is that the individual letters going left are mirror images of the ones going right. Look how E faces the other way on a following line
To illustrate that direction of reading doesn’t matter and is just what the reader has become accustomed to, while standard Arabic text is read right to left, Arabic Braille is read left to right.
You might like to try reading text upside down, or in a mirror. These are unfamiliar at first but you may find that you can soon read enough to get by.