Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Word perfect: Texthelp for struggling readers is changing lives across the globe

Word perfect: Antrim software company has been helping a range of people to overcome their literacy problems
Word perfect: Antrim software company has been helping a range of people to overcome their literacy problems

From a Falklands war veteran to schoolchildren in Kentucky, a software company in Antrim has been helping a range of people to overcome their literacy problems.

Award-winning firm Texthelp, which also has offices in Woburn, Massachusetts, uses software to support people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties in learning to read, write, study and communicate with ease and independence.

The company was set up in the 1990s to bring its software to education, corporate and English-speaking markets. It also has a dealer channel that covers the UK, Republic of Ireland and Australia.

Chief executive Mark McCusker said: "Fundamentally what we do is design technology for people who struggle with reading and writing.

"In the early days of the company we were very focused on the likes of the dyslexic community, whereas now as we have grown and broadened the software so it is equally useful to someone who has English as a second language or someone who is functionally illiterate -- a very broad range of people.

"In terms of the evolution of the company we started off in only English-speaking markets and grew in the UK, Ireland, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.

"More recently we have started to focus on markets where English is not the first language, so we are doing work in China, India and Brazil."

Texthelp's software enables people to develop their reading, students to achieve a degree and employees to operate effectively in the workplace.

Customers include schools, universities, private corporate concerns, local government departments and publishers such as Pearson, McGraw Hill and Discovery Education.

"We have a broad range but the common link to the technology is helping people who are struggling with reading and writing," Mark said.

"In most cases the consumer of our technology doesn't actually pay for it. It's unusual. The ultimate user very rarely pays for our software -- it is usually a third party in the supply chain that pays for the software."

Texthelp has 121 staff, with some 28 of them based in America.

All technical development, administration, and sales and marketing in the UK and the rest of world, excluding North America, takes place at the headquarters in Antrim.

Invest NI assisted Texthelp when it moved into the US market and continues to provide it with valuable assistance.

Hispanic children embracing the technology in Kentucky schools got the company thinking about how Texthelp could assist people who do not have English as their first language.

"Kentucky was determined it was going to be one of the top states for supporting students who were struggling readers, not just dyslexia, but any form of struggling reader."

Then around three years ago the company began moving into non-English speaking countries.

"When you look at someone who was learning English, the typical errors they make are not actually dissimilar from someone who is dyslexic," Mark explained.

"For example, they will tend to spell phonetically and struggle with pronunciation of words. So we started to adapt the software for that market and that has led us into the markets of China, India and a little bit of South America."

Texthelp has ambitious plans for the future.

"When I joined in 1998 there was six of us and we are now at 121," Mark said.

"We are pushing on forward. Our growth plans are largely focused on the rest of the world now."

Queen's University Belfast graduate Mark (55) has a background in engineering. Now he says running a business that helps others is very rewarding.

"We talk about the change you can bring. We have a whole series of feedback from customers we talk about.

"My favourite one is from a woman who contacted us one day to say that her husband, a Falklands war veteran, was very dyslexic and he was a little bit embarrassed.

"She bought our software, put it on the machine and told him to try it. When she came back 15 minutes later he was crying because for the first time in his life he could actually read an email from his daughter.

"At the end of the day we are a hard-nosed commercial organisation, but there is a very strong counterbalance in terms of the satisfaction in delivering something that does changes lives. Our mission is that we change lives. That is what we do."

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