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ATU631 – Let’s Focus and Read Better with Joan Brennan


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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.
Special Guest: Joan Brennan – Founder and CEO – Brennan Innovators LLC
Main website URL:
The Reading Focus Cards have been available since 2007 and continue to help all types of readers in all age & ability levels both here in the U.S. and worldwide. All tools and apps are developed AND manufactured in the U.S.A. (St. Louis, MO—helping to keep jobs here at home.)
Research for Reading Focus Cards (U.S. Patent 7,565,759):
The Reading Focus Cards are evidence-based reading & learning tools (2 studies conducted).
Reading Focus Cards App for Mac & PC (U.S. Patent 8,360,779):
App purchases & secure downloads are available via the Mac App Store, the Windows Store, and Readers can access the appropriate app version for their respective hardware needs via the webpage link here.
Reading Focus Cards Tools, Apps, & Books:
Direct link for all orders of Reading Focus Cards tools, apps, and, books for kids and adults.
FREE Printable List of Reading & Learning Strategies:
FREE list is immediately downloadable, printable, and usable for readers & learners of any age or ability level.
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—– Transcript Starts Here —–
Joan Brennan:

Hi, this is Joan Brennan and I’m the founder and CEO of Brennan Innovators, LLC. And this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:

Hello, and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 631 of Assistive Technology Update. It is scheduled to be released on June 30th, 2023. On today’s show, we are super excited to welcome Joan Brennan, founder and CEO of Brennan Innovators, LLC, and she’s going to talk about reading focus cards, as well as just some things we can all do to focus and read a little better.

Make sure to definitely check out the show notes today that has, not just links to the website, but also research on focus cards, information on the patents and information that can help us all read a little better. But for now, let’s go ahead and get on with the show. Listeners, today we’re taking a deep dive into reading and comprehension with Joan Brennan. She’s going to discuss her experiences with readers of all levels, reading focus cards and how they can assist individuals, improve the reading skills, and give us some tips on how all of us can become more effective and efficient readers. Joan, welcome to the show.

Joan Brennan:

Thank you. I appreciate being here, Josh, and having the opportunity to talk to your audience.

Josh Anderson:

Well, and I am excited to learn some new skills to talk about some other things, but before we get into all that, could you start off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Joan Brennan:

Yes. So my training is in education. Having taught middle school here in St. Louis for about 20 years in the St. Louis Archdiocese. And in our schools, we did not always have a special needs faculty member or a resource teacher, and so many of the homeroom teachers or the main content teachers of the core subjects were really the ones who were going to be the gatekeepers of any special needs of students if we were able to notice them. So because of that, I had students in my classroom who were diagnosed with things like ADHD, dyslexia and autism, and there were others that were not diagnosed, but teachers would have suspicions, we could not diagnose, we don’t have those credentials, but we could suspect and refer to medical professionals or other specialists.

So I had students that would come to me and have difficulty focusing because they perhaps had ADHD or they were already diagnosed, but one morning I had a student come to me and she whispered in my ear on the entry to classroom, she said, “Mrs. Brennan, I didn’t take my medicine this morning. They had forgot to give it to me for ADHD.” And I thought, “Oh wow.” And of course that was the year we incorporated for the first time a 90-minute block for language arts. Well, I would give the kiddos a 45-minute session and then a break and another 45-minute session, but I thought, “She’s not going to make it through the first 45.”

So we were reading silently for a few minutes at the beginning of class just to kind of get them in the groove, so to speak. And she said, “I can’t focus on my pages.” And I said, “Well, let me see what I can think about doing.” Well on my desk, there was a manila folder about to go to the recycling bin and I thought, as a mother of myself, four sons, and trying to make due with what I had in the classroom at the time, I intuitively started to cut a three by five card with a half inch wide long cutout in the middle. And I said, “I don’t know if this is going to work, but why don’t you try putting this on each line of text and see if it’ll block out all the other stuff that’s on these two pages you’re asked to read.” She was open to the idea, she did it.

She read the two pages, raised her hand, and she said, “I think I know what I read.” I said, “Well, let’s answer some questions and see if that’s the case. If you do know the answers.” And this is all done by the way in the back of the room whispering. We don’t want to draw attention to a child like this at all. So long story short, I asked her the questions for the two pages and she got every one of those answers and I said, “You do know what you read.” And so she said, “Can I take this to my next class?” And I didn’t know it, but that became the first prototype for our reading focus cards, which are handheld tools that help you focus and read better.

So that was nearly 15, 16 years ago, and now we have the handheld tools and the app for your Mac and PC to go with those. So it’s a really inexpensive way of helping someone with ADHD, dyslexia or nothing like a medical student or a law student focus and read better. And we do have customers and clients on every spectrum that you can imagine. And it’s special needs, but it’s also elderly parents or elderly grandparents that are having a hard time focusing at the end of the day, their eyes are tired. It’s that kind of thing. I hope that answers your question.

Josh Anderson:

Most definitely. And not only did it answer my question, it led me into the next question because I do want to say focus cards is probably one of the first kinds of pieces AT that I was really turned onto because when you think assistive technology, you think technology, you think big, high tech computers and this and that, but that’s not always what helps students. So tell us kind of about the different kinds of focus cards available because I know it’s no longer just a three by five card with a window cut out of it.

Joan Brennan:

Right. Well, basically we have two different kinds and there are two sizes, first of all. You always get two sizes in every package that you purchase. And that is because you want to read short lines of text and not move the card left to right. You want to move it straight down the page, or you can use the longer tool for lines that are longer. So there’s a short tool and a long tool for different lengths of text lines. You want to move the tool straight down the page, not left to right unless you’re breaking down syllables. That’s the only time you would do that. So that is what you want to keep in mind in terms of two different sizes.

But then there are two different textures because it is a sensory brain training tool, and we have a smooth velvety face material and we have one that’s called black textured grip. And the black textured grip, as it says, only comes in that color black, but all the other soft velvety feeling sensory tools come in a variety of 10 different colors. You can choose if you care to, or you can just order assorted colors, and that’s a random picking of two different colors in one package. But the colors are where the fingers are placed. And the colored films that also are included in every package are what make it customizable because some people can read through a colored filter that is a particular color that helps their eyes feel more comfortable, helps them focus better.

Helps them in some cases of dyslexia, I’ve heard two 10 year old boys that were not related to each other in two different years, tell me, “When I look through the dark blue reading filter, it helps the letters stop moving.” And I said, “Wow, really?” And the other 10-year-old boy said to his mother in front of me, “Mom, the letters stopped dancing.” So there is a color that can be best for one individual user. And the three colors we include in the packaging have been recommended by behavioral optometrists here in St. Louis. They’re hard to find.

And we have a wonderful group here in St. Louis that I consult with, and they said, “Whatever you do, put these three colors in every kit so everyone has a choice.” And it’s a dark blue yellow that highlights and a clear non glare, sort of a frosted reading filter that helps get rid of the glare caused by overhead fluorescent lights, which drive the ADHD’ers little crazy. And those that are on the autism spectrum they hear and respond negatively sometimes to the noise and the glare from fluorescent lights. So it’s a focusing tool in more ways than one, but it also provides sensory attributes and features that satisfy low sensory need individuals, and it does very much for very little investment.

Josh Anderson:

Very nice. And you said there’s a digital version available as well?

Joan Brennan:

Yes, there is. And it is a Mac and PC versions. It’s an excellent, totally customizable screen reader that you can cover the entire screen except for one word or one line with the color of your choice. And it’s a prism you get to choose. And then it locks in or not. You can change it over time depending on your lighting environment or your needs. And it’s available in the Mac App Store, it’s available in the Windows store and on

And the next question might be, is there a tablet version? And I’m sorry, but the tablet and the iPads don’t have the hardware technology built into them to enable you to have 15 or 20 tabs open and plunk this tool down on any one of those as you open each tab. So it’s very different. We’re monitoring that and hoping one day that we will be able to have one for the tablet or the iPads, but right now it’s for Mac and PC.

Josh Anderson:

Well, and I can tell you just from experience, I have had folks use focus cards on a tablet, and with varying degrees of success, but it’s worked. And it’s been able to keep because they’re so used to using it on paper and used to just focusing that information onto that one line at a time that it has worked for them in, again, kind of with varying success, just depending on how they use it because sometimes with a touchscreen, as you touch it, you may move things and kind of change stuff, but in a pinch it works a heck of a lot better than nothing on that tablet.

Joan Brennan:

Yes, I’m glad you mentioned that, Josh, because we do recommend that when someone really has to use an iPad or a tablet for a variety of reasons. And we always recommend though, when you do that to put some kind of a protective film on the screen or the device screen that there isn’t any kind of matter than could catch on either surface and cause a scratch on that screen. So interestingly enough, the short tool, the short reading focus card works on a Kindle and the long reading focus card works on an iPad.

Josh Anderson:

It’s always nice when things kind of work out like that,

Joan Brennan:

But they’re geared towards sizes of pages in paperbacks and sizes of pages in documents, so they’re all ready to go, see, because they were geared for that.

Josh Anderson:

Joan, you’ve been doing this for a while, having kids of your own, all the boys, having the middle schoolers and things like that. So what are some of the main challenges with reading and comprehension that you see for individuals with or without disabilities?

Joan Brennan:

Well, I would say eyes get tired first of all, and white page backgrounds with black text are probably the most tiring color combination for most people. Many people do not know this. Even educators learn this for the first time when I talk with them, but it causes visual stress and you’re thinking, “What? I thought stress was more emotional.” It’s not always. If there can be, especially later in the day, more difficulty, more challenge in reading for extended periods of time. So reading stamina may be less, that’s what we call it when you can’t read for any duration of time, but reading stamina is decreased because eyes become tired.

So what we do is with the colored filters, change that white page background automatically, immediately, noninvasively so that you can read on a color of your choice, those three colors I mentioned that were recommended by the behavioral optometrists and install the one that works best in your tools. And once you do that, you may be able to read for a longer period of time, you may be able to focus and do much better all around in whatever you’re undertaking at the moment of in terms of reading and study. So that’s one of the problems. Reading the white page background with black text, two stark of a contrast, tiring to the eyes.

The other is sometimes people will read a paragraph, a page, two pages, and they really still don’t know what they read. And it could be for a variety of reasons. If there’s been no testing or anything like that, my first question is are they overwhelmed? Is there just too much text on a page? Do they need to isolate some of it? If so, and if it’s a document, which is very cool, if you’re allowed to do this and in certain settings, bold the document in a particular way, maybe in quarters and thirds, whatever works for you, and just read what’s visible. The focus cards will help with that of course, but that’s one of the problems that I see is text overwhelm.

And today with our visual need for pictures to learn, to communicate, what have you, we crave pictures, visuals, videos. And all of that on a page that’s digital is just too much for someone, for many, and they get distracted by that corner video over there are that picture of an interesting looking person on the left side. And before you know it, the time limit that they set aside to read something is gone and they still don’t know what they read because they haven’t begun to read the section. They were too distracted. So distraction and overwhelm are huge. And another thing is sometimes there’s so many ideas on a page, too many topics, again, a different kind of overwhelm.

And then there’s always that piece where people do not know, readers don’t know a particular word, what it means, how to pronounce it. Well, the reading focus cards help you break down words into phonemes, which are sounds and syllables if that’s your method of reading, and helps you decode or break down words so that you know how to pronounce them and perhaps even discover the root of the word and what the root of the word means. I could go on and on with other problems that students have. Seniors have a hard time late at night or even early in the morning and they need something to highlight or underline each line so that they can focus on one line at a time.

And then the volume of reading. I get calls from nursing students, law students, medical students, they say, “I have to study at midnight most of the time, will this help me?” And usually it’s a yellow filter with a black face color tool and wow, they can just take off and read so much more and more in depth and retention will be better too, not just comprehension. So again, I could go on and on with other things that I see. Once I get going it’s hard to stop me. I apologize for that, but yeah, there are many, many reasons. And then there are stroke recovery patients, we have to relearn how to read. Where is the next line of text? They can’t find it. So this points the way. So that’s the limit on many who can benefit.

Josh Anderson:

Thank you so much for giving us some of the ways to overcome some of those challenges there as well. While we’ve got some time here left, can you give us some other free tips on how to improve our focus when we’re reading to increase our comprehension?

Joan Brennan:

Sure. Sure. Yeah, be happy to. One of the things I have found that have been very helpful to many is to change the color of the paper you print your documents on when you have the need to print. And I will say that each individual may need or prefer a different color, and I would start out with pastel colors. And we can get a ream of five colors from our local office supply store. You buy one package, you’ve got all five pastels. Yellow, blue, pink, lavender. It’s something like that. And when you try one color per week with your documents, after a month, you’ll arrive at which color helps you focus better. And that’s one of the big things I recommend.

If you can’t do that, if purchasing the paper is prohibitive for whatever reason, you can create your own document and put it in a text box and color that text box with your Photoshop or your even Microsoft paint color or Microsoft Word. That’s what I use usually for a document. You can change the background color of the text that you put on that document. So there are a variety of ways you can do that. Another thing to keep in mind is when people are working with numbers, column addition, long multiplication, long division, use graph paper to line up different numbers so you have everything in the right placeholder column. And I find that that helps tremendously.

If that’s not helping enough, then the reading focus cards can help if you turn them 90 degrees and you use the open reading window for your open column and you move it from side to side to catch each placeholder column and add the right numbers together or multiply the right numbers together, what have you. So that’s another trick. Another idea is when you have directions or a worksheet for students, and a lot of students want to jump right into number one and go for it. The wise student will always read the directions once, twice, maybe even three times, before you do that, underline and highlight all the important keywords in those directions or beginning that assignment. You will have so much more success in the end with that worksheet, whether it’s math or it’s reading comprehension or what have you.

We talked about folding a worksheet. I know of students that are so overwhelmed when they get a math worksheet that has 25 problems on it. Oh wow. I mean, they feel defeated before they begin. So fold it into quarters. Or there are some students where that’s too many problems and if your teacher will allow, and I can’t imagine a teacher who wouldn’t, if it’s going to help a student cut all the problems apart and work on one at a time, then tape them all together when you’re finished and you have a completed worksheet, but it was more in terms of one bite at a time. So breaking things down is so key, so important to helping individuals who struggle to read. Again, a lot of it is overwhelmed.

Also, let’s see. Having another set of text textbooks at home, if you’re a student, if that’s allowed by a school to have a second set of textbooks at home so you don’t have to carry back and forth. I know that sounds like an expense, but if they’re being rented by the student, it shouldn’t be a problem. Talk to your local school or teacher or any kind of thing like that. If you are an educator and you’re listening to this, please incorporate as many sensory learning techniques into your teaching to help students become more successful. Not only will they better understand, but they will retain the information so much longer than if you hadn’t incorporated any sensory learning or teaching techniques into your lesson.

The more they touch, taste, hear, more the learning experience will be enriched. And there are other ideas. So many of the students that I meet and serve are auditory learners and they prefer to hear everything auditorily. And if that’s the case, make sure you always have information available on some kind of a recorded media, whether it’s an MP3 player or whatever your technology is in your classroom or your home, it is an awesome thing when you can play back something for someone and they have heard it already, but they might have missed something. So please allow for book content to be available in an auditory platform of some type. And there is more if we have time, but another thing would be have a portable spell checker handy.

One that’s battery operated, not dependent on the internet so they can take it in the car, they can take it home. The Franklin Spelling Ace is a great little handheld tool and it will help individuals who are really challenged with spelling get an answer immediately and not dependent on the internet to get it. That’s also something you want to keep in mind. Word processors and computers are so helpful to individuals with dysgraphia, dyslexia, please allow them to use that. And the newest thing, and I know this is kind controversial for some, but allow dysgraphic learners to use artificial intelligence, AI, help them know how to use it properly.

Help them enrich the artificial intelligence products they generate with their own ideas, not just accept them the way they’re presented online or in the device they’ve used to get the artificial intelligence generation, add to it always. So dysgraphic readers and learners can really benefit from the use of AI. Oh, another idea. Sometimes it really helps, and you’ll think this is counter to success for a learner, but sometimes it really helps a distracted learner to have background music played while they are reading or studying or writing. And the reason for that is it’s like white noise sometimes or it’s soothing for a reader or a learner who’s a little anxious perhaps.

And this is wordless music, okay, this would not have lyrics in it. We’re talking about nature sounds like a bubbling brook or surf coming in. Oh, I find that personally very helpful and soothing. The surf sounds. Sometimes wordless music is workable and preferred by some. You’ll have to try it. It’s empirical. Try different methods, different types of music and sounds. You might hit on just the right one for someone. But if you have that at a low volume in the background, it can really help. Of course, you always want to be away from the TV, get more focus and concentration. Away from the toddlers in the house. It can be kind of challenging, especially if you’re a parent who has to study at night.

So these are the things that they can keep in mind. And there are more recommendations and strategies. And if your audience would go to, that’s all spelled out,, you can just sign up and get immediately a printable list of all the strategies I’ve mentioned plus a few more because of our time constraints here. So that’s free. There’s no credit card asked, none of that. We’re not into all of that. We’re into helping people focus and read better and learn more successfully no matter what the age, no matter what the background, what the ability or challenges are.

Josh Anderson:

That is awesome. And Joan, we will definitely put the link down to down in the show notes so that folks can go and check out all those great tips, everything else that you have as well as be able to find those focus cards. Well Joan, thank you so much for coming on today for giving us so much great information. Some things we can try with our students, our family, and I’m not going to lie sometimes with ourselves, just to be able to read a little bit better and be able to enjoy it a little bit more and get more out of it. So again, Joan, thank you so much for coming on and giving us so much great information.

Joan Brennan:

Thank you very much, Josh. And I want to thank Easterseals for inviting me and you inviting me, but also thank them for the wonderful work you and your organization do for so many with special needs, especially the autism community, but everyone you help raves about your services. And I want to thank you for having me on today and to continue that work that you do so well.

Josh Anderson:

Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at or shoot us a note on Twitter at INDATA Project. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at A special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule.

Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraud over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project Easterseals Crossroads are supporting partners or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update. And I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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