Friday, July 13, 2012

What I'm Doing Right Now

I am working on something very, very cool.

An agency has asked me to go through the paperwork that they are using with people with intellectual disabilities and translate them into 'plain language.' They've realized that though they have always been careful to explain the intake process, and all that entails, carefully with those seeking service, the forms ultimately signed read as if written by a lawyer.

They want to listen to people with disabilities and their requests for plain language documents.

So, they are doing it.

I have found the process much more difficult than one would imagine. I've discovered it is possible to write simply and clearly, in a jargon free manner, and in a way that's not patronizing - but it's difficult to do so. These documents use big words and long sentences. If they can be explained, in face to face meetings, they can be written similarly.

What pleases me about this is the desire to move towards service delivery that considers, first and foremost, the needs of people with disabilities. Signing documents written in language not understood makes all of us feel diminished. I remember signing forms to buy a house in Quebec, in a language that I didn't understand, left me feeling vulnerable and requiring me, without consideration, to trust someone I didn't know.

But this job seems to me to be part of the larger wave of change in human service. People with disabilities have asked for a long time to have material in plain language. It takes a while for us to hear, to understand, and then to act - but when we do, we do.

In fact, just before writing this, I took eleven words out of a sentence replacing them with three. The odd thing is, there isn't a loss of clarity, there's just a loss of verbiage.

So, I'm working on something very cool.

And I like it because I like what it means.


John R. said...

This is really cool. Good luck. Sounds like a great project!!

GirlWithTheCane said...

What an awesome project. And desperately needed. Fun, too! (Well...I think it would be, but I'm weird that way)

Anonymous said...

I have this quote printed above my desk to remind myself to write as clearly as I can - “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” - Dr. Seuss

Good Luck!

clairesmum said...

yeah!!! i think this is a big problem for lots of printed materials in lots of settings, especially health care and human services. it's referred to in the states as 'health literacy', it's getting some attention as part of health care reform, but sadly more lip service than action! it's hard to rewrite those documents in reader friendly terms, and most of the experts don't really 'get it' that WHAT words you use make a HUGE difference in what information is received accurately and remembered.

Louna said...

I saw simplified language in use once, in a document about abuse of people with intellectual disabilities in health-care. Out of curiosity, I read both versions. I was amazed, because the same information was carried in a much simpler language without sounding patronizing. The only differences in content was that the document in plainer language contained less examples, and that it contained an additional paragraph indicating the reader what to do if the text worried them. It made me realize that much of the complicated language we use is not necessary, just a way of excluding.

Jim T. said...

It's great stuff. Here in Central Alberta, we have a group of people with disabilites who have a business, (supported by Persons with Developmental Disabilities (gov't funding agency)) and they will translate documents into plain language. For example, they do the minutes of the regional PDD board.

Andrea S. said...

I think that some of the problem is, the further along you advance in your education, the more your writing is expected to "evolve" toward longer, more complex sentence structure and more "sophisticated" vocabulary. It is simply assumed that we all already know how to write "simply" and need to be trained to write in a more "academic" manner. But, if you don't have it, then you lose it. I have a graduate school education (two master's degrees in fact) and tend to write in long sentences by habit. The only reason I still know how to write in a more straightforward fashion at all is because most of my professional writing experience has involved needing to write things in a moderately straitforward fashion: first as a writer for a newsletter and university alumni outreach magazine, then later as a speech writer. But outside of these fields, most of the people I know who have a BA or MA degree or higher have literally just forgotten how to write at a more basic level. Even when they are TRYING to write more basic. Not many people naturally retain that ability without actually DOING a lot of simple writing and deliberately honing that ability. My Mom is one of these few (though precisely because she *can*, she probably does it more than most other people who have a PhD).

Maybe more academic programs should include composition classes for people who want to retain, or regain, the ability to write in simple language.

Maybe those of us who do NEED to do academic writing, or corporate writing, or other complex or technical language should spend more time considering when we have chosen sophisticated vocabulary because we actually NEED to use those particular terms (because others would be too imprecise or lose too much nuance) or just because we've been conditioned to think it automatically "sounds better" even if only some people will understand it.

This is something I struggle with myself. Or more precisely, it *should* be something I struggle with ... most of the time I carry on writing in the ways I am used to writing and maybe I should be stopping to think more often than I do about how I'm writing and why I'm writing it that way. Is there a way I could have written this comment to say everything I wanted it to say, but in simpler language so more people would understand it? Perhaps ... but this would have taken more time, time I don't have. And so I miss an opportunity to try. And because I've missed this opportunity to practice, it still remains just as difficult the next time, and the next, so the cycle reinforces itself.

Are there ways we can help each other break this cycle more often? And MAKE that time?

Darlene said...

This is really awesome. Although it may seem simple, writing in plain language can be difficult, especially when we have been trained to do otherwise. Nevertheless, I am excited for this movement!!!!!!!!!1

Ben Drew said...

Dave - I hope you are using your 'Symbols for Life' software too!

Here is an example of how the photo's and symbols can help:

As Louna touched on plain language makes sense for everyone. Canada has been leading the way with this movement (on this side of the atlantic at least), but there is still a long way to go.


Anonymous said...

A guide (from NZ) on making "easy read" format is here:

And I know there is some movement in this direction among certain organizations in Europe that seem to have produced a lot of "easy read" content of their own, but I'm not familiar enough to point to the right links without googling or otherwise hunting around to re-locate the things I know I've seen around the Internet. (I keep thinking there's some pan-European or European Union organization involved with this but can't remember the relevant name. I also can't remember if it was an organization specific to intellectual disability or perhaps some cross-disability organization.)

Kristine said...

I love that this is happening!

I teach ESL (English as a Second Language), and people assume that I can communicate with my students because I speak Spanish. (They forget that ESL students come from lots of language backgrounds, not just Spanish.) The truth is, I rarely speak in Spanish. I've just learned to adjust my English for clarity. Even in my beginner level class, we have conversations that have depth, complexity, and cognitive challenge, but in simple, clear language.

Teaching ESL has sparked my interest in the kind of language we use, when we use it, why we use it--sociolingustics. It drives me crazy when people use unnecessarily complicated language in a group where not everybody is an "insider" that's going to follow the jargon. It feels like they're subconsciously trying to assert their status, more than trying to communicate.

Shan said...

Meaning can get washed away in a tide of words, for sure.