Thursday, February 07, 2013

The News In Plain Language

At work, our members have developed a newsletter that is published on a quarterly basis. It is written and produced, with some assistance, by the self advocates at Vita. It's name, Vita Member Times, came after a fairly heated debate and a agency wide vote in which a significant number of members lined up to cast the ballot. There is a lot of ownership over the newsletter and its contents. The pieces are all written by our members in plain language and the stories and articles make for engaging reading. It was clear that the members (the word chosen by our self advocates for us to use in place of the word 'client' which they asked us to cease using) wanted to be informed about the life and work of the agency and of the activities of the self advocate group.

All this to introduce a new project which I have just learned about. It seems that a study has been undertaken about the accessibility of news and political information for people with intellectual disabilities. It's the first study of its kind that I am aware of and what it made clear was that we have to really broaden our understanding of accessibility. Plain language is an accessibility issue as important as ramps. Barrier free should mean more than level entrances it should allow mean a level playing field. The outcome of this study is work towards the creation of a plain language newspaper for people with intellectual disabilities.

I read this article just before being asked to comment on some new legislation. I grit my teeth and set about reading the legislation. The language was so far over my head that I had to stop and read and reread and reread what was being said. When I figured it out it kind of angered me that something which could have been simply stated was presented with convoluted language. It made me wonder exactly who they were tyring to 'keep out' of the discussion and debate. I have to admit if I didn't have to read it, I would have given up completely in my attempt.

I thought of all the times that Joe and I have done rights workshops and bullying workshops and abuse prevention workshops for people with disabilities and in those workshops we've heard people with disabilities discussing the news and the world they live in. They were interested and had a desire to be informed, even though it took a lot of work.

In fact I remember when the Clinton scandal broke and was all over the news. The American press were scandalized while we Canadian thought to ourselves - "Really, you care?" Most of us don't even know the Prime Minister's wife's name. By the by, this is not because we are poorly informed, it's because we don't care all that much about Steven, or any of his predecessors like Jean, or Joe, Kim,or Pierre's private life. Anyways back to the Clinton scandal.

I was setting up to do a workshop on rights for people with disabilities in a gorgeous old mansion that had been donated to the host agency. We were all meeting in a living room almost the size of my pad here in Toronto. The self advocates were talking animatedly about the news about Clinton and Lewinsky. One of them said, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, "I need more information. We all know that it's wrong to have sex at work. We know it's OK to have sex at home in private. Since the president lives in the White House and works in the White House, I want to know if he touched her while he was in his office or while he was in a bedroom. If it was his office, what he did was wrong. If it was in a bedroom it's no one's business but Hillary's."

No better discussion of the issues did I hear in the media.

Anyways, I ask you to take a look at the infographic that asks if people with intellectual disabilities are left out of political debate. I found it interesting and I hope you do too. Make sure you make it to the bottom where they present several ideas for making information more readable. I'd be interested in hearing how you think we can all ensure that when we think about accessibility, we broaden the meaning of that word to mean ... accessibility.


Anonymous said...

I haven't gotten to the infographic yet, but I wanted to point out that part of the Wikipedia project is posting articles in "simple English," with the point of making them accessible to children and to adults learning English. See

As usual, it may be a disability accommodation, but it benefits a lot of people.

Louna said...

The first time I ran across a text made accessible for people with intellectual disabilities, I read, out of curiosity, both the plain language and the normal version. I realized that it was possible to provide the exact same information in a manner that was easy to understand without sounding patronizing, and that made me very enthusiastic about plain language.

People have the right to vote, to participate in political demonstrations, to express their ideas, regardless of their disability status. But to use that right, they need access to information. News in plain language, that should also available in audio versions, are necessary and a human right for people with intellectual disabilities.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Are people with developmental disabilities left out of political discussion/dialogue? Absolutely! I can't think of a single instance in my whole career working as support staff where I supported anyone to do anything even remotely political. And this was not because I was neglecting my duties, it was because no one did. (I now realize that I was neglecting my duties but at the time it never would have occured to me - it just wasn't part of the picture for any support staff)

The AODA information accessibility standard will require information to be conveyed in accessible language. But it will not compel support workers to support people to participate in the political life of their communities. That is going to take a huge attitude change. It sounds like your workplace is already doing this. Maybe others will follow your lead.


Carolyn said...

Interesting topic. I live in the United States and work with people who have developmental disabilities. This year I was given a voters' pamplet that had been modified for easier reading. It's called an easy voters' guide, and was written in simple languange and large print. I was very excited when I received them because I couldn't wait to give them out to the people I work with. Well, I couldn't give any of them away. At first I couldn't figure out why, then it dawned on me. Just handing out a pamplet isn't going to do much when people haven't been educated about politics, or given the opportunity to express their desires and opinions. So, while it's a step in the right direction, next time I am going to try to include education about the voitng process, along with using the easy votes's guide. It was a good learning lesson for me and something I hope not to forget in the future.

Rickismom said...

This is not easy, as invariably there is a "slant" in much reporting, and it may be questionable if any organization/newspaper (read here: money supplier) will have enough readers (paying subscribers) to make it feasible.
IF the newspaper for people with an intellectual disability can be combined with that for non-native speakers, one has a chance!
Learning about current/events & politics is not just about rights. It is often the main topic of conversation in the adult world, and he who knows nothing can really feel left out.
Current events could definately be incorporated into the school day, for students,as well as into self-advocate newsletters, but again the problems of bias arises.

Anonymous said...

The question of what makes something easy to understand is an interesting one. Your post reminded me of this project. Have you seen it?
I'm not sure of the best way to post a link, but the article describes a project inspired by the comic blog, which allows writers to use only the most frequently used words in the English language. A follow-up project color-codes words based on how frequently they are used. It's an interesting tool, and it has inspired some very lyrical writing!

Cynthia F. said...

Loved taking a little tour of Vita's website, but I could not find any copies of the Vita Member Times. I'm very curious to learn from what the self-advocates have produced, would they be interested in sharing the newsletter on the Vita site or via your blog?

Dave Hingsburger said...

Cynthia F., the newsletter has just started in Vita ... however you will soon be able to see a more prominant self advocate presence on the website as we are incorporating some really cool accessibility features and there will be a self advocate page. I love the inclusion that already exists on the page, but it's going to be much more self advocate oriented in the near future. Maybe I can figure out how to scan the newsletter and put it on the blog but I'm sixty and the only scans I'm familiar with are ordered by the doctor for scary reasons.

[REBECCA]scheerer said...

Dave: I absolutely think we should give our verbal support and praise for those employers who are embracing persons with a disability as valuable members of the workforce.

One night, my family and I went to The Olive Garden (yes, a guilty pleasure of mine) for dinner. my son, Wyatt, who has Down syndrMme, was with us and barely a year old. I walked in and found almond shaped eyes staring back at me from behind the hostess stand. A girl with Ds was working hard at seating customers. Then later, I see another set of almond shaped eyes peeking out from the kitchen door! A man with Down syndrome, working in the back of the house.

I promptly picked up Wyatt, walked to the bar and asked for the manager. When he came out, I looked at him square in the face and said "I just wasnted to say thank you for hiring individuals, like my son, with Down syndrome. I greatly appreciate that you are supporting them and giving them a fair chance to work."

He smiled, maybe even blushed a little and said thank you. He went on a few minutes, telling me how much everyone gets along and loves the employees. He shared a bit about his personal hiring philosophy.

So, yes, I think we should share and speak up! Why? Beccause you never know where someone is in their head about it. They might have just had another customer come up and complain about "not wanting to see THAT in a grocery store." And at that moment, they may just need our validation that they have done the RIGHT THING. Or maybe they were doubting themselves and needed the support and appreciation of another human being.

Disability in the workplace is not a "natural" thing for employers just yet and they don't know how to make it work many times. So if we support the ones who do with our actions and our voices, then one day...hopefully one will be commonplace enough that we don't even think twice about it. But until then, I say, hold your head high and say it loud and proud: THANK YOU for supporting disability in your workplace!

Beth said...

I'm in the US.
Yes, I think that people with intellectual disabilities are left out of political debate (largely even when debate is about them). But, taking the numbers from the infographic, I doubt this group is less informed than the general populace. I think the bigger difference is that more of this group knows their ignorance on the subject. Would that the rest of the people were more aware of their ignorance!

Political lies and political spin are big business here. I have my suspicions that official political language is intended to obfuscate, to confuse.

Heck, there was a local vote a couple years ago about some initiative to revitalize downtown. The ballot was cardstock 3in by 14in. It included a description of what we were voting on, a question like "Do you support this initiative?", and the voting options (YES or NO). The description took the vast majority of the space on the ballot and consisted of a single, very long, sentence. I have little doubt the average person would have a hard time figuring out what the ballot was talking about and may well give up. Most people, I'd wager, thought they understood it because of editorials in the newspaper. And this wasn't even a vote where partisanship mattered! There wasn't much spin but it was still incredibly confusing.

Maybe I'm too cynical, but I figure most politics here (and political commentary) are designed to confuse or deceive. And I know unbiased material is often seen as partisan (as "liberal" here, "liberal" meaning "not to the liking of the current Republican party").

I do know that support workers would never be allowed in the polling booths here in my state for much the same reason there are certain rules on absentee voting to limit fraudulent voting in institutions. That is, it won't be allowed for fear that the vote would come from the support worker rather than the PWD. All the other recommendations could happen and would be good for everyone, but I doubt they'll happen here, politics being as messed up as they are.

Tamara said...

This is so timely for me. My son is in a Current Events class in his high school, and every week he must pick out one national news article, one international news article and one local news article to summarize. Wow - has it been difficult finding real news at his reading level. We end up using some of the websites developed for children - for one; but they are not updated as frequently as other news sources, don't have the type of stories you find on other news sources. It's been very frustrating.

Blog editor said...

We have been forced to deal with politics and news in plain language by our son's intense interest in both. He is 27 and has Down syndrome. He has been a bit of a news 'junkie' for years. We live in Australia - he is probably one of the few people who actually watches (and follows) Parliamentary Question Time live, almost every sitting day. He knows the procedures and many of the members, all of the ministry and their portfolios. He likes TV wrestling as well, but we don't have cable, so he doesn't see it much - maybe Parliament is a substitute!

His interest in current affairs and selected history has raised some questions that we have had to work quite hard at to answer in plain enough language for him to get the information he wants. One curved ball arising from his knowledge of the second world war was 'what did the Jews *do* that made Hitler kill them?' But it concentrates the mind and really makes you think about the fundamentals of what is being asked, and how to be plain and precise at the same time.

We didn't anticipate that he would develop such an interest, although an early indicator (when he was about 12) was that he knew who Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski were, and why their names were in the news!