Thursday, January 15, 2015

Plain Can Be Beautiful

Part of my work life now includes translating documents and information into plain language for people with intellectual disabilities. The fact that this is now being done is a testament to thousands upon thousands of parents over many, many years who fought for the right to a real education with real outcomes for their kids. I have been witness to this over my years in doing training for people with intellectual disabilities. At one time, maybe 20 years ago, most of the people who came to my workshops were not able to read. Now, many, and very nearly most, can.

We see accessibility in too narrow a way. We see it as getting access to places. We tend not to think about it as getting access to information. A convoluted sentence with words like 'convoluted' in them can be just as much a barrier as an uncut curb. So, now, we are at the stage of making sure that information is presented in an accessible manner, like we are ramping language.

I had to do this yesterday. I had several pages of information that needed to be translated into plain language. The first thing I noticed was that the information wanted and needed was buried under all sorts of words. Words piled on words piled on words. One sentence was five lines long consisting of 60 words. That's a long sentence. I found myself working to follow it and understand the major message it was conveying only to realize it was just saying, 'Here's what we found.'

So, I set about the work. I admit to enjoying doing this a lot. It's like a word game for me and I approach it that way. I was totally engrossed by the work.

When done the first draft, I did a read of the original a read of the translation to make sure that no important points were left out, and to ensure, of course, that what I deemed to be extraneous was indeed extraneous. One more go through on the text and it was done.

Reading the plain language text, for me, was such a pleasure. I found myself taking in meaning more easily and really understanding the intent of the original text and the point of the work it represented. I'm willing to bet that if you were given a choice of reading one or the other, you'd probably go with the plain language one.

This is the radical next step.

People with disabilities have learned to read.

Now we have to learn how to write.

11 comments:

Ron Arnold said...

Which begs the question: Why aren't things written simply in the first place? For EVERYONE! Is it some badge of academia that language must be as dense and intangible as possible?

Come to think of it - I've found the most difficult reading to be academic textbooks written by college professors. Maybe they just want you to 'work for it' instead of them working to explain themselves in the most easily understood terms . . .

That sounds like very interesting work . . . like a distilling process to get out all the impurities and leave nothing but easily understood meaning.

Hmph! Could be a new calling!

Anonymous said...

This is really great! I hope that many more people will try to write in plain language to become more accessible to everyone.

Plain language is also useful for those of us who are being given psychiatric medication. It can really cloud your thinking and makes it hard to get through documents needed for everyday life.

-Littlewolf

Jeannette said...

What a joy! You could start a trend, Dave! I hope so, anyway.

Kristine said...

That sounds like what I do as an ESL teacher. :) People who know I speak Spanish expect me to use it when I'm "interpreting" something complex for my kids. But I rarely do. Usually I just repeat what was said in English, stripping away the fluff, so the message is accessible for English language learners.... I can pretty naturally and automatically adjust my language choices depending on the audience, but it really is fun to get rid of all the excess and find the simple message underneath. :)

CapriUni said...

I wonder if there is a writing guide for this. I have books such as "On Writing Well" on my bookshelf. But now, I want a book on "ramping language."

Colleen said...

Hi Dave:

I posted a comment to this post but it doesn't appear here. Not sure what happened.

I think that in the past we have trivialized the fact that some people with developmental disabilities could read. We treated it as "cute" and kept them reading material far below their maturity level. I know this happened with my brother, Gerry. The fact that you are making documents accessible means we are maybe not trivializing a person's ability to read anymore. It's about time!

Colleen

Louise said...

Hi CapriUni,
Mencap in the UK publish a guide called 'Am I making myself clear' that I found very good when I was first involved in 'ramping language'

Belinda Burston said...

As someone who loves to write, I constantly strive for the simplest, clearest way to say what I mean. What comes naturally is not that! :) It takes great skill to communicate without the verbal equivalent of "filler." I'm with Ron Arnold, we all appreciate words that seem invisible because all we see is the ideas that they mean to convey.

Anonymous said...

When I started working in a newly opened dental clinic in and educational setting, one of my jobs was to create information sheets and pamphlets for the general public. I painstakingly developed the handouts, making sure they were complete in their information and were "professional". When I proudly presented them to my new boss I was crestfallen when she edited them and then said to re-write them aiming for a grade 4 - 6 level of comprehension. Huh? Although I had portrayed the information correctly, it was not understandable by the majority of the public that would be accessing our services and ultimately receiving the paperwork. It was a lesson well learned. Information is useless unless it is accessible. What was my goal? To impress or to inform? As you pointed out barriers aren't necessarily physical.

ysabetwordsmith said...

Things are written simply when the writer desires them to be accessible. They are written opaquely when the writer wishes to obfuscate something shady, prevent some people from accessing the material, get paid for interpreting it, or make themselves look important. That right there is a huge part of politics, academics, medicine, and other areas full of puffed-up language. It's not an accident. It is very deliberate and they train people to do this.

Liliet said...

This is what's great about social media sites like tumblr. There are so many posts circulating that are interesting and important info retold in an engaging, funny and emotional manner. Info that is only accessible to professionals everywhere else, but which goes viral as soon as it's in a compressed 'meme' form...